Flood insurance rate hike could affect home sales

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MILWAUKEE (AP) - Flood insurance for Teresa Secord’s modest La Crosse home cost her $525 last year. So when the bank told her she’d have to pay nearly $3,700 this year, she gave them an earful.

“I told the bank the house was going up for sale. And they said, ‘You’re going to have a hard time selling it,’” Secord said. “And I said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to be the one selling it - you are. You can start foreclosure right now ‘cause we’re not sticking another dime into the money pit.’ Then I hung up on her.”

President Barack Obama signed a law Friday offering instant rate rollbacks to many homeowners like Secord whose premiums soared by thousands of dollars overnight. But for many, the reprieve is temporary.

Thousands of Wisconsin residents are still facing steep premium increases. Some fear they can’t afford the payments, and others say the new cost has brought the local housing market to a standstill.

La Crosse is at higher risk of flooding because it sits along the Mississippi, La Crosse and Black rivers. Some 559 homes or businesses in the city of 51,000 are facing premium hikes, second only to the 765 in Green Bay, according to data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency compiled by The Associated Press.

Under the National Flood Insurance Program, the federal government has offered subsidized flood insurance on homes and businesses built before there were any rules about building close to waterways. The program is billions of dollars in debt.

In 2012, Congress required more than a million policyholders to start paying rates based on the true risk of flooding at their properties. After the move led to a public outcry, Congress this month reined in some aspects of the overhaul. Instead of imposing stiff prices hikes immediately, the annual premium increases will be capped.

That offers some measure of relief to Secord and others who own single-family homes. Now their premiums will rise no more than 18 percent each year, although that can still be a substantive sum. People who own businesses and second homes will see increases of 25 percent each year.

The AP’s analysis only looked at people who’ve historically received insurance at subsidized rates. Eighty percent of people with flood insurance are in newer houses and will only see the regular increases they’ve had in the past.

People who live in a designated flood plain have to buy flood insurance, at least until their mortgage is fully paid off. If the home is sold, the obligation begins afresh for the new owner.

That’s been a problem for Allan Schultz, a machine-shop owner in La Crosse. The 54-year-old inherited his father’s home in October in a neighborhood where flood insurance usually ranges from $500 to $1,000 annually. A buyer agreed to buy Schultz’s home this month - until she found out flood insurance would cost her about $4,000 per year.

“That house is unsellable,” Schultz said. But not for long.

Under the new law, any potential buyer will keep the subsidy of the previous owner. However, the premium could still increase 18 percent every year and lead to concern about how high rates could eventually go.

After a 1965 flood, the Army Corps of Engineers built dikes as well as a flood channel to help divert rising water away from homes, said Larry Kirch, the city’s director of planning and development. That took 800 homes out of the flood plain, but the others have faced financial uncertainty, he said.

Secord is one of the state’s 7,655 policyholders who face increases, and said she’s still considering her options.

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