Maureen Fitzgerald and her husband moved from Austin, Texas, to build their home on Fish River. Upon completion in September 2013, the home received a FORTIFIED for Safer Living certification, the highest standard for new construction. The home is pictured Saturday, Dec. 28, 2013, in the Marlow, Ala., community of Baldwin County. 

Original Article Posted by - By Michael Finch II - January 10, 2014

MARLOW, Alabama -- Waterfront property usually comes at a premium, but even the aftershock that follows in the form of insurance didn’t hurt Maureen Fitzgerald and her husband, Dave, when they built their new home. Miles upstream on the Fish River, the Fitzgeralds constructed their house to withstand the worst Mother Nature could deliver. The walls, about 9.5 inches thick, were fashioned from concrete and Styrofoam. On looks alone, there’s no way you could tell.

“You don’t come in here and think ‘oh where are the cinder blocks,’ ” Fitzgerald said. The home doesn’t look like a stone fortress: From the vaulted ceilings in the main room, made from stained Alabama hard pine, to the wrap around porch, just a few feet away from the riverbank.

In October, they were given a FORTIFIED for Safer Living certificate, the highest standard for new construction. As a result, their total cost of property and casualty insurance: $2,500. “It costs maybe 5 percent more to build like this,” Fitzgerald said. “But you get it back in maybe two years.”

For years the insurance industry has been pushing for homeowners to build stronger, more resilient homes. Now it seems local municipalities have begun to follow suit. The industry-backed Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety codified the first standards more than a decade ago.

Critics and supporters of the move agree that insurance companies stand to gain as the risk associated with certain homes diminishes. But there is also a hazard for residents, should a storm touchdown anywhere on the Alabama coast. The homeowner’s risk dwindles, too.

Many municipalities in Baldwin County have already latched on to IBHS standards; nine out of 12 jurisdictions, says Alex Cary, executive director of Smart Home America, a nonprofit that promotes building stronger homes. All except Foley, Summerdale and Gulf Shores have adopted building codes to reflect – at minimum -- the bronze level standards.

“It certainly helps the insurance industry because it reduces their risk, but risk is not a problem of the insurance industry alone,” Cary said.

It has become even more sensible now that the Alabama Department of Insurance is guaranteeing as much as a 60 percent reduction on the cost of insurance premiums in July. Homeowners who land anywhere on the ladder; from the top, where the Fitzgerald’s home is graded, down to the Gold, Silver and Bronze levels, will be eligible for the discount.

The Home Mitigation Grant Program, aimed at existing homes has garnered more than 400 applicants since the state department of insurance announced it would manage the pilot project with funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Mike Henriksen, a local builder who owns Mike Henriksen Construction, said the challenge may be in attracting enough subcontractors to do the retrofitting work that requires going into attics.

“It’s a pretty intensive project and it’s very time consuming and tedious work,” he said. “Sometimes there is demolition involved. If it were something like exchanging windows, that’s an easy fix.”

Henriksen has built as many as 16 FORTIFIED homes in the past eight years, and has four lined up for 2014. He said there is an opportunity for contractors to benefit from the growth in retrofitting work as more homeowners upgrade their roofs.

“The incentive for the homeowner is there,” Henriksen said, “the (flip) side is that they will feel more comfortable in their own home.”

The feeling of security, and the thought of being displaced after a major storm, was more than enough for the Fitzgeralds, who paid an additional $9,000 for the cost of construction.

After selling their home in Austin, Texas, they considered moving somewhere else in the city until they were reminded of the two acres given to them by their in-laws 650 miles east. Fitzgerald said her husband did the research and discovered there was a way to build a home that was energy efficient and safe from the threat of a hurricane. The grand total for the 2,650-square feet home: $421,000.

“I care about what the house looks like and I care about how it feels, but I also want all of the memories we have in here,” she said. “If you look at return on investment, it’s a no-brainer.”

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Original article here.