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Floods. Wildfires. Deadly heat. Rising seas. In the face of scary climate news, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. After all, extreme weather threatens one of your biggest assets — your home. But there are steps you can take to protect your house, your family and your finances from climate change.
1. Evaluate your risk
The best place to start is by getting a realistic picture of how likely your home is to experience a natural disaster.
For a broad overview, check the National Risk Index from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The site shows the likelihood of events such as hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and coastal flooding at a county or census tract level.
To gauge your home’s individual risk, try riskfactor.com, a tool from the nonprofit First Street Foundation. Plug in your address to see your home’s chances of flooding, wildfires, strong wind or extreme heat over the next 30 years, along with recommended solutions.
Local government agencies can also help you evaluate your property’s hazards. For example, the nearest fire department or forestry agency may be able to assess your property’s wildfire risk, says Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire research and policy analyst at Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group.
Local governments may have elevation certificates and other information about a property’s chance of flooding, says Susanna Pho, co-founder of Forerunner, a provider of flood resilience software.
An elevation certificate is a document that lists a building’s lowest elevation point and flood zone as determined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Planning a move? Look beyond curb appeal when evaluating potential homes, says Aris Papadopoulos, a resilience expert at Florida International University’s Extreme Events Institute. In the face of climate change, homeowners “need to prioritize the resilience of the house a lot more than they ever did before,” he says.
For example, you may want to ask how old the roof is and whether the home has ever been damaged by a disaster. (In some states, sellers must disclose their home’s flood history.)
Consider the elevation of the home, too. If it’s less than 15 feet above a coastline, river bank or even a dry creek bed, it could be at risk of flooding, Papadopoulos says.
You can check the websites listed above to evaluate a potential home’s risk before you put in an offer. You may also want to consult the Buyer’s Guide to Resilient Homes from the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes.
2. Buy the right insurance coverage
Once you know which disasters pose the biggest risk to your home, check your insurance policy to make sure you have the coverage you need.
What’s covered (and what’s not)
Most homeowners insurance covers fire and wind damage but won’t pay for claims related to external flooding sources like heavy rain or overflowing rivers. If your home is at risk, you’ll need to buy flood insurance separately.
Although scientists aren’t sure whether climate change influences earthquakes, it’s worth noting that homeowners insurance won’t cover earthquake damage either. If you live near an active fault, you may want to consider earthquake insurance.
Keep in mind that a separate deductible may apply for certain types of disaster claims. (A homeowners insurance deductible is the amount of a claim you’re responsible for.)
For instance, you may have a $1,000 deductible for most claims and a 2% deductible for hurricane claims. The percentage is based on your dwelling coverage limit. So if your house has $300,000 worth of dwelling coverage, your deductible for a hurricane claim would be $6,000.
Choose the right coverage limits
Imagine your home burns down in a wildfire, and it costs $400,000 to rebuild. If your policy has only $350,000 of dwelling coverage, you’ll have to pay the extra $50,000 yourself. That’s why it’s so important to choose coverage limits that are adequate for your home.
Dwelling coverage is the part of a homeowners policy that pays to rebuild or repair the structure of your home.
Your dwelling coverage limit should reflect the reconstruction price of your home — not the price you paid for it or what you could sell it for today.
Although insurance companies have calculators that can help you choose the right amount, you may also want to speak with a licensed contractor in your area, says Dori Einhorn, the owner of Einhorn Insurance Agency in San Diego, which specializes in homeowners insurance for areas at high risk of wildfire.
She recommends asking, “If I have to rebuild my house from soup to nuts, what am I looking at? How much is that going to be?”
You can then compare that estimate with the dwelling coverage limit your insurance agent suggests. “If your agent comes back with a figure that’s drastically different,” Einhorn says, “that's a good indication that they don’t know what’s up.”
You’ll also want to check the limit on your personal property coverage, which pays for damage to furniture, electronics and other belongings. The best way to gauge how much your stuff is worth is to take a home inventory.
If it’s been a while since you reviewed your coverage limits, take another look to make sure they’ve kept up with inflation. And don’t forget to tell your insurance company about any major renovations you’ve done recently. Things like upgrading your kitchen or building an addition can increase the amount of coverage you need.
Finding coverage in tough markets
In certain high-risk areas such as Florida, Louisiana and California, it’s getting harder to buy affordable insurance. Some homeowners have received non-renewal notices from their insurers and had trouble finding another company to cover them.
If you find yourself in this situation, a good independent insurance agent is often your best resource. They can shop around on your behalf and look for lesser-known companies that may be willing to insure your house. Many states have created "insurers of last resort" to provide policies for people who can't get them anywhere else. An independent agent can help you find your state's last-resort insurer, if it has one.
3. Make your home more resilient
While having insurance can be a vital part of disaster recovery, you can take certain steps to prevent damage in the first place. Some of these changes may earn you a discount on your homeowners policy.
Your plan of action depends on your budget and which disasters are most likely in your area. Below are recommendations to help strengthen your house against three common causes of insurance claims: flooding, wildfires and wind.
“The most fail-proof way to protect against flooding is to elevate your home,” Pho says. But not everyone can afford such an expensive project. To minimize flood damage, you can also:
Elevate appliances such as water heaters, heating and cooling systems, and electrical panels.
Avoid storing valuable items on the lowest level of your home.
Keep your gutters and downspouts clean.
Install a sump pump or other drainage system in your basement.
Use landscaping to channel water away from your home.
Install sewer backfill valves to keep flood water from entering your home through drain pipes.
Anchor fuel tanks to a concrete slab to keep them from washing away.
Add flood vents to let water flow through your basement without compromising the structure of the building.
Wildfires typically don’t engulf your home in a huge wall of flame, according to Barrett. Instead, most homes catch fire due to embers, which are “flying balls of flame that launch themselves a mile ahead of a wildfire front,” she says. If they land on a part of your house that’s flammable, they can ignite a spot fire that destroys your home.
To reduce your home’s wildfire risk, Barrett recommends taking a holistic approach, looking at your entire home and addressing flammable areas one by one.
Start with your roof. Does it have valleys where pine needles or other debris can gather? Clean them out regularly. If you have a wooden roof, can you replace it with a more fire-resistant alternative, such as asphalt or metal?
Even small things can make a difference, Barrett says — like moving firewood away from the house or making sure you don’t leave a wooden broom leaning against an outside wall.
Below are a few other steps you can take to make your home more resistant to fire:
Replace exterior materials with less flammable alternatives such as metal window frames, stucco walls and multi-pane windows.
Design your landscaping to create a defensible space around your home. This includes choosing fire-resistant plants, minimizing the use of mulch, keeping lawns well mowed and clearing debris.
Install fire sprinklers.
Cover vents, chimneys and soffits with fine metal mesh to keep embers out.
Seal gaps in exterior walls with fire-resistant caulk or foam.
Your roof is one of your first lines of defense against a hurricane, tornado or other windstorm.
So when it comes time to get a new one, “I would ask people to look to replace it not just with another roof built to code but to something that's built above code,” says Papadopoulos. “You'll have a stronger roof on your house that in case of a tornado or hurricane is less likely to tear apart. And when you lose that roof, believe me, you lose the whole house.”
Papadopoulos recommends installing a roof that’s up to a standard known as Fortified, developed by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. The Fortified program is a set of building upgrades designed to protect homes and businesses from wind, hail and other severe weather.
Other Fortified upgrades include things like chimney bracing, pressure-rated windows and doors, and attic vents that are resistant to wind and rain.
To further reduce your home’s risk of wind damage, you can:
Choose a garage door rated for wind and impact.
Install hurricane shutters or impact-resistant windows.
Make sure porch and carport roofs are properly anchored.
Brace soffits by sealing the area where they’re inserted.
Minimize items that could turn into projectiles by securing outdoor furniture, keeping trees properly trimmed and using mulch instead of gravel for landscaping.
Add hurricane clips or straps to help secure your roof.
For more ideas on strengthening your home against climate change, see flash.org, which offers tailored advice based on where you live. You can sort the site’s suggestions by cost, impact and type of disaster.