Floods, Crimes and Disasters: Is Your Home in a Danger Zone?

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AFP/Getty ImagesA local resident in Charleston, S.C., surveys the water surrounding a home during the October floods.

By Blake Miller

With the recent news of catastrophic flooding in South Carolina to other stories of homes blowing up because of broken gas lines or vanishing into a massive sinkhole, you might be ready to Google your address to find out if your little abode is all that safe where it is.

"A lot of property owners wait until it's too late [to figure out if their home is in a safe location]," says Peter Di Natale, president of Peter Di Natale & Associates Inc., a general contracting and construction management firm in Cold Spring, N.Y. "You have to think top to bottom, from the roof to the basement." (And don't overlook these neighborhood details, either.)

Here are the top ways to ensure your new home is out of the danger zone.

Check the Flood Map

In addition to the all-important flood zone map, which your real estate agent can provide, "keep in mind that flooding from storms or water main breaks will hit homes the hardest that are on a ground pitch angled downhill," says Di Natale. "Check how level the ground is. It's not difficult to have the dirt and grass regraded so it slopes gently away from the house towards the yard instead of into the house. You can imagine how preferable that would be to a flooded basement or first floor of a home."

Check the Crime Rates

"I know it sounds silly and maybe too simple. However, knocking on the neighbors' door is sometimes like opening the floodgates to information," says Justin Udy, a real estate agent in Midvale, Utah. "Ask about the property, the neighborhood, and any issues they are aware of. Typically, neighbors are an open book and love to talk about their area, the good and the bad." Including crime.

Not feeling chatty? Check out Trulia's maps, which feature neighborhood guides that identify high-crime areas as well as flood plains and natural disaster probabilities. Adds Heather Leikin, a real estate agent in Los Angeles: "Consider the type of crimes [as in burglaries versus DUIs], rather than if there is crime."

Check the Trees

Think that towering oak tree won't cause your home any harm? Think again. "I once had a tree fall on a gutter that created Niagara Falls down the side of the house when the next rain came," says Di Natale. How do you know if your trees could be a problem? Call in an arborist or tree specialist, who oftentimes will provide free consultations to homeowners and potential homebuyers.

Check for Gas

Not if the home has natural gas but, rather, where those dang gas lines are actually buried, says Leikin. "If you are concerned about proximity of the larger gas lines to your house, contact your local gas utility," she adds. "There should be a map of your area that shows how close major gas lines are to your new home.

"This is especially important to know after numerous pipeline explosions in the United States." Enough said.

Check for Natural Disasters

Californians aren't the only ones who need to know if they live in an earthquake-prone area. To be in the know about just which natural disasters -- tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc. -- could wreak havoc on your potential new home, Patty Brockman, a real estate agent in Portland, Oregon, suggests checking with your insurance carrier. "Have them investigate whether or not the property is in a flood plain, earthquake, or slide area," she says. "It's always best to seek out the experts, rather than rely on someone's opinion."

Check the Sellers' Disclosure Carefully

Legally, sellers have to disclose if their home's basement, for example, tends to flood. Which means that sellers' disclosure form can be a valuable tool in detecting what hazards may await you when you purchase your new home.

"If there is any area of question, consider going back and asking more questions," suggests Udy. "It's routine for me to ask, 'Tell me more about that' or 'What did you mean when you mentioned XYZ?'"

Check with the City

Some of the most valuable information about your home's danger probability can be found with the city government. "I always recommend owners be involved with their city planning office and code enforcement," says Udy. "Depending on the size of your city, a seasoned planner or code enforcement officer may be able to tell you what projects people are doing, what is in process, and things to be aware of [such as planned neighborhoods, which could cause potential flooding to your backyard]."

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