So You Flooded…What You Need to Know About Substantial Damage

Let me just preface this with an apology.  I’m sorry you’re reading this. If you’re reading this, chances are, your home was flooded by Harvey or the recent reservoir release, or someone you know and love was flooded by one of the aforementioned events.  

So you’ve experienced this catastrophe, and whether you’re ready for it or not, at some point we will all have to look forward and figure out what to do next.  

So You Flooded... What You Need to Know About Substantial Damage | Houston Moms Blog

For many, the obvious answer is “fix our house.”  I know that’s the only answer my family was really considering.  I’ve mentioned before what our home means to us, and how much we love it, so we really had no doubt that we planned to fix it…as soon as humanly possible.  And along came a little wrinkle…

If you are in the City of Houston, and you live in a floodplain, you are not legally allowed to do any repairs to your home that amount to more than $10,000 without obtaining a permit.  My lawyer brain skipped immediately into finding ways around that rule.  Was it a cumulative $10,000 or could you do the repairs piecemeal so that you kept each portion under $10,000?  What if the repairs you are making wouldn’t otherwise require a permit {no changes to plumbing or electrical}?  And other than the delay involved, is there any reason to avoid this permitting process?

First, I learned that the $10,000 threshold applies to cumulative damages, so doing repairs in tiny pieces so as to avoid triggering the $10,000 is not an option.

Second, I learned that just the fact that if {1} your home is in a floodplain, and {2} your repairs will amount to more than $10,000 you must obtain this permit, regardless of whether you would normally need a permit for your average, run-of-the-mill home repair.  

Thwarted by each of the answers mentioned above, I focused on any potential reason to avoid obtaining a permit and ran into the so-called “substantial damage” rule.

So You Flooded... What You Need to Know About Substantial Damage | Houston Moms Blog

The substantial damage rule means that the Flood Management Office will not allow you to repair your home if the damages to the structure amount to 50% or more of the value of the home.  This does not include the value of the land, only the value of the structure built on it.  If you live in an area where the homes have pretty decent value as compared to the land, you may not have any concerns here.  But if you live in my area, where the majority of the value in your home is based on the value of the land, you may be in for some trouble.  

So what happens if you have more than 50% damage to your home, you ask?  You will not be allowed to repair your home, unless you elevate it to bring it into compliance {12 to 18 inches above base flood elevation in most areas} or tear down and rebuild it {at the required height}.  This is a heartbreaking revelation for many, many families as the cost to elevate an existing structure ranges, on average, between $150,000 – $350,000.  Many, if not most people, do not have that kind of money on hand to raise their home.  At that point, your only choice is to tear down and rebuild using your flood insurance payout {which is a maximum of $250,000}.  

Knowing our options {or rather, our lack thereof}, I headed to the Flood Management Office to attempt to obtain our permit.  This process has been different in the past, and living in an area that has suffered repeated floods over the last 3 years, I was familiar with how daunting this task could be and that there was a real likelihood that we may not be successful.

Likely due to the widespread nature of the flooded homes and the overwhelming quantity of Houstonians who would need to obtain permits, the City of Houston set up satellite offices for people to be able to apply for their permits without having to go to the main office.  There was very little wait and the people I met in the satellite office were friendly and helpful.  They seemed to understand the desperate nature of the situation and were willing to help in whatever way they could.

They will ask you for your address and will pull up a valuation provided by FEMA {as I understand it} on your home.  Please note that this is not your HCAD value, so if you spend year after year fighting to lower your appraisal to avoid paying unnecessary taxes, do not worry.  However, at least in our case, this number was not as high {for obvious reasons} as a private appraisal we received when we purchased our home.  

They will then ask you a series of questions to help determine the extent of the damages to your home.  They are not “yes” or “no” questions and you can assign a percentage to each to more accurately reflect the amount of damage.  For example, when they ask about your walls/sheetrock, if you live in a 2 story home, your sheetrock was only damaged on the lower floor, so you should answer with the appropriate percentage to reflect that.  They will also ask about doors and windows, so have an idea of what percentage of your doors and windows will need to be replaced.  These are just examples to illustrate the value of answering in percentages.

Your damages {in accordance with the answers you have supplied} will be tallied up and you will be given a percentage that reflects the damage to your home.

In the end, the Flood Management Office determined that our house was less than 50% damaged, and we were able to obtain a permit to begin repairing our home. The process was much faster and less hostile than I had anticipated, and I left with the distinct impression that, at least at this stage of the process, the City of Houston is working to make the permitting process one of the less painful parts of repairing your house and moving on with your life.  

I was also there to overhear a handful of people who were seeking to bust the threshold and achieve a substantial damage determination {in order to get access to Increased Cost of Compliance money}, who were successful in doing so.

If you are designated substantially damaged and you do not want to be, there is an appeals process you can go through involving submitting a private appraisal and various contractor bids and/or a proof of loss from your insurance company; however, I do not know of anyone who has found it necessary to go through the appeals process post-Harvey.  For the Memorial Day flood and the Tax Day flood, this was much more difficult, but the City of Houston seems to have streamlined this process to make the initial determination as simple as possible for most of its residents.  

**Please note that the information in this article reflects my personal experience and is not intended to constitute, should not be taken as, and may not be relied upon as legal advice.  This post does not create an attorney-client relationship.  If you need legal advice, you should contact an attorney directly.


  1. Hi, I am just now reading your article. We went through the exact same permitting process early September and experienced exactly what you described. Sad to say, the city has changed the permitting process/form since then and is applying it retroactively. Five months later, Kingwood residents who received their flood permits and are rebuilding – some even close to finishing – are now receiving letters from the city saying their homes are substantially damaged. They can appeal – but the forms are now different from the one you described (and the ones they completed upon gaining their initial flood permits) and it appears the only option is to raise up their homes. Or bulldoze them and build a new one higher up. Again, they’re learning of this now, 4-5 months after they had received flood permits. I know one entire subdivision will all but disappear; and this is one comprised of hundreds of patio homes owned by retirees. I’ve lived in Houston since 1981 and am shocked and saddened by the city’s callous disregard for its tax-paying residents.


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