Owning a beachfront home is a seductive dream for many Americans. Dramatic or serene ocean views right outside your living room! Communities offering up a relaxed or high-energy way of life—your pick! Heaping, fresh seafood platters and frosty margaritas by the water. Hey, what’s not to love?
Plenty, in fact. Sorry to intrude on the fantasy, but living near the water comes with some very real risks: the ongoing threat of destructive storms and regular flooding that can range from costly to catastrophic. And the worst of these dangers seems to be escalating.
In the past two months alone, the nation has been been hit by not one but two major storms: Hurricanes Laura and Sally bringing destruction and death to large swaths of the coastal U.S. And there are five more storm systems moving through the Atlantic Ocean—only the second time in history that so many have been tracked at the same time.
This year’s hurricane season has been so intense that all 21 of the Atlantic storm names approved by the World Meteorological Organization for the year have already been used up. (Next up: the Greek alphabet!)
That’s why the team at realtor.com® decided it was time to take the high ground to find which counties in the U.S. have the greatest flood risks. Because while these areas are often rich in natural beauty and other attractions, those considering buying homes in these places should understand how their properties could be affected.
“The landfall of Hurricane Sally on the Alabama coast was just the latest exclamation point in what is turning out to be a record active-storm season in the Atlantic [Ocean],” says Danny Brouillette, a research climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University in State College.
“Climate change [is] causing tropical cyclones to be more slow-moving. … Paired with the increased water content of air as it grows warmer, it’s a recipe for more [storms] that produce extremely prolific rainfall that causes flooding, both at the coast and inland,” says Brouillette. “And increased sea levels due to climate change will tend to worsen flooding from storm surge near the coast.”
Floods are the most common weather-related natural disaster in the U.S., according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. Despite the increasing risks, homeowners continue to be drawn to homes in some of the most flood-prone areas, such as beach communities on the shore of the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. But folks looking for property inland shouldn’t ignore the risks there either.
“It’s a risk that an inexperienced buyer could easily overlook, says Danielle Hale, chief economist at realtor.com, “such as in a home that is relatively lower-lying than its neighbors, but nowhere near a body of water.”
Just over half of home shoppers would still consider buying a home even if they know it’s in a flood zone, according to a recent realtor.com report on flood risk. But about 40% of those buyers expect a discount on the home price.
To come up with our ranking, our data team combined First Street Foundation’s flood data with realtor.com‘s property data. The team analyzed factors that contribute to flooding, including tides, rain, and storm surge. It also looked at the impact of environmental changes, like sea-level risk, changing precipitation patterns, and warming atmospheric temperatures.
(Realtor.com recently teamed up with the foundation to display the flood risk of every property listed on the site. Listings display a flood factor, ranging from 1 to 10, provided by First Street.)
We selected one county per state with the most major to extreme flood risk and included only the counties with at least 100,000 residents. So what are the areas in the U.S. at greatest risk?
Median county home list price: $280,000*
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 33948 (Port Charlotte)
Much of Florida is technically in a high flood risk zone. (If we didn’t limit our criteria to just one county per state, Florida would dominate our rankings.) But, it’s also one of the country’s most desirable places to live with its 663 miles of prime beaches.
Charlotte County, in southwestern Florida on the Gulf Coast, attracts a variety of homeowners, including full-time residents and snowbirds who flock there in winter months.
“Even with the flood risk, Southwest Florida offers year-round great weather, more golf courses than any other place in the U.S., and some of the top-rated beaches in the country,” says Violetta Zalevskiy, a real estate agent with Keller Williams in the area.
You pay a price for all that beauty. In 2004, Hurricane Charley devastated the Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda areas, wiping out about half of Charlotte County’s roughly 12,000 homes. The county was hit with flooding and damage again in 2017’s Hurricane Irma, although not nearly as bad.
Properties in Charlotte County are dominated by single-family homes, condos, and villas. A lake-view condo with two bedrooms and two baths is going for $119,900. A brand-new, three-bedroom home with a lanai is listed at $288,000.
Median county home list price: $198,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 70343 (Bourg)
Terrebonne Parish is known as Louisiana’s “Bayou Country” on the Gulf of Mexico. A little over an hour southwest of New Orleans, the county is home to vast wetlands, lakes, bays, bayous, and canals, along with wildlife preserves, oyster beds, and a rich Cajun culture.
The whole area mostly comprises water and wetlands, with the highest point just 13 feet above sea level. The coastal parish is regularly in the path of major storms, including Katrina in 2005. Most recently, Hurricane Laura last month caused damage and flooding.
Still, residents are attracted by the commercial fishing and the oil and gas industries, and low cost of living. In Houma, the parish seat, there are mostly single-family homes for sale, including this 2,400-square-foot home with a large backyard for $213,000. In Bourg, a little closer to the coast, this 7,000-square-foot home with extra storage and workshop spaces is going for $327,000.
Median county home list price: $429,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 29928 (Hilton Head Island)
Hilton Head Island, located in Beaufort County, is renowned for its sandy beaches, resorts, multitude of golf courses, and subtropical heat. It has a booming tourism industry that inspires many visitors to invest in vacation homes.
The downside: Beaufort County is located in the the state’s Lowcountry. Every few years, a hurricane makes landfall along this part of the coast, often causing damage from storm surges. And the low-lying landscape makes the county frequently vulnerable to floods. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused more than $57 million in damages.
Nonetheless, homes in Hilton Head Island have a median list price of $495,000. But deals can be found: This furnished, newly renovated condo located in a resort with a golf course and lagoon views is listed at $249,900.
Median county home list price: $305,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 77554 (Galveston Island)
Located in southeastern Texas along the Gulf Coast, Galveston County often takes the brunt when a major storm hits. The area was devastated in 1900 by the deadliest hurricane in American history, which left 6,000 people dead. More recently, the city saw flooding from Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Still, Galveston is a “dreamy” place to live with friendly people, beaches, a great nightlife, and beautiful weather, says Johell Aponte, property specialist with Move On House Buyers.
“Homes are normally found raised up on stilts to avoid pitfalls of flooding, and generally don’t have basements,” he says.
But before buying a home in the Galveston area, do your research, says local agent Kristina Morales.
“Buyers should be looking at flood maps and really understand which properties are at the greatest risk of flooding,” she says. “They need to know the elevations of the homes they’re considering.”
Those interested in real estate in Galveston can find a variety of homes, including condos, townhouses, and single-family homes. This spacious Victorian-style home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms is listed at $399,000.
Median county home list price: $210,000
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 39581 (Pascagoula)
Katrina and its damaging storm surges caused catastrophic damage to Jackson County, located along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Then this June, Hurricane Cristobal brought 11 inches of rain, 46 mph winds, and storm surges of 5.5 feet. It left low-lying areas flooded.
Jackson County’s landscape is mostly marshlands and bayous, but it’s home to several beaches, too, and boasts a bustling tourism industry. Beach towns like Ocean Springs and Pascagoula are popular with visitors and residents, and nearby Biloxi draws crowds with its large casino resorts.
A variety of affordable homes is available in Jackson County. In Pascagoula, buyers can find a brand-new home with three bedrooms and two bathrooms clocking in at just over 1,500 square feet for $149,900.
Median county home list price: $165,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 25075 (Ohley)
Kanawha County is West Virginia’s most populous county and home to the state capital of Charleston. However, due to its location on the Kanawha River, Charleston and the surrounding areas are vulnerable to floods, especially after heavy rainfall.
In 2016, West Virginia saw one of its worst floods in its history, after about 10 inches of rain fell within 24 hours. The flood caused extensive damage and left more than 20 people dead in the state, including six in Kanawha County. The National Weather Service referred to it as a “one in a thousand year event.”
In spite of the flood risk, residents enjoy the suburban vibe of Charleston and its very low cost of living. The county offers the lowest-priced homes on our list and that are less than half of the national median list price of $350,000 in August, according to realtor.com data. A three-bedroom, 2,300-square-foot home with a large, screened porch is going for $199,900.
Median county home list price: $350,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 95365 (Planada)
Merced County is more than 90 minutes inland in California’s northern San Joaquin Valley. Heavy rainfall in the county’s namesake Merced River often causes dangerous overflow. One of the area’s worst floods in 2006 hit the Franklin-Beachwood area, forcing the evacuation of residents and leading to a state of emergency declaration.
Earlier this year, the California Department of Water Resources awarded Merced County a $9.7 million grant to help reduce flooding. The money will go toward a new 300-acre flood detention basin to add an extra layer of protection.
Single-family homes make up the bulk of available properties in the city of Merced, about two hours southeast of Silicon Valley. This 2,000-square-foot, four-bedroom with a large back patio is going for $343,000.
Median county home list price: $342,000
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 31411 (Savannah)
Known for its historic architecture and Southern charm, Savannah is the largest city in Chatham County—and the one most at risk of flooding. Hurricanes Matthew in 2016 and Irma in 2017 both hit Savannah, causing evacuations, flooding, and millions of dollars in damage.
Despite the disasters, Savannah’s beauty makes it a popular destination for visitors and home buyers.
“You can have the best of all worlds, with urban living, coastal living, country living,” says Janet Howard, a real estate broker with RealtyONE Group in Savannah. “You can put your toes in the sand and relax listening to the Atlantic Ocean in all her glory.”
Median county home list price: $252,100
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 08402 (Margate City)
Coastal flooding is common in Atlantic County, home to the eponymous Atlantic City, NJ. The area has experienced several major storms over the past decade. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy left about 80% of Atlantic City underwater at one point, and the year before, Hurricane Irene caused extensive damage and flooding.
Still, the housing market in Atlantic County has a lot to offer, says local real estate investor Steven Orlowski.
“The area has been through the wringer recently with COVID-19 and for years prior because of the tumult in the casino business, but that is where the opportunity exists,” he says. “We have beaches, boating, and very diverse geography within driving distances of Philadelphia and New York.”
Waterfront properties are a draw for homeowners, but properties located more inland are less of a flood risk, Orlowski says.
Median county home list price: $380,600
Most flood-prone ZIP code in county: 28480 (Wrightsville Beach)
In recent years, North Carolina has become a popular destination for those working in finance and tech as well as baby boomers looking for warmer weather and a lower cost of living without having to move all the way to Florida. New Hanover County, on the coast about an hour and a half north of Myrtle Beach, SC, is particularly popular due to its scenic shorelines.
North Carolina sees an average of 54 inches of rainfall in its coastal areas each year and 16 inches of snowfall in the mountains, so flooding is a big deal for the state.
Areas along the Atlantic coast are also regular targets for hurricanes. New Hanover County recently saw flooding and other damage from Hurricane Isaias last month. That’s why buyers should seek out properties that can hold up better to flooding.
“Look for homes that have flood protection features,” says local real estate expert Michael Dean, co-founder of Pool Research, which provides consumers information about swimming pools. “Look for flood walls, flood-proof doors, and elevated houses.”
* Median home list prices as of Aug. 1 on realtor.com