How to Disaster-Proof Your Home
Natural disasters are going to happen. Take steps to prepare—and see if you can get help with the costs.
You can reduce the risk of costly damages by strengthening your home against the destructive forces most likely to affect your area of the country. By doing so, you’ll increase the likelihood that your home will survive the worst that nature throws at it. And depending on your state, municipality and insurer, you may qualify for grants or insurance-premium discounts to offset part of the cost.
Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30. For the 2021 season, NOAA predicts a 60% chance of an above-normal season, a 30% chance of a near-normal season, and a 10% chance of a below-normal season. 2020 saw 14 hurricanes, seven of which were rated "major" with top winds of 111 mph or greater.
To protect your home from hurricanes, you need to seal all openings from wind and rain. “When there’s an opening, the wind enters and acts as a balloon, pushing and pulling so the building comes apart,” says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS).
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The best time to add protection to an existing home is when you replace the roof. A few inexpensive upgrades can make a big difference. The IBHS’s Fortified standards (which earn a discount from many insurers) focus on three layers of protection for the roof. The bottom layer—the plywood roof deck—is held on by special “ring shank” nails. The next layer seals the roof deck with a membrane or special tape. Properly sealed storm-resistant shingles form the top layer. Installing flashing anywhere the roof changes slope also helps.
Even if you aren’t replacing the roof, you can add roof straps, metal connectors or retrofit clips in your attic. “That can provide extraordinary uplift protection,” says Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes
It’s also important to seal and reinforce your windows and doors. You can protect your windows with storm shutters, 5/8-inch plywood or thick plastic shields. Or you can install replacement windows with impact-resistant glass. “Every opening on your home needs to have one of those levels of protection,” says Scott Koedel, CEO of Don Meyler Inspections, which conducts windstorm mitigation inspections in Florida.
Look for wind-rated and impact-tested doors, and be particularly careful with your garage door, which is often the largest and weakest opening. Even if you aren’t replacing the garage door, you can buy a kit to brace it. Also check all exterior door frames to make sure the screws are tight and the deadbolt reaches all the way into the door frame.
Help with the costs. You may get an insurance discount or state grant for wind-mitigation improvements.
In Florida, where discounts are mandated for certain improvements, home insurance premiums can vary by 400% depending on the windstorm protections, says Chris Heidrick, an independent insurance agent in Sanibel, Fla. He recommends paying about $100 to $250 for a windstorm inspection to find out what you can do to protect your home and get a discount, even if you don’t live near the coast.
In other states, the discounts vary by insurer. Chubb clients in some areas can save up to 50% off their home insurance premiums by installing wind-mitigation features, such as storm shutters, wind-resistant roofs and tie-downs, and a permanent home generator. In some states, USAA, Farmers and Travelers offer discounts for homes that meet the IBHS Fortified standards or for adding certain features, such as storm shutters.
Some states have grant programs to help cover wind-mitigation costs. For example, Alabama and South Carolina provide grants to strengthen roofs in some areas. Ask your state insurance department or emergency management agency about programs.
Tornadoes and hail
Severe thunderstorms associated with tornadoes, hail and high winds occur in all 50 states, but they’re most common east of the Rockies. Even when the most intense tornadoes strike, the area of strongest winds and greatest damage is typically highly localized. If your home is to the side of the tornado’s path, the same techniques used in hurricane-prone regions will help your home survive. For instance, making sure that the roof is strongly connected to the walls, and the walls to the foundation, will help keep the building intact. When replacing existing windows or patio doors, install ones with impact-resistant glass.
In the event of a direct hit, a safe room saves lives. Check with your state’s office of emergency management regarding rebates for adding a storm shelter. For example, in Oklahoma, homeowners (chosen by lottery) will be reimbursed for up to 75% of their cost, up to a limit of $2,000. Insurers in Oklahoma must provide a premium discount or rate reduction to homeowners whose homes meet the Fortified standard for high wind and hail.
To protect against hail, your best defense is an impact-resistant roof. Hail can dent and tear roof coverings, which can lead to water damage inside your home. When you reshingle your roof, ask the roofing contractor to remove the old shingles and underlayment, replace damaged sections of the roof deck, re-nail the deck to the roof framing, seal the seams, and apply new underlayment.
Spring for an impact-resistant (IR) roofing material rated Class 3 or 4 by Underwriters Laboratories. (Most slate, metal and tile products also meet that standard.) The price per bundle will run $40 to $80, compared with $15 to $30 for a basic asphalt shingle. A Class 4 roof may last 30 years. Your insurer is likely to give you a discount on your premium. For example, in 26 states, State Farm offers a discount of up to 35% to owners with qualifying roofs.
While California waits for the big one, other parts of the country are at risk, too, including states adjacent to the Mississippi, Ohio and Wabash river valleys in the central U.S., as well as Charleston, S.C., and areas of Oklahoma and Pennsylvania where there is oil and gas drilling.
How well your home holds up in an earthquake will be partly determined by when it was built and the building codes at the time. Wood-frame homes built before the mid 1970s may have a short “cripple” wall between the foundation and the floor of the house, creating a crawl space. During an earthquake, cripple walls can collapse.The most common earthquake retrofit braces the cripple walls with plywood and bolts the house to its foundation. Even a house without cripple walls may benefit from bolting. Check with your city to see if it has a standard retrofit plan ready for permitting. Look for a licensed, insured contractor with seismic retrofit training from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The California Earthquake Authority, which provides earthquake insurance for Californians, says a brace-and-bolt retrofit typically costs between $3,000 and $7,000. In certain high-risk zip codes, the CEA offers a rebate of up to $3,000 to homeowners who have completed the retrofit.
In certain situations (for example, if your home is built on a hillside, has living space over a garage or has unreinforced masonry), a seismic retrofit will require an engineered plan and will cost tens of thousands of dollars. In that case, earthquake insurance may be the most cost-effective way to protect yourself from financial devastation, says Janiele Maffei, chief mitigation officer with the CEA.
Homeowners insurance doesn’t cover earthquake damage, but a standard policy covers fire and the cost to live elsewhere temporarily. Although retrofitting increases the odds that your home will survive an earthquake, there are no guarantees. If you can’t afford to cover the loss of your home and belongings out of pocket, it pays to have earthquake insurance, which you can buy as an endorsement to your homeowners policy or as a separate policy. The cost varies depending on the risk.
Californians can get CEA earthquake coverage to replace the structure (with deductibles of 5% to 25%) and up to $200,000 for belongings. Policyholders who own houses built before 1979 can qualify for a premium discount of 5% to 20% for a properly retrofitted home. (For other ways to protect people and property, visit disastersafety.org/earthquake.)
At least one-third of homes in the U.S. sit in a “wildland-urban interface,” where development meets a natural environment and wildfire is a serious risk, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The first step in protecting your home is to create a “defensible space” around your house so a wildfire can’t reach it, says Steve Quarles, the chief scientist for wildfire and durability at IBHS. That means managing plants and trees so they’re less likely to ignite or, if they do, so the flames won’t reach your home or burn hot enough to ignite siding or break the glass in the windows. Within 5 feet of your home and under an attached deck, replace bark mulch with gravel or brick or concrete features.
Next, make your house resistant to windblown embers. For the best protection, your roof should have a covering rated Class A—commonly, composition shingles made of asphalt and fiberglass, or a covering made of steel or copper, or tiles made of concrete or clay. If you have a wood-shake roof but no documentation that it is treated with fire retardant or has an underlying fire-barrier material, replace it. Block the open ends of clay-barrel tile, and protect the edge of the roof with noncombustible gutter covers and a metal drip edge.
Embers that enter the house through attic and eave vents can start fires that will likely “take the house to the ground,” says Quarles. Cover vents with metal mesh that has openings no bigger than an eighth of an inch.
If nearby neighbors haven’t taken the same precautions, your home is still at risk. In that case, it’s important to invest in more-expensive projects, such as replacing siding with a noncombustible material, such as stucco or fiber cement, and replacing older windows with dual-paned windows, one of which is made of tempered glass. (Choose a regional guide at disastersafety.org/ibhs/ibhs-regional-wildfire-guides.)
USAA offers about a 5% discount to members in seven states who live in a Firewise community. Some 1,740 communities participate in the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA program, which encourages neighbors to work together to prevent losses. Find participating communities with their interactive map.
Contact your local fire department to see if it will inspect your property for fire resistance. If your home is insured by AIG’s Private Client Group, Chubb, PURE or USAA, you may be eligible to enroll in a wildfire defense program at no cost. Available mostly in western states, these programs provide at-home consultations, monitoring and last-minute preparations.
As the "Ask Kim" columnist for Kiplinger's Personal Finance, Lankford receives hundreds of personal finance questions from readers every month. She is the author of Rescue Your Financial Life (McGraw-Hill, 2003), The Insurance Maze: How You Can Save Money on Insurance -- and Still Get the Coverage You Need (Kaplan, 2006), Kiplinger's Ask Kim for Money Smart Solutions (Kaplan, 2007) and The Kiplinger/BBB Personal Finance Guide for Military Families. She is frequently featured as a financial expert on television and radio, including NBC's Today Show, CNN, CNBC and National Public Radio.