Those on the hunt for a new home often have a lengthy list of considerations, including number of bathrooms, size of the backyard, the school district and proximity to work. But there’s another piece that should factor into the decision: a home’s vulnerability to peril.
It’s important to consider the likelihood of the home being struck by a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood, earthquake or wildfire, and how equipped the home is to deal with those risks.
“Too few consumers are empowered to ask simple, upfront questions about disaster-resistant home features that can prevent costly damage and save lives,” says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and chief executive of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), a nonprofit that helps house hunters and homeowners prepare for natural disasters. “The choices you make around your home can make a big difference.”
Darius Grimes, president and chief executive of Disaster-Smart Inspection Consulting in Pensacola, Florida, says he gets calls from homeowners across the country asking what they can do to make their homes more resilient. “If people were more aware of the risks, they would be much less likely to suffer a total loss,” says Grimes, who performs certified fortified-home evaluations to ensure a home has been built or reroofed to withstand perilous conditions.
Here are four steps you can take to assess your risk and better protect your home against disaster.
Step 1: Tap into available resources
Start by going to flash.org. From the drop-down menu, choose your state and look at the top threats in your area. Based on your ZIP code, you should be able to find the area’s disaster history. People living in the Pacific Northwest are well aware of earthquake risk, but the property may also be prone to flooding, fires or tsunamis.
FLASH recently published the “Buyer’s Guide to Resilient Homes,” a free tool that provides a framework for determining the best way to protect your home. It offers resilience and disaster-preparedness checklists to include in your home-search process, questions to ask your real estate agent and steps for making your home disaster-resilient.
There are resources beyond FLASH, too. The site disastersafety.org offers recommendations (both DIY and those that require a pro) to help home and business owners protect their properties. Suggestions include cleaning out gutters and rainspouts annually and moving valuables out of basements and crawl spaces.
Real estate or insurance agents should be able to ascertain any loss history or, at minimum, ask sellers about their experiences. By looking up the building code for the time your home was constructed at inspecttoprotect.org, you can locate your community’s disaster history, find out whether the code under which your home was built complies with current standards, and see recommended retrofits and upgrades.
If you live in a wildfire zone, ask your local fire department to help you find an inspector to assess your risk. And realtor.com lets you check neighborhoods (use the map view) for flood zones.
Step 2: Review your home checklist
Once you understand potential risks to your home, use the “Buyer’s Guide to Resilient Homes” to generate a list of questions and checklists, which you can give to your real estate agent or an inspector. (This can also help you assess the home you own.)
For example, if you are in a flood zone (or even on the fringe of one), you can ask if the home is elevated above ground level or if the foundation is equipped with flood vents that allow water to enter and exit the structure at the same rate to mitigate damage.
“We give people questions to ask on the front end, then things to do — a recipe for things they can tackle,” Chapman-Henderson says. Don’t reroof your house until you need to, for example, but when the time comes, the list will give you an idea of mitigations you could incorporate.
Step 3: Get a specialized inspection
“You get what you inspect, not what you expect,” Grimes says. Buyer and seller inspections are routine before the completion of a sale, but they typically don’t assess the risk of a natural disaster.
Talk to your insurance agent to learn what they consider a risk, and if the home is in a high-risk area, look for an inspector who specializes in peril. Existing homeowners may opt for a fortified-home evaluation that assesses what your home has in place to withstand a storm and what improvements can be implemented to increase its resilience. Grimes says this is a new (but growing) field, so you may have to hunt for a specialist.
Your best bet is to ask your insurance agent for a recommendation. If they don’t have one, look to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, which administers the Fortified Home program. It maintains a membership list of insurers who may also be able to provide names of specialists in your area. Expect to spend $500 to $1,000 for the evaluation and a subsequent list of recommendations, Grimes says.
Step 4: Take appropriate steps
Once you know what you are up against, there are plenty of affordable mitigation strategies. Here’s a sampling:
Hurricanes: One of Chapman-Henderson’s favorite tips is to caulk and brace roof ventilation soffit vents to reduce the amount of water blown into your attic during hurricane-force winds and rain. Trim any trees in your yard that could pose a hazard to your home during high winds.
Floods: Replace older foundation vents with engineered hydrostatic vents (flood vents). According to Mike Graham, chief executive of floodproofing.com, they cost about $200 each, plus installation. Ensure that your sump pumps are working and that their batteries are fully charged. Elevate or flood-proof your furnace and/or air-conditioning system. A contractor can move it to an upper floor or construct a wall around it.
Thunderstorms: The website disastersafety.org recommends getting a lightning surge protector to safeguard electrical equipment, especially computers and valuable electronic devices. If you live in a hail-prone area, install screens around your air-conditioning unit to protect the fins from damage, the site recommends.
Wildfires: Create a 5-foot minimum buffer around your home that’s free from yard debris and dead plants, disastersafety.org suggests. And simply covering attic vents and chimneys with wire mesh or installing noncombustible metal leaf guards over gutters can reduce the chances of wildfire embers entering your home or igniting debris, Chapman-Henderson says.