Am I about to buy a home at that is at risk of flooding?

Just because a property isn't close to water, it doesn't mean there isn't a serious flood risk. Before making an offer, how can I find out if my dream home has flooded in the past, or is at risk of flooding?

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Flood damaged house

The risk of flooding is increasing

Climate change has increased the scale and frequency of adverse weather conditions in many parts of the world. While the UK is unlikely to experience anything like the devastation wrought by hurricanes in various parts of the word, unprecedented rainfall has caused flooding in many parts of the country.

Some of the towns and villages of England and Wales affected by recent flooding have not seen such effects in recorded history. This makes it difficult to assess future risk based on historical data.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of flooding that may affect a home.

Groundwater flooding

Groundwater flooding occurs when the water table in a local area rises, flooding cellars and basements. The water may even rise above ground level.

Groundwater flooding is generally seasonal, occurring in early spring, and may not be linked to any specific incident of heavy rainfall.

A damaged water main could saturate the surrounding earth, making surface water flooding more likely should there be a period of intense rainfall.

River flooding

River (fluvial) flooding occurs when very heavy rainfall causes a river or other waterway to flood or burst its banks. The damage caused by an overflowing river can be widespread, affecting many properties downstream as smaller rivers and streams are overloaded and dams and dykes break.

Coastal flooding

The rarest of the three in regards to the effect on UK property, coastal flooding is caused when unusually high tides breach tidal barriers and flood an area of the coast.

What to check before the viewing

Before you attend a viewing, you can carry out a number of quick checks in respect of a property's flood risk. Fortunately, a lot of useful information is available for free online.

Official sources

The Environment Agency website and HM Land Registry provide information about historic flooding in an area, and also indicates whether an area is likely to flood in the future, see:

Local news

More prosaically, you can also use Google to search for recent news reports about flooding in the area. A small-scale flood may not make the national news, but online editions of local papers will likely include some detail about the extent of any recent flooding, and the damage caused.

Walk and talk

Getting to know the local area will also help. Walking around can give you a better idea of the "lay of the land", including the location of nearby brooks, streams, reservoirs and canals. Speaking to neighbours may also give you some indication of whether the area has flooded in recent years.

If you cannot find the information you need, you can email the Environment Agency for a report. In most cases, the Environment Agency's report is free, although it can take up to 20 working days to provide.

For this reason, if you have narrowed your property search to a local area, it may be worth applying for the area report even if you haven't found a specific property yet.

What to check when you view the property

The clearest indication of recent flooding is actual water damage. Most sellers will have taken care of any obvious signs, but eagle-eyed buyers may still spot some evidence of staining.

Signs of historic flooding can often be tidied up with a little decorating work. Some indicators, however, are harder (or more expensive) to resolve.

Crumbling drywall or plasterboard

Signs that internal walls are soft, weaker or crumbling in places may suggest historic flooding. Discolouration may also indicate flooding.

Watermarks on wooden flooring

Authentic wooden floorboards can add value to a home, but standing floodwater will inevitably leave a stain. Large, puddle-like marks may indicate flooding. In severe cases, the floodwater may also have permanently damaged these floors.

Stains on external walls and sidings

Water stains are harder to cover up than internal damage and may indicate where the "high watermark" of the flood reached.

Uneven grade around the property

Where a flood may have affected the foundations of a property, the grade (the level of the base of the land around the property) could be uneven. You should look for signs of obvious drop-offs and changes in the ground level immediately around the property.

Take a second look

It can be difficult to think clearly about flood risk and other negatives when first viewing a property. You may wish to arrange for a second viewing, armed with a checklist, to investigate all possible issues with a clearer head.

Evidence of flood precautions

Even where there is no evidence of damage, fixtures and fittings may suggest that the seller has taken precautions against flooding. The action a current (or previous) owner may have taken include:

  • Raised appliances and home entertainment systems - White goods, TVs, speakers etc. that the homeowner has raised on stilts or plinths may suggest that they are concerned about low-level flooding.
  • Water-resistant plastic skirting boards.
  • Air brick covers or water-resistant air bricks.
  • "Quick release" doors or raised thresholds for external doors - These are more expensive fixes, and may indicate a serious intent to flood-proof a home
  • Higher electrical sockets - Sockets in particular older properties may be raised regardless of the risk of flooding. Newer homes may feature this as a safety precaution, should flooding occur.
  • Flood barriers in the vicinity - these can be expensive, and may have been constructed by the council or by local residents. Barriers may indicate a serious expectation of future flooding.

Papering over

Even if you suspect that the property may have flooded in the past, the estate agent may not be aware of it. If so, you can also look for signs of recent decorating work that the seller may have carried out to repair flood damage. New flooring, wallpaper, skirting boards or kitchen units may all be indicators.

Of course, many people decorate their homes before going on the market. A recent lick of paint is hardly conclusive evidence of flood damage.

Follow up with a survey

You can also arrange for a property surveyor to carry out a building survey. The survey should identify where historic flooding or other water damage has affected the fabric of the building. However, the survey will not explicitly address the future risk of flooding.

If you do have a survey carried out, you should consider passing the surveyor's report onto your solicitor. The lawyer will then be able to follow up on any legal implications of issues raised in the report.

After you make an offer

Once the purchase process is underway, your solicitor will carry out a number of checks on the property and the local area. These checks are called "searches". One of these searches is an environmental search that investigates a range of disparate factors that may affect the property; these include:

  • if the council has granted planning permission for nearby property
  • nearby pylons or phone masts
  • evidence of historical mining or subsidence in the area
  • nearby landfill sites or contaminated land, and
  • whether the local area has a risk of flooding

If the environmental search indicates that there may be a flood risk, or there is other evidence of flooding, your lawyer will carry out a more detailed flood search.

Based on the outcome of the searches, the solicitor may recommend that you take out an insurance policy.

Will you be able to insure the property?

When you decide whether to purchase a flood-risk property, you should consider the cost of insurance. You should also consider the possibility that you won't be able to insure against flooding at all.

Insurers are reluctant to cover properties with a higher risk of flooding. Many only do so because of Government-backed protections. The Government has discussed removing these restrictions in recent years. If the changes do go ahead, it may become impossible to insure your home.

Mortgage lenders are also reluctant to lend on properties with a higher risk of flooding. This means that you may be unable to insure your property and, consequently, it will be difficult to sell

Your solicitor will discuss these issues with you in more detail before you commit to the purchase.

Your next step

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Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher

Gaynor Haliday, Legal researcher