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Rising above the fray

With new flood-plain maps drawn, homeowners are going for height

Project manager for Sylvester’s Building Movers George Ellis checks on the house being lifted at 21 Manomet Avenue in Plymouth.

Debee Tlumacki for The Boston Globe

Project manager for Sylvester’s Building Movers George Ellis checks on the house being lifted at 21 Manomet Avenue in Plymouth.

PLYMOUTH — Gary Sylvester stood on a Manomet ocean bluff admiring his handiwork: a 2,500-square-foot home sitting atop nine wooden cribs. His crew had knocked out the foundation, then used a series of hydraulic jacks to lift the house up before moving it 15 feet inland and raising it by a foot.

Sylvester inherited the company from his father, who started Sylvester Building Movers in the 1950s, picking up and transporting small ranch houses to make way for the interstates the Eisenhower administration was building. Business has changed since Sylvester’s father’s days; house-moving now accounts for only about 20 percent of his work. The rest is home elevation: lifting houses onto new foundations, supports, or pylons, often to protect them from surging waters during bad storms.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Gary Sylvester checks on a project his company is working on in Plymouth.

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But new forces may now be driving demand for his services.

“We do raise a lot of houses because of the flood zone, but usually it’s because they’ve been flooded already,” Sylvester said. “Now we’ve probably gotten phone calls because of the proposed changes.”

New federal maps released this summer have redrawn flood plains, placing thousands of properties formerly considered relatively safe into high-risk zones. These new designations are expected to send flood insurance — required on all houses with mortgages — soaring, sometimes by double-digit percentages.

Flood insurance rates are determined by height in relation to the flood zone. If a house’s lowest floor is above the base flood elevation, its owner will pay a lower insurance premium than a neighbor whose bottom floor is below the new flood-water mark. And while many homeowners are challenging the accuracy of the maps, others are considering another tactic: lifting their houses above the flood zone to avoid the higher insurance rates.

Local contractors say they’ve already noticed an uptick in inquiries about home elevation services.

‘The homes here are generational. . . . We’re middle class. But I raised my house just in time. I’d be sitting in the street if I hadn’t elevated it.’

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“People are starting to call because they’re worried that the cost [of insurance] is going to be so phenomenal that they need to get the house up where it belongs,” said Carl Baker, owner of Carl Baker Masonry and House Lifting in Wareham.

Jamie Kline, whose Harwich house-lifting business serves much of the South Shore area, said his phone has been ringing more since the Federal Emergency Management Agency started holding community meetings to explain the new maps.

“Light bulbs are really going on in people’s heads,” he said. “They see the savings in insurance.”

According to FEMA documents, a homeowner with a $250,000 policy on a single-story house without a basement in a high-risk A Zone would pay a $9,500 annual insurance premium if the home’s bottom floor was 4 feet below base flood elevation. If that same home was at flood elevation, the homeowner could expect to pay approximately $1,410 a year, and if the structure was 3 feet above base elevation, the premium would drop to $427 a year. By elevating his home by 7 feet, that homeowner could expect to save more than $90,000 over the course of 10 years.

Joe Balboni, owner of Clippership Insurance in Kingston, has also seen an uptick in clients, and expects inquiries will continue to come in as people currently without insurance who are paying off a mortgage learn of the new requirements.

“I’m anticipating more calls as the mortgage companies start looking at their portfolios of loans and making sure they have the coverage in place according to these new maps,” Balboni said. “They have a financial interest in your home, and they want to make sure there’s a pot of gold there to rebuild if something happens.”

He is working with a local contractor to challenge the zone designation for clients with subtle elevation advantages, like hills, that the maps don’t account for.

Balboni is already seeing jumps in next year’s insurance rates. He said one client in Marshfield had her premium increase by 20 percent, and another in Cohasset saw insurance costs skyrocket from $458 to $4,300 this year.

The Globe also recently reported that one Scituate homeowner recently received a $67,431 flood insurance bill, and reduced his coverage from a $302,000 policy to the minimal $5,100.

Balboni said insurance agents’ hands are usually tied.

“To me, it’s frustrating because the rates are set by the government,” he said.

But lifting a house is a significant investment. The process takes several months, and costs at least $30,000, with prices varying dramatically depending on the size of the home and the difficulty of the job.

Doris Crary, a Scituate resident who had her inn lifted a few years ago, said the job cost approximately $140,000. She said she was able to afford the work only thanks to a government grant, and she doesn’t think the price tag is realistic for most of her neighbors.

“The homes here are generational. I don’t think of Scituate as being a wealthy community. We’re middle class,” she said. “But I raised my house just in time. I’d be sitting in the street if I hadn’t elevated it.”

Local and federal emergency management agencies offer hazard mitigation grants for flood-prone areas, including money for home elevation. Scituate’s town planning office runs a program helping residents put together applications for hazard grants. In the past 16 years, the state has awarded a total of $1.9 million in federal funding to elevate 53 houses there.

Scituate Town Planner Laura Harbottle said she noticed an upsurge in applications during this year’s grant cycle. She received 14 home elevation applications. She typically gets two to four a year.

She said residents had several incentives for applying.

“In addition to the new maps, FEMA made it easier for properties to qualify this year, and offered 100 percent reimbursement to some properties with a history of high losses,” Harbottle said in an e-mail.

Crary, who lifted her three-story Oceanside Inn in 2010 with the help of the Scituate program, said she’d recommend home elevation to anyone who has experienced flooding or repeated storm damage. Because her 6,000-square-foot inn was so large, she paid $80,000 out of pocket — more than half the construction costs — to have it elevated.

The inn, once plagued by flood and storm damage, hasn’t suffered a loss since she raised it 12 feet above the ground. She saw her annual insurance premium drop from $5,400 to $2,200.

“You don’t realize what it’s like to take your groceries up two flights of stairs until you do,” quipped Crary, who also had a ramp installed. “People come over and notice the difference. They say, ‘Your house feels more stable now that it’s up in the air.’ ”

Crary believes that elevating her inn might have mitigated storm damage for the homes behind hers as well. She says the new FEMA maps fail to account for the way homes like hers and the town’s sea wall protect houses further inland. Crary, who also owns a home in Marshfield and is a member of the Marshfield Citizens Coastal Coalition, said that the storm surge FEMA anticipates in its flood map is much stronger than the Blizzard of ’78.

At a recent Town Meeting in Marshfield, many residents expressed frustration over the maps, which list as at-risk some homes that are miles from the coast and have never experienced flooding.

According to Kerry Bogdan, a senior engineer at FEMA, flood maps released as recently as 2009 used data that was in some cases 20 years old. She said updating the old information accounted for the drastic changes in the new maps, which also use new technology to calculate wave action and the height of the water column during storms.

“The old studies were pretty outdated,” Bogdan said. “Since 2009, there’s been a big push across the country to map the coast. Our goal is to map 100 percent of populated shorelines.”

Bogdan doesn’t anticipate that the maps will change again in the near future.

“Due to our budget, I doubt we’ll be back in another year or two,” she said. “We might look at areas that experience great erosion; or, if there was a storm event that dramatically changed the coast line, then we would go back and take a look at those areas.”

Most area residents whose homes have never flooded might balk at the idea of elevation, even with the high insurance premiums. But for residents like Katie Kenneally, it has become a consideration.

Kenneally’s Marshfield home, which lies a quarter-mile from the shore, never experienced flooding during the decade that she lived there. Then, in February, winter storm Nemo flooded her living room with more than a foot of sea water. The damage to her electric system forced her to shut off her heat, causing her pipes to burst. She hasn’t lived in her home in eight months but is still paying off its mortgage. The house, already 11 feet below the current flood plain, is 16 feet below elevation on the new maps. That could mean even higher premiums than the $2,000 she paid in flood insurance last year, though Kenneally has yet to receive an estimate on how much more she could expect to pay under the new maps.

Kenneally has applied for a hazard mitigation grant, with the help of Lieutenant Paul Taber, a Marshfield police officer and director of the town’s Emergency Operations Center.

“With the grant, I believe we can raise the house and avoid future risks of flood-related damage,” she said in an e-mail. “In the meantime, I am continuing to work with the insurance companies on my claims, trying to get them to understand the significance of the loss. The house simply has to be raised before it can be fixed.”

Cara Bayles can be reached at carabayles@gmail.com.
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