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FEMA Rules

Detailed Explanation of the FEMA Rules

  • History: Prior to October 29th 2012 and Superstorm Sandy, FEMA was in the process of updating its flood maps for the entire country. Because of the significant damage caused by Sandy, FEMA published their preliminary (Advisory) maps so that people would have an idea of how to rebuild. Governor Christie then adopted these Advisory maps and made them law. Unfortunately in many instances the Advisory maps were extremely conservative and created enormous hardships for many people whose homes were damaged or destroyed by the storm. In mid June 2013 FEMA released a revised set of maps that were less conservative than the Advisory ones and removed the Advisory maps from their website.
  • How do these FEMA rules affect me?: These new maps greatly affect how new homes are designed and constructed in any flood zone; they determine how existing homes can be renovated, repaired or added to and how homes damaged by the storm (or any other event) can be repaired. Conformance with the requirements of these maps will also be a major factor in how much you pay to have flood insurance. To see where your home lies on these maps visit Base Flood Elevation (BFE) Address Lookup Tool and enter your address where indicated.
  • How will the new maps affect my Flood Insurance?: The US Congress has determined that the National Flood Insurance Program, (NFIP) should no longer be subsidized by the government and must pay for itself. In order to do so, we have been told that every policy insured through the NFIP will soon go up 25% per year over the next four years. Additionally they have indicated that a more concerted effort will be made to correlate insurance premiums to the actual site specific risk. That is the more non-conforming your structure is the higher your premium will be. Please click here to view FEMA’s brochure - Build Back Stronger and Safer Brochure which describes different insurance rates for the same home at various levels of compliance.
  • Types of Flood Zones: For the purpose of simplicity and clarity I will group all homes into one of three broad classifications:
  • Not in a Flood Zone: No design or insurance requirements, though if your home is near a flood zone you may choose to adopt some of their design criteria just to be safe.
  • A-Zone or Rising Water Zone: In an A-Zone, the lowest level of the home and all of its equipment must be constructed above a specified height above sea level also known as the Base Flood Elevation or BFE. The BFE is indicated on FEMA’s flood maps. In most instances you must add 1foot to this number for what is known as “Freeboard” or an extra safety factor. The Freeboard number can vary by area or jurisdiction so check with your local building department. Basements of any type are NOT permitted in A-Zones. A basement is defined as any interior space (including a crawl space) whose grade is lower than the exterior on all sides. That is FEMA will classify your crawl space as a basement even if it has no floor, no finishes and only 18” of height if the dirt floor is lower than the exterior grade on all sides.
  • V-Zone or Velocity Zone: In a velocity zone, the home must not only be constructed high enough so that rising water will not enter the living spaces, but the foundation must also be constructed in an open fashion to permit rushing water and waves to move freely under the structure. In addition we must add in the “Freeboard” which in V zones is measured to the bottom of all horizontal structural supports. This includes not only the floor framing but all dropped beams and stringers as well. This will typically add an additional 3 feet to the needed height of the first floor. This number can vary by area or jurisdiction so check with your local building department. FEMA does not permit any permanently enclosed space under the house in a Velocity zone, though some towns do permit a limited amount of "storage" space enclosed by "Break-away walls". These are temporary walls which are designed to literally break free from the house when hit by moving water. Please note that having break away walls under your house even if permitted by the local municipality may negatively affect your flood insurance rates.
  • How will these rules affect my plans for my home?: Based upon the information gathered in the steps described above, our in house architects begin the creative process of designing your home to meet all of the criteria determined in the steps above.
  • My house is not in a flood zone, is there anything that I need to do?: No action required, no rules apply.
  • My existing home is non-complying to its flood zone but I did not get any damage: You are not required to take any action however, depending on how non-complying your home is the cost of your flood insurance could in increase significantly. If you ever want or need to improve or add to your non-conforming home please continue reading.
  • My non-conforming home was damaged by the storm and I want to repair it: Here is where things get tricky. The new (and previous) FEMA rules limit how much you can “invest” in your non-complying home without making it comply or “safer”. In general, the rules state that if you spend more than 50% of the value of your homes “Structure” (as stated on your tax bill) for building improvements you must make your home comply. For the purposes of this calculation the land value is not included. The cost of all physical improvements, including repairs, appliances, paint flooring, roofing, siding, windows, HVAC, plumbing, electric, etc are to be included in the improved cost. In many instances the cost to repair a storm damaged home is greater than 50% of the buildings value and will then trigger the need to elevate the home.
  • My non-complying home was not damaged but I would like to renovate or add to it: Same requirements as in (c) above.
  • How do I make my existing non-conforming structure comply with the new FEMA rules?: This will vary by flood zone and from home to home. In general:
  • For non-conforming homes located in the A (or rising water zone) the house must be disconnected from all of the utilities and its foundation and then lifted vertically up and placed on temporary supports. The foundation (if suitable and sound) is then extended up to the required BFE height plus the Freeboard. Basements or depressed crawl spaces are eliminated, flood vents are installed and the house is then gently lowered down onto the new higher foundation. The house is bolted down to the new foundation and all utilities are reconnected. Stairs, porches, siding and other exterior building elements are then rebuilt or modified to connect with the new elevated house.
  • For non-conforming homes located in the V (or rushing water zone) the house must be disconnected from all of the utilities and its foundation and then lifted and moved away from the foundation. The old foundation must be removed and a new open foundation system constructed. Please note there needs to be a suitable place to move the house to while the new open foundation is being constructed. Once completed, the house may then be relocated back onto the new elevated foundation. The house is bolted down to the new foundation and all utilities are reconnected. Stairs, porches, siding and other exterior building elements are then rebuilt or modified to connect with the new elevated house.
  • I wish to build a new home in a flood zone: The existing structure (if any) is removed in its entirety including the foundation. The new home will then be designed and built in conformance with specific requirements of the flood zone in which it will be located.
  • How do I know how high my house is? Unfortunately the only way to really know if your house complies with the required BFE is to obtain an “Elevation Certificate”. This is a document prepared by a NJ licensed surveyor. If you recently purchased the home and it’s located in a flood zone you probably received one at closing. Please note that in southern NJ, many surveyors are still using what is known as the “1929 NGVD” Datum and the new FEMA maps are based upon the “1988 NAVD” datum. This is indicated in line B-11 on the Elevation Certificate. If your certificate is based on the 1929 Datum it will need to be converted to the 1988 Datum. On Absecon Island there is an approximate 1.25 foot reduction in measured heights. Other areas may have a different conversion factor.

Disclaimer: The information described above is a general outline of how the new FEMA rules might apply to a typical home. These rules and how they have been interpreted and implemented have been changing and vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and as such we offer no warranty of accuracy or appropriateness of the above statements. For specific requirements and restrictions on how the FEMA rules apply to your specific home or property, please contact QMA or engage the services of a NJ licensed Architect, Engineer or contact your local Floodplain Administrator.

QMA Architects applies our over 25-years of construction experience to the design of every building to ensure that our designs and construction drawings are easy to understand, easy to bid and easy to build. Our sister company QMA Design+Build, LLC no longer provides construction services but we can assist you in finding the most appropriate and qualified contractor for your project.

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