Is Your Home Ready for Climate Change?

Hurricane Harvey Slams Into Texas Gulf Coast
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Hurricane Harvey wasn’t even a blip on the radar when Houston, Texas resident Jason Rinaldo went shopping for a home last year. Still, climate change was on his mind as he carefully steered clear of flood zones. “I grew up in Houston, and I knew it tends to be flood-prone [since it’s] built on a swamp,” says Rinaldo. “I looked at a number of places before going to contract, checking where they were in relation to rivers, bayous and designated floodplains.”

Rinaldo is one of the lucky—some might say smart—ones, and his home came out of the devastation of Harvey damage-free. Tens of thousands of other Houstonians, not to mention victims of Irma and Maria, haven’t been so lucky. The devastation of this year’s hurricanes has cast a new light on extreme weather and how properties and home values could be impacted in various parts of the country. But what if you already own your home, and can’t (or don’t want to) move? How can you protect yourself?

Know the trends: Not more storms, but more powerful ones.

“A changing climate exacerbates the extremes we already experience today,” says Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. In the Northeast, that could mean heavier rainfall and snowfall. In the West, it means longer droughts. And on the coasts, it means powerful storms like Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Hayhoe notes that climate change doesn’t actually mean more storms, but those storms which do occur will likely be more devastating.

 There are a few reasons for this. First, in a warmer world, more rainfall is associated with a hurricane than we would have seen 50-100 years ago. Second, as sea levels rise, storm surges are stronger because there’s more water behind them, resulting in larger areas of flooding. Third, warmer oceans don’t help: “If a hurricane passes over warmer oceans, that’s when it intensifies rapidly,” she says.

 

Do a risk assessment.

Whether you’re on the market or have planted roots, ask yourself: Is your home in an at-risk area? Do you live in a flood zone or seismic zone? Are you in tornado alley, or in a drought-prone area susceptible to wild fires? You can check The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) site to gauge your exposure to flood and seismic zones and tornado frequency—and the National Park Service’s site for wild fires.

Still, even after doing an assessment, you may still find yourself accepting the risks as a trade-off for living in an otherwise-desirable area. “You can go down to the New Jersey Shore, where people have had homes wiped off barrier islands, and ask them how they feel,” says Keith Gumbinger, vice president of mortgage news site HSH.com. “Some might say, ‘I love it, I don’t care,’ and others would say, ‘You couldn’t pay me enough to live here.’” 

Make sure you buy the appropriate types and amounts of insurance.

Insurance is the key to mitigating your risk, but you have to have both the right types of coverage and the right amounts. Your standard homeowner’s policy will cover damages from fire, wind and some water. Flooding? Not so much, and therein lies the problem.

The majority of homes (roughly 80 percent) in Houston lacked flood insurance when Harvey hit, because flood insurance isn’t included in the homeowner’s insurance policies they bought when they took out their mortgages. And despite Houston’s general propensity for flooding, these homes weren’t located in high-risk areas where flood insurance was a requirement.

You can purchase flood insurance if you live in a moderate- or low-risk area, but it’s optional. Bob Hunter, Director of Insurance for the Consumer Federation of America says research shows people don’t buy low-frequency, high-severity insurances, because they think it’ll never apply to them. They may also reason that if it does, “[the storm] is going to be so big that everyone will have damage, and the government will take care of it.” Additionally, he says, some flood maps are outdated which gives people a false sense of security.

 Confirm the age of the map you’re looking at, then consider where the floodplain actually is, how high it is and where your first floor hits comparatively. If you’re one or two feet above, Hunter suggests buying insurance; ten feet above, you can pass.

It’s also important to make sure you have enough, says Loretta Worters, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute. Federal flood policies cap at $350,000 ($250,000 for your home, and $100,000 for its contents); the average premium for a yearly policy is around $700. If your home is going to cost more than $250,000 to rebuild, then Worters say you need excess flood insurance, which you can buy through private insurers. Finally, she notes that once you pay your mortgage off, flood coverage can fall through the cracks. Don’t let it.

Consider weather-proofing your home.

Factoring weather into your home’s design and maintenance can help mitigate risks, as well. “People in communities that take greater efforts to safeguard their homes have faster recoveries when rebuilding,” says Worters. She adds that, as a plus, “Your [insurance] rates aren’t going to go up as much compared to the community that doesn’t.” 

Your roof is the first line of defense against Mother Nature, especially for hurricanes and blizzards, says Julie Rochman, president and CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. Have a professional look for missing or cracked tiles and shingles, and missing connections on panels. And if you’re re-roofing, seal the roof deck. Having a Class A roof (the best rating) is important for fire avoidance, too, because what destroys homes are often burning embers blown from a mile or more away that land on the roof. In hurricane-prone and tornado-prone areas, impact- and pressure-weighted windows and doors (including the garage door) are also important. And don’t forget about what’s surrounding your house, either: When wind or floods hit, those trees could fall and hit your house.

Look for other ways to save.

Finally, no matter where you live, Hayhoe recommends getting an energy audit of your home so that the changing climate doesn’t hit your wallet so much. An energy audit includes checking for leaks, assessing insulation, inspecting furnace and ductwork, gauging airtightness and more. “Looking 10 years into the future, it will be more affordable to have a home generating its own energy,” she says.

With Kelly Hultgren