Bayou City

For Flooded Homeowners, What to Do and What to Avoid During Repairs

Fixing, or selling, your home after flooding can be confusing. We asked some experts for help.
Fixing, or selling, your home after flooding can be confusing. We asked some experts for help. Photo by Brandon Navarro
One of the unfortunate effects of the unprecedented flooding from Hurricane Harvey is the number of Texans dealing with water in their homes for the first time. A report from the Center for Watershed Science at the University of California-Davis found that 50 percent of the flooding in Harris County occurred in areas outside of official flood zones.

Between clearing out your damaged belongings, dealing with insurers and finding a contractor you can trust, the days after the flood can be just as stressful as the deluge itself. We talked to three experts who can help: Rob Hellyer, the owner of Premier Remodeling and a member of the Greater Houston Builders Association; Joe Woods, the vice president of state government relations for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America; and Brian Spitz, president of Big State Home Buyers, a Houston-based company that buys and sells homes.

As you start, or continue, to repair your home, here is a list of what to absolutely do and what to absolutely avoid to make sure the process goes as smoothly as possible.

Do clear out your house within 48 hours after floodwater recedes, Hellyer says.

The sooner you can move anything that’s been touched by floodwater, the better. Mold starts to build on soggy materials within about two days, so don’t wait until your insurance agent shows up before starting the muck-out process.

Do take more photos than you will need, Woods says.

Because you have to move fast before your agent arrives, you’ll have to document everything that’s been affected. Take as many photos as possible – even more than you’ll likely need. Don’t just photograph the kitchen; take photos inside drawers that have been swamped, inside cabinets and anything that’s been ruined by floodwater. Also, keep any receipts of purchases for cleanup. Those are likely refundable as well.

Do wear protective face masks, Hellyer says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests using N95 face masks (which shield 95 percent of the tiny microbes in the air) when dealing with areas possibly infected by black mold, which can be dangerous for anyone with asthma or severe allergies. Likewise, any debris touched by floodwater has also been exposed to the mixture of nasty germs floating in the water. Long-sleeve shirts and pants might be a good idea, especially if you have any cuts or scrapes.

Do remove sheetrock and insulation, Hellyer, Woods and Spitz say.

The water that entered your house has seeped into the walls as well. There are differing opinions on how high above the water lines drywall should be cut. Some say at least two feet above the flood level. Hellyer isn’t as sure about that, but said four feet up along walls is typically a good idea because sheetrock is cut in four-foot sheets.

Don’t use bleach, Hellyer says.

After you’ve cleared out all the infected debris, the house will need to be coated with antimicrobial spray to kill mold. Bleach, especially when diluted, actually encourages mold growth because of the amount of water in it that then seeps into wood. It is also extremely corrosive, and will evaporate to where it can cause damage to the skin, lungs and eyes.

If you have insurance or can afford it, do use a professional remediation team for mold removal, Hellyer says.

Hellyer is unequivocal about this. “I can’t recommend strongly enough to get a professional mediation company to do the dry-out,” he said. It’s one of the most important parts of the process. Moisture level in the frames of your house needs to be below 17 percent. After a flood, those levels can be as high as 50 percent, Hellyer said. The house just can’t air out, especially in a city as humid as Houston. Dehumidifiers and air removers will be brought in to prevent water from wrecking your home.

If it's done incorrectly, you might have to cut back into your walls.

Don’t hire a contractor without doing your due diligence, Woods and Hellyer say.

This is the one area Woods called the “No. 1 hazard” for homeowners. While there are many good contractors out there, there are just as many “folks in the streets in their pickup trucks trying to take people’s money,” he said.

There is a host of resources to learn more about your potential contractor. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau offer good insight, as do trade agencies. On the Greater Houston Builders Association website, contractors are listed with certificates of expertise. You can also ask potential contractors how long they’ve been in business and if they have a physical office in Houston, to expose potential scammers.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office also released a list of steps to take to avoid being defrauded, like asking for referrals, getting multiple estimates beforehand and copying the license plate of the contractor. The office warned never to hand an insurer’s check directly to a contractor before work is done. Woods said you may have to place a small down payment, but don’t pay for the service until you’re satisfied.

It's bad enough your house has been flooded; you don't want to be victimized again by a bad contractor,” said Hellyer.

If you do decide to sell, “don’t hold out for price,” Spitz says.

It’s a lot to ask, but “you have to separate yourself from the emotion,” Spitz said. The sooner you decide to sell the house, the more you will likely receive in return. Spitz said he remembers that after the Memorial Day floods devastated Meyerland in 2015, homeowners who waited six months to sell received about $50,000 less than their neighbors who sold early. Already, Spitz has contracted eight houses on a single street in Bear Creek. Understand there is a surge in supply and “you’re handing off a big problem,” he said. The return likely will not be as much as you want.

As with contractors, do your research before settling on an investor. Be wary of out-of-towners, Spitz said. The day after floods started, he received calls about investors going door to door in certain neighborhoods. Check the seller’s website, his credentials and ask how many flooded houses he’s bought. If the number seems too high, it is okay to question how well they can remodel all the homes.

For those without flood insurance, do check out these options.

There are some options for those without flood insurance, which could be as high as 80 percent of Houston homeowners. FEMA offers quick disaster grants ranging from $5,000 to $30,000. For longer-term fixes, the U.S. Small Business Administration might be your best option. Despite the name, the agency is actually the federal government’s arm to hand out low-interest loans for homeowners seeking disaster relief. Homeowners can borrow up to $200,000 at interest rates as low as 1.75 percent – or about half the typical mortgage or college loan. Renters can also borrow as much as $40,000. As of Thursday afternoon, the small business agency had handed out $172 million in disaster loans to Texans.
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Joseph Fanelli is a reporting fellow at the Houston Press with an interest in education, crime and eccentric people everywhere.