What to know if you're looking to buy a home in a flood-prone area near the water. NewsdayTV's Arielle Dollinger reports. Credit: Newsday/Debbie Egan-Chin / Alejandra Villa-Loarca

On days when road turned to river, Lisa Ludwig donned hip waders for walks to the bus stop with her school-aged children. With a kid on her back, she sloshed up the street, then turned around to deposit the dry school-goer on the first step of the bus. 

Ludwig, 61, has lived in a home on the water in Babylon for three decades.

"It’s a whole different world," she said of life on the waterfront. "It’s not all beautiful, sunny days."

At August’s onset, hurricane season intensifies. And for those unfamiliar with life in a flood zone, real estate is rife with potential sinkholes.

Experts and residents recommend prospective homebuyers ask strategic questions, read listing write-ups with a discerning eye and gather information independently. But no amount of due diligence comes with guarantees in a flood zone.

"You're on Long Island and if you ever look at a map, it looks like a forearm that's stopping the ocean," said Thomas Song, a resiliency specialist and acting regional flood insurance liaison for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "We are at risk for hurricanes and coastal flooding and nor'easters."

Still, when Superstorm Sandy devastated parts of Long Island in 2012, Song said, it caught some residents off guard. 

"The idea that the ocean can swell up 30 feet, it was something that people didn’t think could happen, and it did," said Song, who lives in Syosset. "You really need to respect the fact that Mother Nature can be ferocious at times."

Lisa Ludwig lives at the southern end of Babylon on the Great South Bay. Credit: Steve Pfost

Both neighbors lied to me... The [previous] owners of the house lied to me, told me they never had water in the house.

— Lisa Ludwig, Babylon resident

Before purchasing her property, Ludwig knocked on neighbors’ doors to ask whether flooding was an issue for them.

"Both neighbors lied to me," Ludwig said. "Told me that, 'no, no, it’s fine.' The owners of the house lied to me, told me they never had water in the house."

Eventually, a neighbor came clean.

"He said, 'Oh, don’t worry, when you sell, I’ll lie for you, too,' " recalled Ludwig, who started working in real estate herself several years ago. "I said, 'No, that’s OK, I wouldn’t do that.' "

What is 'FEMA-certified?'

Lisa Ludwig's home sits at the southern tip of Babylon on the Great South Bay. Credit: Steve Pfost

Across the real estate landscape, the term "FEMA compliant" is spoken freely. Agents use it, insurance brokers use it and it appears on house listing sites beneath photographs of raised waterfront homes. But the definition of "FEMA compliant" varies by the user, and there is no such thing as a FEMA-certified house.

"FEMA does not certify buildings," said Song.

The term "FEMA compliant" could mean that a house meets National Flood Insurance Program requirements, Song said. These requirements satisfy New York State standards, he explained Song said, but some communities have additional regulations determined by local authorities.

"FEMA compliant" is real estate industry jargon, said agent Leah Tozer, who grew up in Merrick and acquired much of her home resiliency knowledge from the Land Use Alliance Training Program through Pace University and Touro Law School.

"That just means the house is a certain amount of feet above the base flood elevation; it means it has flood vents all the way around the house for the free flow of water to go in and out; that the living space and the technical real living area starts at a certain base flood elevation," Tozer said. "It’s not to trick people; it’s to just take a very long, convoluted way to explain something and just make it, 'it’s FEMA compliant.'"

Buzzwords aside, Tozer offered a few action items for prospective buyers. To start, she said, ask the right questions.

If a house were affected by Superstorm Sandy, find out what the flood insurance payout was. Ask about the flood history of the house and whether the land is a repetitive loss property known to see damage from flooding.

"Unless you’re asking these questions, or you know, or you have the right buyer’s agent to explain it to you or you have somebody who’s ethical that is telling you all of this up front, it could be so damaging," Tozer said.

Researching houses near the water

Real estate agent Leah Tozer grew up in Merrick and lives in Long Beach. Credit: Debbie Egan-Chin

If you want to buy a house, and it’s on the water, if you didn’t go there at high tide, low tide, and when it rains ... then you’re not buying that house.

— Leah Tozer, real estate agent

When Tozer represents a buyer, she said she has two standard requests.

"I always immediately ask for the declaration page of the flood insurance policy, and I want the flood loss payout on that property," she said. "Those are my one hundred percent, have to have, for my buyers. And then, I make my sellers do the same thing."

For sellers, this becomes important because a lack of transparency could disrupt a deal that is almost done. 

"I say, 'we’re going to have to deal with this, and I have to know, how am I selling your house the right way?' " Tozer said. "You have to know what you’re doing on both sides because you want to protect the people that you’re putting into these houses."

Tozer also advises prospective buyers to protect themselves by doing their research and not rushing into a purchase.

"There's one thing I tell people to do," Tozer said. "If you want to buy a house, and it’s on the water, if you didn’t go there at high tide, low tide, and when it rains at high tide, and when it rains at low tide, then you’re not buying that house."

Often, Tozer finds herself having to insist clients do this instead of making an uninformed purchase that could leave them surprised at how much water pools when it rains.

"People do more work and due diligence on the bicycles that they buy, right?" Tozer said. "They do more due diligence on the phones that they buy, or the cameras that they buy, or the cars that they buy. And the houses are the least of it."

Beyond the protection an ethical agent can offer, prospective buyers can take protection into their own hands by sourcing their own experts and turning to resources like the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH) Resilient Homebuyers Guide.

"Instead of trying to give everybody all the answers, what we did is we created a guide with all the questions — because the answers are out there if you know what to ask," said Leslie Chapman-Henderson, FLASH president and CEO. 

In addition to a basic resilience checklist, there are disaster-specific checklists on the topics of flood, hurricane, earthquake, tornado and wildfire.

"The bottom-line counsel that we give," Chapman-Henderson said, "is anywhere it rains, it can flood."

FLASH advises any homeowner to buy flood insurance, even if the area is not prone to flooding. In areas that do not typically see flooding, Chapman-Henderson said, the cost of taking this precaution is particularly low.

"In event after event after event, people go, 'Well it never happened before.' " Chapman-Henderson said. "Right, OK, because it doesn’t happen until it happens then."

What does flood insurance cost on Long Island?

Below is the average annual cost of flood insurance for single-family homes on Long Island by ZIP code as of the end of September 2022, according to FEMA. Costs may vary within a ZIP code due to differing levels of risk. ZIP codes with an asterisk have five or fewer policies in force, so figures are not made available. Select your community for more information or search by individual address.

Michael Salerno, a Massapequa Park resident who works as an insurance agent for Remco in Wantagh, asks prospective buyers for a copy of the current owner’s flood insurance policy. 

"I strongly recommend you reaching out to an insurance professional, to work up quotes, work up accurate flood quotes for yourself, so you’re not shocked after you sign off on the dotted line with the contract," Salerno said.

Flood insurance cost is specific to each individual piece of property, and dependent upon factors including elevation. 

"You and I could be next-door neighbors and you could be paying one thing and I could be paying a completely different thing," Salerno said. 

After purchasing flood insurance, homeowners can look into structural strategies specific to protecting their property. 

Budgeting for flood insurance

Katherine Servidio and Anaam Wafa bought a home in Freeport. Credit: Howard Simmons

For us, it was a calculated risk... We had to go find somewhere that was affordable enough, but still on the water.

— Anaam Wafa

On the East End of Long Beach, two blocks from sand and sea, a raised home stands equipped with pumps and French drains. For water to enter the house, it would have to rise past a 6-inch cove base and the related pump would have to fail.

"Knock on wood, this year will be nine years that we haven’t had any water come into the basement after we implemented those pumps," said Julia Camacho-Sasso, who works as a real estate salesperson for Douglas Elliman. "It would take 6 to 7 feet of water for it to hit the main floor, so we’re sort of lucky with our house being raised." 

But Camacho-Sasso made her own luck. Having learned that the basement of the house was affected by Superstorm Sandy, she spent an estimated $30,000 to install the pumps, an epoxy floor and a cove base around the perimeter to protect the drywall in the basement. 

"I’m in property management 17 years, and I know, as a landlord, water is your biggest enemy," she said. "I’m just familiar with leaks and how they’re a thorn; and so I want to make sure my house is watertight."

Ten miles away, in Freeport, Anaam Wafa and his wife, Katherine Servidio, made luck of their own.

Wafa, 33, and Servidio, 34, went into contract on their four-bedroom high-ranch home just as the COVID-19 pandemic was starting in March 2020. The property borders a canal.

"For us, it was a calculated risk," said Wafa, who works as director of operations for an engineering firm. "We lived in Long Beach, so we kind of got used to being close to the water... we had to go find somewhere that was affordable enough, but still on the water."

The couple, who are expecting their first child early next year, examined elevation certificates and topographical maps to broadly assess the flood risk of areas of interest. The pair also talked to neighbors, who were more candid than Ludwig’s, about flooding on specific streets.

"We were looking also at Island Park and a few other towns that were waterfront within our price range, and we did the same practice there," Wafa said. "A few places that we were looking at, the neighbors actually said, 'Yeah, if you are OK with your car having water up to the door handle whenever there’s high tide, you’re OK over here.' Obviously that wasn’t OK for us."

Eventually, Wafa and Servidio moved from a one-bedroom apartment in Long Beach to the 2,100-square-foot Freeport home they purchased for $540,000. Flood insurance on the property costs approximately $1,600 a year, said Wafa.

The cost of flood insurance is another variable to consider, as is the possibility that the owner is responsible for maintaining the bulkheads on the property, Wafa noted. A bulkhead is a retaining wall between the property and a body of water.

"Sometimes you look at the house price and you’re like, 'Oh yeah, that’s awesome, that’s amazing, that’s right in our budget,' " said Wafa. "And then once you start to factor in obviously the high Long Island taxes, and then the regular home insurance and then your flood insurance, it starts to become more of an astronomical number that is less digestible."

Ask Google, neighbors, officials for help

A few years before Wafa and Servidio made their purchase, Janissa Betances, 36, and her husband did the same. The four-bedroom high ranch was in foreclosure, so the couple bought it for $440,000. Flood insurance on the property costs approximately $1,500, Betances said.

Betances’ family has been in the area for 30 years, and her familiarity with the risk that comes with the waterfront made her a skeptic. But her neighbors-to-be approached her before she approached them, and answered her questions.

"If you see anyone in the neighborhood walking a dog or pushing a stroller, I would ask, 'Hey, you live on this block? I’m interested in buying this house,' " said Betances, who works as a personal-injury attorney. "Because while the person you’re buying from might disclose some things, your neighbors will probably disclose more." 

In addition to asking neighbors for insight, Betances recommends paying attention to details like the height of electrical sockets, and asking when the boiler and hot water heater were replaced. 

"That will tell you if it was replaced during Sandy," Betances said.

Betances also suggests asking potential inspectors whether they’re familiar with bulkheads, water damage and mold — and learning about those subjects as a prospective buyer. By the time she was ready to make a purchase, Betances said, she could recognize black mold on her own.

"It’s a sport, buying a house," Betances said. "You’ve got to train for it."

That training — or research — can start with an internet search, Song said. He also advises reaching out to local officials with questions about specific properties.

"There’s a lot of information out there that’s publicly accessible that talks about flood risk. We have maps, we have reports, we have handouts," Song said. "Doing just a simple Google search I think will be a good starting point for most people."

CORRECTION: The name of Anaam Wafa was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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