BBC Capital

Fire, flood, storms - how homeowners recover

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A variety of natural disasters can destroy homes. (Fire:Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty; Storm: Mark Wilson/Getty)

It’s been a tough couple of years for homeowners. Extreme weather events over the last 18 months have wreaked havoc on residential property around the world. Bushfires have raged across Australia, huge storms have slammed the United States and UK homes have been flooded.

New Jersey resident Elaine Burns saw her Little Silver home flooded with eight feet of water when October’s superstorm Sandy hit the US east coast. Still, she believes she was lucky. The storm “clobbered” many of their immediate neighbours’ homes, she said. Hers, at least, was still intact.

 “With all of this discussion about the sea level rising long-term, you have to wonder whether this a once-in-a-lifetime event, or something that happens once every so many years,” she said. “That’s the challenge here.”

Burns and her husband, like many others, have had to pour cash into protecting their house in case floodwaters surge again, such as hanging or elevating appliances. Her neighbours are lifting their home about eight feet off the ground with a new foundation — a lengthy, intense and extensive process that’s necessary both for future safety and more. Such precautions are becoming almost required if an owner in a storm-struck area ever wants to sell.

Yet there is a silver lining to catastrophe. People on all sides of the property fence, including the insurance industry and property agents, say they have become more nimble, experienced and efficient at responding to weather-related disasters. Homeowners, too, can benefit from the many lessons learned by those who have been struck by calamity.

Here’s a look at how real estate professionals, governments, buyers and sellers and insurers have adjusted, and what homeowners should do to protect their properties.

Real estate agents

Real estate agents now say they better understand how to protect vulnerable zones, and they are passing their knowledge on to buyers and homeowners.

For instance, following bushfires in Australia, Sue Swingler, a property agent in the arid state of Victoria, now advises clients to access local authority risk maps of their properties. No matter where homeowners live, reputable insurance companies should provide estimates for the area, as well as regional comparisons.

In many disaster-prone areas, agents are now required by law to say whether the area or property faces risky weather. Stay up-to-date on rules and regulations, which often change following a disaster, Swingler suggested. Consult property or insurance agents, or search online government resources.

Beware bargain hunters who seek to scoop up property after a calamity, agents say. “We worked hard to keep the land prices generally in keeping to the prices pre-fires,” said Swingler. Real estate agents discourage sellers from taking less than their property is worth.

Agents have also begun to take on more of an advisory role. That can be very good news for homeowners, who should seek to find these proactive advisors. “We will talk about the need for a fire plan and refer [prospective buyers] to the respective [local] authority for more information,” Swingler said.

Hands-on agents may urge buyers to consider whether there might be a more resilient property available in their price range and target area. Flood maps might show a home on one street as sitting in a higher danger zone than one for sale a street away.

Agents in fire-prone areas will tell sellers to look at the vegetation and water supply around a property, added Mark Sutherland, another property agent in Victoria. Agents have even begun helping residents in the wake of a crisis, including clearing away brushes and trees, aiding in obtaining new building permits or even relocating displaced owners.

Insurers

Insurance and reinsurance industries have also learned from natural disasters, said Dr Sebastian von Dahlen, economic counsellor for the International Association of Insurance Supervisors (IAIS) in Basel, Switzerland.

For one, insurance companies are taking preventative measures at the sign of an impending storm or disaster. US-based auto and home insurance company Allstate, for instance, boosted its presence in threatened areas and deployed a number of mobile claim centres and response vehicles even before superstorm Sandy made landfall.

For property owners, insurance and reinsurance for disaster-apt property is still not prohibitively expensive, said Von Dahlen. Still, they should be aware of possible price fluctuations.

Purchasing appropriate insurance — while it sounds obvious — is more crucial than ever because disasters that aren’t covered by basic home insurance are becoming more frequent. The good news is that with the right insurance, you may be paid out for a claim quicker than in the past. The UK’S biggest insurance body, The Association of British Insurers claims the industry has distributed about £14 million($23.5m) in emergency payments since 23 December when severe flooding began in the south of the country.

Governments

Governments around the world are learning from others’ calamities and are better (in some cases) about stepping in with aid earlier.

After Sandy, the New Jersey government offered buyout plans to property owners across a number of affected areas, largely financed by federal disaster funds. It purchased large sections of land to create a natural buffer to protect against future disasters. The Canadian government enacted a similar plan in Alberta.

In many places, law now requires property agents to be transparent about disaster risks. For example, in the UK, property agents have “a legal obligation to inform buyers of anything that would affect their transactional decision,” said Mark Hayward, the UK’s National Association of Estate Agents managing director. In Australia, vendors must declare in the vendor statement if the property up for sale is located in a bushfire zone.

Buyers and Sellers—The Silver Lining

 As owners, buyers and sellers have seen nearby properties slammed by natural disasters, they have become savvier about how to protect their own.

For homes that might face flooding, even slight changes can help, such as raising electrical sockets, landscaping to create barriers to block water and replacing flooring with a water-resistant material. Such adjustments safeguard the property in the present and often lead to more affordable insurance premiums. Once a property is for sale, the measures also make it more appealing to buyers — and can set one house on the block apart from another.

Similarly, buyers are becoming more aware about what to look for in a property, from where appliances are situated, to what type of insurance is required and how close the property lies to a flood plain.

While Burns and her family have stayed in their home on a peninsula that juts into the Shrewsbury River, some of her neighbours have opted to sell. And the truth is, come hell or high water, many buyers will continue to covet those waterfront properties.

There is a silver lining to catastrophe.