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Disaster-proof your home: How to protect your property and save money doing it

Use these tips to mitigate damage to your home from disasters and save on taxes and insurance, too.

Twenty/20

If you own your home, a natural disaster can be a double-whammy. In addition to potentially damaging or destroying your home and belongings, the likes of wildfires and hurricanes can wreak havoc on your wallet as well, as you attempt to rebuild and replace the things you've lost.

Wait a second, you may be thinking: Doesn't my insurance cover that? Well, your homeowners policy likely covers damage caused by fire or wind. And if you live in an area where certain disasters are common, you may have added policies to protect against earthquakes or flooding (which homeowners policies tend to exclude). But even the most comprehensive coverage can't necessarily keep major damage to your home from derailing your life. It typically takes 18-24 months for your insurance claim to settle and to rebuild or repair your home following a major loss, according to United Policyholders, an insurance consumer advocacy nonprofit.

Whether you already own a home or are in the market for one, it's worth prioritizing measures that mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Disaster-proofing can save you the heartache, and headache, of having to rebuild if your home is damaged. And, depending on your insurer, it can lower your insurance premiums as well.

How to protect your home against hurricanes and other storms

Hurricane season technically ends after November 30, but that doesn't mean that you're in the clear until next June. "We like to use names like hurricane, derecho, or severe storm, but Mother Nature doesn't care what you call it — she just makes it windy," says Anne Cope, chief engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety. "Having their home ready for strong winds is something new homeowners want to take care of, whether they live in hurricane-prone states on the East Coast or in the middle of the country."

Whether you're assessing your home's storm-worthiness or inspecting a new property, check the roof, which Cope calls "your absolute first line of defense" against severe storms. Look for any trees with dead limbs that could potentially fall on your house, Cope says, and make sure the gutters are well-maintained. "Even someone who has never touched a shingle will notice if a gutter is hanging down or loose. That's like leaving your jacket unzippered," she says.

If you want a professional to take a closer look, a 1-3 hour inspection typically costs around $500.

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To prevent high-speed winds from getting inside, make sure your home's biggest openings are secure. Check the garage door for a label indicating its resistance to wind pressures. If it doesn't have a label, your door may not be wind-rated. A new, wind-rated garage door will run you $1,200 to $3,000, which may be well worth it, Cope says: "If the garage door blows open, the wind can blow your house up like a balloon."

For homeowners in particularly storm-prone areas, hurricane shutters are worth considering too. Adding 10 shutters will run you about $2,350, according to IBHS estimates. If that sounds steep, consider adding a few at a time and bracing your nonshuttered windows with plywood if forecasts say a storm is imminent.

Protect your home from wildfires

Wildfires are a consistent and growing problem. More than 8 million acres in the U.S. have been consumed in flames so far this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, up from 4.5 million acres during the same period in 2019. If you live in a state where wildfires present a threat to your home, you can make a few small changes to decrease the chances that your home is severely damaged.

If you're buying a home or doing some landscaping, favor hardscaping, such as gravel or pavement, within a 5-foot zone around your home. This will vastly reduce the risk that wind-blown embers igniting materials near your home, says Cope.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recommends removing any dry or dead vegetation within 30 feet of your home, including from your yard, roof, and rain gutters. Be sure to remove any vegetation or any potentially flammable items that you store under your deck as well, they say.  

To prevent embers from entering your home through vents in your attic, roof, or crawlspace, IBHS recommends installing 1/8-inch mesh screens on your home's vents, a DIY project that should cost less than $200.

Disaster-proofing your home can lower insurance costs

Depending on where you live and what changes you make, you may be financially rewarded for disaster-proofing your home. According to disaster mitigation nonprofit Smart Home America, 14 states offer financial incentives for homeowners who take steps to mitigate disasters, in the form of insurance discounts or tax breaks.

Mississippi homeowners, for example, save up to 30% on their home insurance premiums if they install a roof that complies with IBHS's "Fortified" construction standards. And Louisiana residents qualify for up to $5,000 in tax deductions for installing state-approved home retrofits.

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But you don't need a state mandate to get a discount on your insurance, says Loretta Worters of the Insurance Information Institute. "It's in people's best interest to fortify their homes against these kinds of disasters," she says, "and it can result in lower costs in terms of your premiums."

You can expect discounts of 5% for fixes as simple as adding a smoke alarm, she says, with bigger savings for adding storm shutters, reinforcing your roof, and modernizing heat, plumbing, and electrical systems to avoid fires and floods. "A sophisticated sprinkler system could save you 15% to 20%," she says.

Talk to your insurance agent to see what you're currently covered for, and what steps you can take to earn a discount, Cope suggests. "Your home is your biggest investment, so ask questions," she says. "There are a number of good programs out there. It's just a matter of shopping around."

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