Base flood elevation

The height floodwaters are expected to reach during a 100-year flood

What is base flood elevation?

BFE, meaning base flood elevation, is the level of surface water anticipated to reach during a base flood. “Base flood” refers to a flood that has a 1% chance of being either equaled or exceeded in a given area in a given year.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) maps base flood elevations for several flood zones. They are:

  • AE
  • AH
  • A1–A30
  • AR
  • AR/A
  • AR/AE
  • AR/A1– A30
  • AR/AH, AR/AO
  • V1–V30
  • VE

FEMA also designates these flood zones as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs). Other flood zones that start with either an A or a V are also SFHAs, but they don’t have base flood elevations. Property owners in SFHAs have to get flood insurance.

Base flood elevations are represented on FEMA maps below the flood zone as EL plus a number (i.e., EL 14). This number represents the expected height rounded to the nearest foot, so EL 14 represents a base flood elevation of approximately 14 feet.

How is a base flood elevation used?

Insurance companies compare base flood elevations to the lowest floor of a structure to try and anticipate its chances for experiencing flood damage. This is important for determining flood insurance premiums. If a home’s lowest level is above the area’s BFE, then floodwaters are less likely to reach it, and the insurer can charge a lower rate.

Homeowners and builders can also use BFEs when building or renovating a home. Once you have your property’s base flood elevation, you determine where the lowest level of the house should be. All of your livable space should be above the BFE, and you may also want to place electrical, heating, air conditioning, and plumbing systems above your base flood elevation to reduce damage during a 100-year flood.

Does a base flood elevation require flood insurance?

All flood zones with base flood elevations are also named as Special Flood Hazard Areas with a significant risk for flood. One important requirement that comes into play because of the designation is that federally backed or regulated mortgage lenders can only loan money to people with flood insurance. Lenders are particularly stringent about meeting flood insurance if they provide loans from the:

  • Federal Housing Administration.
  • US Department of Veteran Affairs.
  • US Department of Agriculture.

If you don’t have flood insurance and are required to, your lender may purchase a policy on your behalf and bill it through your escrow account.

Even if you aren’t required to maintain flood insurance, you may want to get a policy if you’re in a flood zone. Climate change has caused more frequent and bigger natural disasters and more homes are at risk. Moreover, an inch of water can cause more than $25,000 in property damage. Without flood insurance, you’re left to pay for all losses on your own.

Tips for homes with a base flood elevation

If you live in a flood zone with a base flood elevation, you may want to reduce your flood risk and its subsequent damage. Risk mitigation is a good way to keep your insurance premiums from going up. A few ways you can do this is to:

  • Make sure your home is built with all usable spaces above your BFE.
  • Review other regulations, such whether you can elevate your home with fill, columns, or crawl spaces.
  • Landscape your property so the slope goes away from your house.
  • Raise all water-sensitive equipment above the base flood elevation.
  • Install a backflow valve to prevent water damage from sewer backup.
  • Clean rain spouts and keep them positioned so water moves away from your house.

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