LISTENING TO KATRINA
PAGES IN THIS BLOG ARE RATED 'R' AND DO CONTAIN
PROFANITY, VULGARITY, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, NUDITY,
SCENES OF HUMAN EMOTION, DEATH, DESTRUCTION, MAYHEM, AND VARIOUS
PLAN - Location, Location, Location
Location, Location, Location is a common and almost hackneyed phrase in real estate. It is never more true, however, than when talking about SHTF. Even people savvy to the preparedness game rarely consider their location carefully enough. Yes, some folks have their mountain strongholds - but did they check the earthquake danger before they built that underground lair?
Whenever you are going to buy or build a house, you should Listen to Katrina and do some serious homework. You may think that you are aware of all the important aspects of choosing a home, but there is a lot of homework that most people skip.
There is a worksheet associated with this page. You should create a worksheet for each property that you are considering. This will help you make good choices. If you aren't currently in the market for a house, then you can use the worksheet to evaluate your own property. Let's start from large and work our way down to small details.
You've chosen to live on Planet Earth, which is a smorgasbord of nations that all have their own political, economic, and social structures. Wherever you live, you should educate yourself on these aspects of your living arrangement. That scope is, however, beyond the reach of this blog.
I was fortunate enough to be born in the United States, and so I didn't have to move. I will make the arrogant assumption that this is the place to be - even if New Zealand often looks very nice. In the United States, there are fifty states all with their own political, economic, and social structures. Are you seeing the trend yet?
Once you pick a country and pick a state (or province, etc.), we come down to another set of local political, economic, and social structures. Even individual neighborhoods have their own structures sometimes. It is very easy to be lured into the trap of selecting a neighborhood based on these structures without fully appreciating the rest of the picture. Lakeview, for instance, was considered for many years to be where the affluent people of New Orleans made their homes - and indeed, Lakeview was one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the region. Right now if you drive through Lakeview, about a third of people have restored their homes and live in them, another third of homes is for sale, and the final third just sit abandoned waiting to be torn down.
Location, location, location...
From the day Bienville founded New Orleans, the primary consideration in the area has been one of flooding. We live and die by water here - literally. Your region will have other considerations as well, but for now let's talk about flooding. Twelve percent of Americans live in a flood zone. Andrea and I bought our current house in July of 2003. We had looked at several other properties, but snatched this one up even before it was actually on the market. Every single property we looked at before we bought this house flooded out during Katrina. Whenever we looked at a house, the primary map I had in my head was one like this:
Yes, it's an elevation map, and you can clearly see where the danger areas are. Go ahead and click on it for a closer look. After you see this map, then this image taken after Katrina is no real suprise:
Dark areas show flooding.
You can obviously see the line of the 17th street canal at the Jefferson/Orleans line. It doesn't take an engineer to figure out that even in a flood plain there are better places than others. Building your house at the very bottom of a dry lake bed is obviously a bad choice. My house isn't even in the flood plain at all, and the FEMA recommendations for my area don't even call for flood insurance. We do buy it anyway... With a little homework, you can save yourself a lot of heartache later.
We call such things MAJOR DANGERS in our worksheet. Two identical homes can be at different risk levels even though they are just a few miles apart. My house is less than eight miles from some of the worst flooding that occurred. If you build your house on an active volcano, you shouldn't be surprised when lava flows into your yard.
In the new Iron Man movie, there is an exterior shot of Tony Stark's house, which is fictionally located somewhere outside Los Angeles on the coast, perched on top of a cliff, hanging out over the ocean. The first thing that popped into my head when I saw it was, "You'd have to be insane to build a house like that, perched on a cliff like that, in an earthquake zone..."
On my last visit to Estes Park, Colorado, I noticed a house on the side of one of the mountains, which was built below a very large rock almost as large as the house itself. I likewise thought, "If the earth starts shaking, that house is going to be crushed to toothpicks..." Don't build your house where it can either fill up with water, fall off of something, or where it can be crushed by something. How complicated is that to understand?
Here are some other major DO NOTs:
1. Do not build or buy a home within 50 miles of the coast if that
coast is affected by hurricanes or cyclones unless that home is at least 50
feet above sea level and built to withstand winds of 200 MPH.
2. Do not build or buy a home that is below the Base Flood Elevation Level unless the ground floor is elevated at least three feet above that elevation. Many people do not realize that most homes built in New Orleans until the 1980s were elevated with the entire ground space being used as a garage. As time went on, though, people forgot what this was for and built rooms into that space.
3. Do not buy or build a home near any active geological feature. Don't build a house on a volcano, for instance. I would also resist living in an earthquake zone, but there are better and worse areas for that too. You have to do the homework for whatever affects the area you live in. If you build on the side of a mountain, you must also consider things like mud slides.
4. Do not buy or build a home in any place that would be threatened by the failure of any man-made structure. For instance, if the levees fail in my area, my house will not be under water. It may be surrounded by water, but it will not be under water. Another area like this would be down river from a dam. If the dam breaks, you do not want to be in the path of that water.
5. Do not buy or build a home on any inland body of water unless you are 100% certain that such body of water is no threat to the property. Do not be easily fooled! If you need an example, go look up the Big Thompson River Flood. Don't let that little creek fool you!
6. Avoid HOAs (HomeOwner's Associations) like the plague. If you need to know why, go type HomeOwner's Associations Suck into Google and start reading.
You DO want to find property that is inland, elevated, geologically stable, not protected or threatened by man-made structures, and away from water. If you are buying a 'special' property - like that beach house you've always dreamed about - then insure it to the max. One day Mother Nature will come along and erase it.
Once you find a house that is properly situated geographically, there are some further considerations. (We are going to talk about what to look for when building a house as well.) If we are talking about rural property, some of these things do not apply. Most of America lives in suburbia, so that is where I will direct most of my comments.
If Katrina is clear on nothing else, the #1 DO NOT on location selection is this: DO NOT - EVER - LIVE IN A COMPLEX OF ANY KIND! That includes apartments, condos, or anything where you share common walls, floors, or ceilings with your neighbors. If you rent, then you should rent a single family dwelling at all costs. Besides the fact that if the neighbor's kid sets their apartment on fire, then yours can burn too, the reasons for this are myriad. We'll cover all of them in time, but renters had a very hard time after Katrina - and especially those in complexes. If you must live in a complex, then none of this page really applies to you anyway. Roll the dice and good luck. There will be another page for apartment dwellers further in the blog.
The next thing you want to look at is native vegetation. If there are a bunch of beautiful old-growth cypress trees in the front yard, you need to remember that cypress trees only grow in very wet ground. This next bit is a little more difficult to articulate, but you *want* trees. Big ones, if you can get them. This applies, of course, only to those areas which would be naturally forested without the presence of man. There is a strange practice among developers, and I have seen it again and again. They come in, cut all the trees down, put up neat rows of houses in neat neighborhoods, sell it all off and walk away. You can see that kind of construction commonly in Florida - and then along comes a hurricane and blows it all flat. Trees act as a natural wind break. Don't buy a house in a neighborhood where they have all been cut down.
The negative aspect of trees is that they can fall on the house. You have to weigh the risk/benefit of them carefully. Before Katrina, my house was literally inside the canopy of two large oak trees. I was lucky, and none of the large branches that broke wound up on the house - but that was by dumb luck only. As it is, I'm going to have to remove the tree in the back yard before too many more years goes by because now it's leaning this way... Every one of the trees at my prior house all ended up on the house after Katrina. Ouch.
Native vegetation can also give you other clues about drainage. Just because the house is on high ground doesn't mean that you can't have drainage issues. In my case I did not fully appreciate that when it rains my back yard fills up with 4" of water before it drains off. Water also collects under the house and sits there for long periods of time. If the house has a basement, this can be especially critical - but nobody has a basement around here. It would be full of water all the time...which is probably some kind of clue...
The next things to examine are man-made hazards. This includes nearby refineries, chemical plants, and railways - which carry hazardous cargo. I'm not too keen on living too close to interstate highways for the same reason. The good thing about living close to major highways is that you can effect a quick escape if you're fast on the eject handle. Too close, though, and a truck spill could mean an evacuation in the middle of the night. The hazards from these are low - I lived practically on a set of rail tracks while I was growing up - but it's still something to consider.
Do not buy or build a house on a major thoroughfare. The best choice is a dead-end street or a cul-de-sac. If you can't get those, then try to select a property that is not on the way to anywhere else. Try to find a street upon which the only traffic is local traffic. Easy access works both ways...
The minutia comes down to exactly how the house or property is situated. I do not like corner lots, because two sides of the house are exposed to the street. That can make home defense more difficult. I prefer a house in the middle of the block, back from the street, with good privacy - although for security purposes less privacy may actually be desirable. Your individual taste may vary. Do not buy a property that is at the dead-end of a T intersection. Any drunk might do 100 MPH down the street, miss the turn, and plough into your house. That's bad juju.
All of that is a full half of the considerations. The other half all involves community and culture. Remember that each neighborhood has its own political, social, and economic structures. You want to live - if at all possible - among people who are like you politically, socially, economically, and if possible, religiously as well. Let's go ahead and open the window and defenestrate all pretence of political correctness.
You do not want to be a poor man in a rich neighborhood. You do not want to be a rich man in a poor neighborhood. You do not want to be a democrat surrounded by republicans. You do not want to be the only Christian in a Jewish neighborhood. In some areas it's bad to be the only black person in a white neighborhood, and it's bad to be the only white person in a black neighborhood. THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH RACE! It has everything to do with community. Whenever you move into a place, you are the outsider. If you are too different from the rest of the neighbors, you will never overcome that. While it is possible to hide your political party affiliation, it's better to be in a neighborhood where everyone else is more or less like you. If you are the only Jewish Latino in a neighborhood full of WASPs, you are going to have a hard climb to acceptance. If you are the only gringo in Little Mexico or the only gaijin in Chinatown, the same thing is true.
New Orleans has many 'mixed' neighborhoods that work well, but I think that New Orleans is a rare exception based on my travels to many other parts of the country. There is a difference between the sides of the track, even in modern America. Culture is more important than race, affluence, politics, or religion, and Community is more important than anything. If you aren't part of the culture you live in, then you are an outsider - and always will be. If you are the only one grilling burgers in a neighborhood full of vegans, do not be surprised if they sacrifice you to the rain gods during a drought - because you are the one that is 'different', and 'different' is bad.
Yes, everyone will smile at you and you will go to their kid's birthday parties, and you will send them Holiday Greeting cards - but when SHTF, they will eat you first. Remember that. It's important. Multiculturalism is some kind of strange un-natural bullshit that I don't quite fathom. People segregate themselves naturally for a reason.
I have friends across the globe of all races, religions, political affiliations, and national identities. On a daily basis I work with and for people of every ethnic and cultural background. Many of these people are good friends. Friends that I would fight and die for; but those are my friends. I'm not talking about friends. I'm talking about neighbors. How long would you last as the only American in a neighborhood in Fallujah? Pick your friends carefully, but pick your neighbors more carefully.
New Orleans really is a special place when it comes to this, because generally we mix well as people. We are New Orleanians first, and whatever else we are second. While I live in Harahan, I still consider myself a part of the culture of New Orleans - as does everyone else for 50 miles in any direction. It is more accurate to say that we are deep-south Louisianians, but that's hard for most people to say. Ask anybody around here where they're from, and they'll all say, 'Nawlins!
After you have considered all these things, there are a host of the 'usual' things to consider. You can get a lot of crime statistics and even crime maps from the internet. Lower incidence of crime is obviously better. Then there are things like schools, location of critical services like hospitals, grocery stores, gas stations, and all of the things people often consider when looking for a house. Whatever suits your tastes is fine by me.
After all of that, the last thing to do is to listen to your gut. How does the place feel? All logic aside, when you stand in the front yard, does it feel like home? If it doesn't, then you should probably keep looking. I offered to buy the house we live in now before I had even seen the inside. Standing in the front yard, it felt so much like home that I knew it was the place for me. Turns out that I was right in so many ways...
If you do decide to buy the property, my last piece of advice is to insist on Title Insurance. It's quite cheap, and if you ever need it you will thank me, thank God, and thank whoever invented Title Insurance.
The best insurance, though, is to do your homework so that you never have to pose for pictures like these.