First Person: The Disaster Resistant House

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As Hurricane Sandy recently taught us, investing in a disaster resistant home can help protect owners. Within our neighborhood, some homes withstood the effects of this hurricane much better than others. I believe these are the homes that would maintain their market value over time. While I am not talking Kevlar coated homes that retract into the ground, or levitating homes from Japan, here is what I believe are the hallmarks of a disaster resistant home that I would be looking for when I choose my next home.

Grade and Elevation

It makes sense to buy a home that is not at the lowest point in a neighborhood that is prone to flooding. Although it is not good Feng Shui, a home on a top of a high point with a yard that slopes away from it theoretically should be less prone to water damage. So, it makes sense to avoid a home where the yard slopes down towards it, unless there is a ditch drawing the runoff away from the house. For flood insurance purposes, having an elevated structure is key, which means a building that is raised with even one step is preferable to one that is the same level as the sidewalk.

Building Materials

Generally, a stone, brick or steel and concrete structure would be more disaster resistant than a frame house. Roof choices vary geographically, since some areas can be prone to heat damage, while another area is susceptible to tornadoes. It makes sense to do research and ask the home inspector not just the condition and useful life of the roof, but also how it would hold up against perils (e.g. "Is it rated for high winds?")

Natural Gas

During Hurricane Sandy, my home was without power for seven days. We were extremely lucky to have a natural gas oven, which was operable once we sparked it. Since power failure can accompany many types of disasters, a house that is electric only makes cooking difficult, since weather may not permit fire grilling. In cases such as flooding in basements, a heating oil tank can also become a hazard and significant financial liability.

Trees

Although there are advantages to having trees and shrubs around the house, from a disaster stand-point, trees can cause problems. During hurricanes and snowstorms, trees can fall on roofs, causing damage that is not fully covered by insurance. They can fall on power lines and cause outages and electrocution risk. Trees can harbor pests and cause fungus and lichens to grow on the home when there is excessive shade. Fallen leaves block gutters, which can become heavy and fall during heavy rain or home. Tree roots can damage foundations and make basements more prone to flooding.

Insulation

Insulation does not only refer to high quality materials behind the walls, but also physical barriers such as storm doors, mesh screens and window shutters. For new construction, wall insulation details are available in the offering documents. A good insulation can help protect against disasters such as snowstorms or wild fires, which cause the outside weather conditions to become extreme. A good insulation also pays off during non-disaster times by helping keep utility costs low.

Basement

Although basements are great for additional living or storage space, most flood insurance policies exclude basement coverage, except for structural elements like heating equipment. For most homeowners, basements can be the pesky source of water related problems, including mold. A house with storage above ground level, say a mezzanine or attic, may be more disaster resistant than one with a basement.

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