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With Fire Resistant Homes, the Future of California’s Housing Market is Looking Secure

By HOM Editor
September 2020

For those who have never experienced a horrendous wildfire, it may come as a shock that in 2018, they destroyed more U.S. homes and buildings than ever before and as of September 2020, this is the most active fire year on record for the west coast. While one can’t construct a 100% fireproof home, researchers are actively working on at least making homes as fire resistant as possible. With the current detrimental west coast wildfires, California residents are not only concerned with their community and homes, but the future of their beloved state as well. These fire-resistant homes could drastically impact the future of California’s housing market — for the better.

As CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), Roy Wright shares, “There is no reason to think they [wildfires] are going to get better. You look at this kind of impact—the variations in the climate we have had, we are far more susceptible to the size and intensity of fires.”

Wright’s passion for this project runs deep, as his parents tragically lost their home in California’s Camp Fire of 2018. An estimated 14,000 homes were destroyed in just two of the 2018 California wildfires, and in 2018 alone the damage to both commercial and residential property totaled almost $19 billion. With rampant climate changes and lengthened droughts, the chances of wildfires in California continues to increase. Between these natural disasters and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Golden State’s housing market has been wavering. Although, the low mortgage rates as of late are making it possible for homeowners and investors to take a look at larger homes they never imagined they could afford. And, with the future of top-notch fire resistant homes, the market could be poised for a comeback.

California has a huge homebuilding industry, so there is not much surprise that researchers and companies are doing whatever it takes to make the industry thrive moving forward. Wright’s Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety started by building test homes with fire-resistant materials. They compared one home constructed with landscaping and matter that were fire-resistant alongside your standard home. It showed how instantaneously the typical home was engulfed in flames while the fire-resistant structure stood tall. One may assume that towering flames are the most damaging aspects of a wildfire, when 90% of fires begin with just a small flying ember. With that knowledge, Wright shares their process: “There are steps that we can take so that the impact of that fire is narrowed, it doesn’t spread as far, and it impacts far fewer structures.”

So, what do these homes look like, and are they affordable?

Wood is the most vulnerable to fires, of course, so when it comes to fire-resistant homes think cement composite, steel staircases, and tempered glass. Contrary to what one might assume, this doesn’t mean you have to build an ultra-modern home that slightly resembles the Jetson’s abode. The fire-resistant siding that the IBHS used on the home they built was a ‘fiber cement composite’, as opposed to common wood shingles. With the variety of colors, designs, and textures that this composite comes in, it can even look exactly like wood.

The area surrounding your home is just as important as the structure when it comes to creating a fire-resistant property Close to the home, one will often see a garden, mulch and perhaps boxes. Whereas a fire-resistant home, like the one IBHS built, has rocks rather than mulch, plants that reside five feet minimum from the home’s siding, while the siding is also lifted 6 inches from the ground.

As Daniel Gorham, a research engineer with IBHS, breaks it down for us, “Fire resistance means you’ve incorporated building materials and design features that will get the ember exposure, will get the fire exposure, but would resist it. We have noncombustible landscaping. In this case, we have rock mulch from zero to 5 feet away from the building. We also have the ornamental vegetation outside of that 5-foot zone and spaced strategically.” Embers have been seen flying 7 miles away from a wildfire, on their way to cause an entirely new fire. Considering embers can smolder anywhere for up to 12 hours, it’s hard to feel safe even in your home without fire-resistant siding. In addition to most wood, vinyl is also a dangerous material when it meets flames as it can melt, whereas materials such as metal and steel will not.

Much like any home with different styles and sizes, prices vary widely. But, when it comes to standard construction costs, the price to build and landscape a fire-resistant home may even be less than that of a typical home. Commonly used fire protecting cement siding is cheaper than wood materials, which outweighs the pricier vents and gutters needed to construct a fire-resistant home.

“Those little tiny costs, of course they add up, but at the end of the day you’re only adding 2 to 3 percent to your product budget. It makes insurance happy. It gives the homeowners a little extra security.”

Homeowner Robert Balzebre, of Los Angeles, had his remarkable three-story home constructed with highly fire-resistant materials from design firm SweisKloss. This home most certainly cost more than your typical non fire-resistant structure, but mostly due to Balzebre’s very specific high-end design visions. Materials and elements, such as decking and trim made of ipe (a hardwood that is naturally resistant to fire), large windows that are tempered to bear temperatures up to 450 degrees, and exterior steel staircases, keep this home safe from any potential fire. Another important fire-resistant element for a home is that the roof doesn’t overhang, as embers can become trapped and quickly cause flames.

An architect located in Santa Barbara, Clay Aurell, shares, “If you look back historically at how we have been building for many years, we have not been building homes in a fire-safe way.” After so many California homes were burnt to the ground after wildfires, homeowners were eagerly looking to rebuild their homes with all safety precautions in mind to avoid experiencing that horrifying disaster again.

If you can part with floor to ceilings windows, fire-rated wood, and even a third floor, a fire-resistant home doesn’t need to be out of your budget. Also keep in mind the increased value of your home moving forward as wildfires continue and the uncertainty surrounding the housing market amidst the pandemic extends. In addition to increased home value, homeowner’s insurance will be positively impacted if the insured home is safe from fires. As Jim Webster of the Wildfires Partners program in Boulder, Colorado discloses, “Insurance companies are becoming much more aware of the wildfire risk, so rates are increasing. Knowing whether a home has been mitigated or not is crucial for insurance companies as they decided to insure or not.” While expenses spent on fire preventative measures in your home may cost a bit upfront, these costs are quickly offset, primarily through increased home value and reduced insurance costs.

Architect and designer Brandon Jørgensen worked with a couple, after the Northern California firestorm, who had dreams to rebuild a safe fire-resistant home. Jørgensen implemented strategies he’s been working on for years, such as eliminating eaves and vents, building underground gutters, and insulating all exterior-facing glass. Jørgensen explains, “Those little tiny costs, of course they add up, but at the end of the day you’re only adding 2 to 3 percent to your product budget. It makes insurance happy. It gives the homeowners a little extra security.”

Not just the West Coast, but states such as Colorado, Texas, and Florida, are also modifying in reaction to climate change: homes must be built with protection from wildfires in mind as they’re not just possible, but imminent. Areas that may have seemed like a safety zone in the past aren’t as low risk these days. But the good thing today is, “We know what the solutions are,” states Rolland Crawford, a former California fire official. After years of trial and error and fine-tuning fireproof materials, engineers know what they’re doing. Now it’s just a matter of implementing these solutions and finding cost-effective options.

With all of that being said, it takes the effort of an entire community to protect everyone from disasters, not just one home. Imagine devoting a great amount of time and money into constructing a fire-resistant home, only to see your next-door neighbor putting up a new maple wood fence? When wildfires fully erupt, there isn’t really anything that can be done, even by firefighters. In order to protect not just yourself, but those around you, take all of these factors into account. If these aspects are considered, many Californians who have experienced losing homes firsthand could feel comfortable returning to their town and rebuilding a home, which in turn will help support the future of the Golden State’s housing market.

Between the horrific wildfires and the recent COVID-induced real estate market slump, California has had a tough few years. Although in June, California jumped back strong with the biggest month-to-month sales increase in almost 40 years. Back in May of this year, at the height of the pandemic, the median home price in California dropped below $600,000, but as of June it is back up to $626,170 — a 2.5% increase from June of 2019.

This new record high indicates that strong housing demand persists despite the conditions. With newfound dedication to fire-resistant homes, low mortgage rates, and increased demand, this state may just be the perfect place for potential homeowners and investors. The future of California’s housing market is looking bright after all.


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