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Disaster-proof your home cost-effectively

You can't avoid natural disasters. They choose where to hit, and you don't have any say in the matter.

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Almost the entire country is vulnerable to some type of natural disaster -- tropical storms on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, wildfires and earthquakes on the West coast, hail and tornadoes in a wide swath of the nation's middle, flooding in the lowlands and landslides in the hills.

You can blunt the brunt of Mother Nature by securing your property against her wrath. Some disaster-proofing projects are cheap and easy; others are expensive and complex. Should you tackle costly projects? Figuring out what's affordable and cost-effective requires sleuthing, some math, and a dose of soul searching.

Questions to ask
The financial stakes are high because homeowners generally have to pay out of pocket, borrow from their homes' equity or turn to credit cards to pay for safety improvements. Government aid, in the rare places where it exists (chiefly, earthquake country) is often indirect -- waived permit fees, rebates on property taxes. When you're deciding whether to spend the money to retrofit your home to weather a disaster, here are some questions to ask:

  • Will my insurance premiums be reduced?
  • Will the upgrade increase the value of my home?
  • How much am I willing to pay for peace of mind before a disaster, and for convenience afterward?
  • You can get a definite answer to the first question, and you have to rely on estimates for the second and gut instincts for the third.

    Would hurricane shutters (or hail-resistant roof shingles, or an earthquake retrofit, or wildfire-resistant landscaping) reduce insurance bills? Ask your insurance company.

    The answers might not be as straightforward as you would hope. Take hurricane shutters, for example. In hurricane-prone places, windstorm insurance is a separate policy, on top of the regular homeowners insurance. (The same goes for insurance against earthquakes and floods from rising water.) By installing hurricane shutters, you might secure a discount on the windstorm policy, but not on the regular homeowners insurance policy.

    That's how it works in Florida, where four hurricanes raked the state last year. The jaw-dropping series of windstorms provoked a lot of inquiries with insurance companies from homeowners who suddenly saw the benefit of having hurricane shutters.

    Big insurance savings
    "Some of the breaks can be fairly substantial in terms of discounts on your windstorm premiums here in Florida," says Ryan Priest, a spokesman for Allstate Floridian. The company offers discounts of 5 percent to 42 percent off windstorm coverage, depending on everything from what type of shutters are used, whether glass-block windows and skylights are protected, which design code the house was built under, and even what type of roof is on the house. (Hip roofs are preferred over gable roofs.)

    In other words, it's complicated, and when you talk to the insurance agent and any contractors, you have to be thorough and specific about the materials to be used and work that you want done. Once the project is complete, you might have to show the insurance agent receipts, a certificate of occupancy (to show whether it was built under newer, stricter design codes), and photos. You might have to hire an independent inspector to certify, for example, that you have a metal roof deck.

    Next: "Some projects pay for themselves quickly."
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