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First-time homebuyer learns tough lesson about FEMA rules

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SNOQUALMIE - A wind storm, a tree and a house in the floodway have some people in the Valley learning about federal flood regulations the hard way.

Will Salmonson's house at 7880 Railroad Ave. has been abandoned and will likely remain so after it received the dubious honor of being the first house in Snoqualmie to fall under a existing city code that prohibits residences in the floodway from being rebuilt if they sustain a certain amount of damage.

Snoqualmie has flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which requires the city not allow a home in the floodway to be rebuilt if the cost of repairing it is above 50 percent of its fair market value. If the damage is flood related, that limit drops down to more than 10 percent. Houses in the floodplain that sustain damage can be rebuilt, but need to be raised. Moreover, FEMA audits repairs done in the floodway every five years.

"We do this to protect our insurance rates," said City of Snoqualmie Building Official Jim Tinner. "If we don't have excellent paper work, we could lose our flood insurance or the rates would go up."

Salmonson said he was unaware of the city code when he bought his house in 2001, so he didn't think twice about calling his insurance company on Dec. 4, 2003, after a fierce wind storm caused a tree to fall on his house, sending a large branch through his living room ceiling. After the insurance company sent out someone to appraise the damage, it contacted McBride Construction and asked them to get to work as fast as they could on Salmonson's house. An engineering report was done and McBride quoted a price of $13,500 for the structural repairs to the house. When Charles Sharpe, the owner of McBride Construction, applied for the work permit, he asked the city if it was all right that he was only including the structural costs in the bid, as opposed to cosmetic costs (paint, carpet, etc.). Sharpe said the city said it was all right and a building permit was issued on Jan. 14.

Sub contractors worked on the building off and on for about a month and started to find that there was more damage done to the house than originally thought, according to Sharpe. Right around that time, Tinner happened to pass by the house and was surprised to see construction activity. He imagined the repair was approaching the more than 50-percent limit and stopped to ask the crew if it had a work permit. The crew produced its permit, but Tinner asked them to have their supervisor call him.

Tinner was called a short time later and told the bid was $13,500. Tinner asked what the overall repairs would be, including some of those Sharpe considered cosmetic, and was told $40,000, more than half the appraised value of the structure. A stop work order was issued shortly after on Feb. 25.

That was the first time Sharpe and Salmonson said they heard about the FEMA regulation. While Salmonson has the necessary flood insurance for his house, he said he never heard anything about the building regulation from the city, his real estate agent or anybody else.

Tinner said, however, he told Salmonson about the regulation either the day of or the day after the wind storm when he did a walk-through with Salmonson. He said the city is always happy to help those with questions about their house, but said people rarely think about a particular building code until they have to deal with it directly.

"Why would you care about the city regulations for re-roofing unless you were re-roofing?" he said.

Many cities don't think about it either. Tinner said he has been talking with Eastside municipalities like Kirkland and Bellevue that have residents in flood areas, but which have never dealt with a major flood that could ruin many homes.

"North Bend and Snoqualmie are way ahead of the curve [in dealing with flood and property issues]," Tinner said.

Salmonson has been trying to salvage whatever money he can from his house, but doesn't have high hopes. Bringing in lawyers would only mean more money. Salmonson said his insurance company is trying to get another appraisal and that he will probably end up just collecting his insurance on the house. Salmonson can sell the land, but only for light commercial use, not for another house.

Sharpe said he is going to bid on the house again, this time for demolition.

"I don't hold anything against the city," he said. "It was a miscommunication."

Salmonson bought the house (and land) in 2001 for $164,000. He had planned to live in it and rent it out before last December. Since the wind storm, he has been staying with a friend and paying the mortgage.

"I got a mortgage, but no house," he said.

As for buying a new home, Salmonson said he can't find anything in the Valley for less than $200,000. The whole experience has soured his desire to stay in his hometown. He is thinking about moving to Seattle to be closer to his job, but he admits to a bit of bitterness over having to leave the Valley.

"I grew up here and went to high school here," Salmonson said. "Now, I just want to get out."

* Anyone with questions about their property is invited to call the Snoqualmie Building Department at (425) 888-5435.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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