Florida Keys Real Estate News

Understand downstairs enclosures when purchasing a home in the Florida Keys

March 18th, 2016 11:04 PM by Claire Johnson

When looking for homes in the Florida Keys, you need to be aware of non-conforming downstairs enclosures.  This is essentially having living space below flood.

In this post, I will discuss flood zones and downstairs enclosures and how it will affect your flood insurance.

Let me take a moment to talk about flood zones and the importance of this when searching for Florida Keys real estate.  There are 3 types of flood zones in Monroe County - X, AE and VE.

1.  X flood is the best flood zone.  An X flood zone allows ground level buildings.  When standing on the ground, you are standing above sea level.  Typically with X flood zones, banks will not require you have flood insurance.  But if you do decide to get flood insurance, the cost if very little (approximately a few hundred dollars a year).

2.  AE flood zone.  This is the most common.  AE is followed by a number; ie) AE6, AE7, and so on.  The number will tell you how high above sea level you will need to build.  To determine how high you are above sea level, you will need an Elevation Certificate - which you will get from a surveyor.  For example, at my house when I stand on the ground I am 4' above sea level.  I am in an AE8 - which means my first floor needs to be built 4' up from the ground.  Most people will opt to build higher to take advantage of the covered parking underneath the house.   If you are looking at Florida Keys water front homes, you will be either in an AE or VE flood zone.

3.  VE flood zone.  The Florida Keys water front homes that are direct ocean front or bay front are more than likely in this flood zone.  VE will also be followed by a number just like AE flood zone.  The flood insurance costs on these properties will be the highest.

As mentioned above, homes in the Florida Keys would be built higher than required to take advantage of the underneath parking.  Here is where they would also build storage rooms.  Being the storage rooms were below flood, they were strictly suppose to be storage rooms but often homeowner's would convert them into living space.  Putting in bathrooms, kitchen, etc - all without permits.  Prior to 2000, there were no regulations on how large the storage rooms could be.  It wasn't until the beginning of 2000 that Unincorporated Monroe County (which is Key Largo and the Lower Keys) put a cap on how large a storage room could be - it is 299 square feet - to help eliminate these areas from being turned into living space.  Islamorada does not have a limit on the size a storage area can be.  

Also note that:

1.  In the 80's Monroe County did issue permits for bathrooms to be installed on the ground level - you will need to verify that it was permitted.
2.  Houses issued a building permit in 1974 or before, downstairs enclosures could be grandfathered in.  Keep in mind, grandfathered in properties go by when the permit were issued not when the Certificate of Occupancy was received.
3.  Today- if you have a swimming pool - there is a potential you could get a permit to build a bathroom below flood for the pool.
4.  As of 2013 - FEMA guidelines changed again - downstairs enclosures do not have to be brought into conformity but you will be paying a great deal of money to get flood insurance.  Key Largo does require an inspection of any downstairs area below flood.  

Your due diligence period is the time to investigate the validity of any Florida Keys homes with downstairs enclosures being used for living space.   The importance of this is for insurance purposes and future permits.

If you have a mortgage, you will be required to have insurances.  And the insurance companies WILL come out and inspect the downstairs to make sure it is not living space.  If they find that it is being used for living space, they will require you to bring it into conformity or they will cancel your flood insurance.  If the bank has to force place insurance on you, it will  be expensive.

At this point, if you pay cash and do not get flood insurance you can keep the non-conforming living space below flood.  But when you try and sell your home in the Florida Keys, it could be an issue for you.


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