Will a river run through it?

Following Flood Action week, homeowners are being offered Government advice on how to cope. But how can househunters assess the flood risk of a new property before buying it?
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The torrential rain of the past week and pictures of homes under water is a sharp reminder of the misery it causes. For some a flood is a rare combination of factors, while others must live with the knowledge that it could happen at any time.

The torrential rain of the past week and pictures of homes under water is a sharp reminder of the misery it causes. For some a flood is a rare combination of factors, while others must live with the knowledge that it could happen at any time.

The Environmental Agency, the Government body charged with responsibility for flood protection, regards 1.8 million homes to be at risk. Since the widespread flooding in 1998, it has made information far more accessible, setting up a network of wardens and issuing coded warnings with clear instructions as to what action people should be taking.

In Banbury, Oxfordshire, Carole Mawle became a warden after her bungalow filled with water in a matter of hours over Easter two years ago. She and her husband Andrew woke to barking dogs and a few inches of water in the conservatory. "It wasn't raining but we could see the water rising up towards the kitchen door which we blocked with towels. What we didn't realise was that it was already pouring through the cavities in the wall and into the airholes. It came up in the centre of the house and spread until it reached the level of the water outside.

"We just had time to turn off the electricity, put a few things on the bed and leave. The water was freezing outside and much deeper. We waded down the road with enormous difficulty, pulled by the dogs who had to swim,'' recalls Carole.

The next morning they returned on rafts to see the damage. The level of water had fallen, leaving behind a smelly brown layer of gunge, much of it sewage. "It was in the bungalow for one day, but it was six months before we could return. It took four months to dry out. In some ways it was more depressing for our neighbours in houses. They had to move themselves upstairs while work went on and the psychological effects were worse. They couldn't get the smell out of their nostrils and often had sore throats."

The Mawle's home was a good half mile from the river Cherwell and they had no idea they were at risk. On that night, a culvert designed to drain into the river, backfilled causing the flooding. The finger of suspicion pointed at a development being built on a flood plain behind their property. "The houses had to be built at a higher level, and they were all right, but their rain water ran into the ditch at the back of our houses,'' explains Carole Mawle.

Building on flood plains is a major concern for the Environmental Agency, which has to be consulted in the planning process. Local authorities must weigh up the risk of allowing these natural defences to be developed with all its insurance implications and potential for causing distress against the need for more residential or commercial building.

A spokesman for the agency said that people did not always know that they were buying property on a flood plain. "Yet changes in the weather means that over a period of time a one-in-100-year flood, will become a one-in-20 or one-in-10.''

Creeping development in places such as Pevensey Bay in east Sussex which suffered from flooding last Christmas and where 2,000 homes are largely below sea level and in Maidenhead, Berkshire has increased the numbers of those at risk. In Maidenhead, where 2,300 properties fall into the danger zone, as compared to 800 in the early 1950s, and which has the highest number of at-risk properties on any stretch of river of similar length, a £78-million flood alleviation channel is being built. At the local branch of Hamptons International they say that very few will refuse to buy in such an area, and that house prices are not affected.

In older houses or cottages where flooding is a regular event, it is reflected in the cost of the property. "It is a price people are prepared to pay to live in a lovely spot " says Nick Tart, who runs estate agencies in Bridgenorth and Ironbridge, close to the river Severn in Shropshire. "Even in areas where ground movement and risk of flooding make it impossible to get mortgages or insurance, there are always keen buyers and information is readily available from Severn Trent."

This was not passed on to Graham Andrews, though, when he bought his house nearly 10 years ago in Egginton, Derbyshire, despite inquiries from his solicitor. Two months later, over Christmas, he and his family found themselves under three feet of water. "It was a horrendous time and what followed was a court case which took seven years, and cost me my health and my family. The land around me is flooded once or twice a year and every time it rains heavily I dread looking out. We now have flood walls around the house and a ramped driveway, but two years ago it even breached those defences."

An out-of-court settlement was reached between Mr Andrews, the river authority and his building society after it was shown that his house was included on an official list of properties at risk from flooding.

"The money didn't compensate for the distress and heartbreak. I would advise anyone who is tempted by a house like mine, which is heaven in the summer, to watch out for certain signs. As well as getting surveyors reports, look out for flood defences, willow trees, large culverts and roads raised above ground level," says Mr Andrews, who relies heavily on the Environmental Agency for information and is himself a flood warden.

His only worry about the comprehensive information available about flood areas is how the insurance companies may use it. At the Association of British Insurers, Vic Rance says that where there is a history of flooding, there might be difficulties in getting cover. "But this will vary with each case. It might simply mean an increase in the excess. There are those who object to defences being built because it would spoil their view. That is their choice but it could leave them without cover."

But there are those floods which come out of the blue. Linda Beaney, of Beaney Pearce, the London estate agents, recalls that it was only two years ago when every basement between the Embankment and Knightsbridge was flooded. "We had four feet of water and although it was a freak combination of factors the fact is London is sinking and the water table is rising. Properties along the Thames that are regularly flooded would be devalued by 30 to 40 per cent. Anyone buying a house with a basement in a risky area should not just rely on what the vendor tells them."

The Environmental Agency floodline (www.environment-agency.gov.uk; 0845 9881188) will shortly be providing information by postcode