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It’s All About Location

Choosing a state is fairly straightforward: Find the one that reflects your political, philosophical and economic principles. For example, if you’re not a fan of labor unions, select a right-to-work state—currently there are 23. If you dislike paying taxes, choose a place that has no state income tax. Such states include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. When possible avoid states with high sales taxes like California and New York and consider Delaware, New Hampshire, Montana, Oregon or Alaska, which do not collect sales taxes. Also, given the trend toward restrictive gun laws, make sure you’re considering a state that reflects your thinking on the Second Amendment. Whatever the case, vote with your feet.

If you have children, look for solid schools. If you’re a believer, seek good houses of worship. You need to find work in your chosen place, so make certain that you have options (more than one source of prospective employment). Is there violence in the bad parts of town? What kind, and how much? How long has it been going on? A chamber-of-commerce representative will tell you about a community’s benefits, but a fair-minded reporter for a local news source is more likely to provide both sides of the story. Look for diversity in demographics—a place with mansions, working-class homes, apartments and mobile homes is less likely to restrict you than a master-planned, cookie-cutter community. Do your research—where the locals eat breakfast can be a font of information—or live with regrets after unpacking.

Consider whether your children will have playmates close by. How far is your prospective house from a park or wild area? Is it near a waterway that has flooded? Is it in a flood plane? Visit city-data.com to discover more about your neighborhood. You probably don’t want to be the only conservative or liberal in your neighborhood, so ask questions.

Will you be the only person with a graduate degree in English literature on a blue-collar block? Will you be the only working stiff in a retirement neighborhood? Drive the neighborhood and count the number of houses with security bars on the windows or doors. If you see more bars on homes than not, you may want to look elsewhere. Insurance agents and adjusters are a great source of information about a neighborhood’s benefits and drawbacks. Ask questions of law enforcement personnel in the neighborhood. Visit neighborhoodscout.com for crime rates. Most realtors will tell you what they think you want to hear. They earn a commission for each transaction, not for telling the truth. If someone says a neighborhood is in “transition,” make sure to ask for specifics.

You know what you can afford, so consider whether a house, townhouse, or condo will best protect your family. Having lived in all types of housing, my recommendation is to buy as much freedom as possible. For example, a house in a covenant-controlled neighborhood restricts your options more than a neighborhood without covenants. Likewise a homeowner’s association can become an ongoing annoyance. One controlling board member can prevent you from having a doghouse, sandbox, swing set or brightly colored doormat.

Size Up The Build

Depending on the scenario you foresee, choose a type of construction that addresses most of your concerns. Bear in mind that no type of structure is ideal. Before highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of each kind of construction, I’d like you to understand that decades of experience have shown that basements boast numerous advantages: They are cool in the summer and quiet and, being concrete, can bear the mass of a concrete-block safe room, which often weighs tons. And while they’re not in fashion, small windows (as opposed to having a virtual greenhouse) are easier to replace after a windstorm or other event and release less heat, saving the owner money.

Wood frame homes are problematic. I’ve lived in a number of stick houses and have learned that wood exteriors are fire prone, require a great deal of maintenance, and do not protect residents from small-arms fire. And termites can cause extensive damage before an owner realizes there’s a problem. Yet frame homes, particularly square ones, are best at maintaining their integrity during an earthquake. If you enjoy scraping and painting the exterior and related chores, frame houses are a great pastime.

Masonry does many things well. It resists small-arms fire and wildfires. Brick houses built in the 1950s and 1960s had smaller windows until “picture” windows became fashionable and most have wood-burning fireplaces. Rock houses have the same benefits and, depending on rock size, can be more substantial than brick. Masonry requires no maintenance unless it’s painted (paint can hide patches and cracks, so beware). The reason that castles were made of stone and had small windows (arrow slits) was to maximize the occupants’ protection. During an earthquake, however, masonry will crack or completely collapse, depending on the quake’s severity.

Log houses provide high resistance to small-arms fire (depending on log diameter) and wildfires and are surprisingly quiet and energy-efficient, unless the builder went overboard on the number and size of the windows. New chinking materials are nearly maintenance free and provide good insulation. The downside to log houses is their high cost per square foot (double or triple that of a frame house). Also, termites can be a problem, so routine examination is a must to protect your investment.

Stucco is a thin coat, usually concrete, applied over frame, block (slump block or rammed earth for adobe), or brick. While maintenance free, it offers little protection against small-arms fire and during an earthquake is only as good as the underlying construction. Earth berm houses are rare and expensive but can save enough on energy bills to mitigate the initial cost. The rear wall is below grade, while the sides are below or partially below grade. They are the quietest and most energy efficient of all construction types, especially those with a sod roof. The downside is that most builders place so many windows in the fourth wall that the occupants are extremely vulnerable to small-arms fire. Depending on roofing material and fourth-wall construction an earth berm house can be virtually immune to wildfires. Severe weather events, earthquakes and nuclear detonations can destroy earth berm houses.

No type of construction (unless underground) can survive severe weather events. An F5 tornado, for example, can destroy the sturdiest houses and commercial buildings—they’ve knocked boxcars off their rails. Only an underground shelter can survive the detonation of a nuclear device, but if the overpressure is strong enough, even a belowground shelter can be crushed. Civil insurrection, riots and stampedes usually occur in urban areas. Thinking long and hard about likely scenarios and acting accordingly provides the best and safest outcome for your loved ones.

Whether you’re thinking about renting or buying, the preceding fundamentals hold true. Leasing with an option to buy is a good idea if you’re considering a move to something unusual for you and your family, for example, an earth berm house or conventional house in a remote area. Living in a remote area can render you prone to break-ins if burglars think they won’t be observed. Having lived in the U.S. and overseas in cities, towns and rural areas, I assure you that the differences are profound.

Safeguarding your family may involve foregoing a luxury home in an exclusive neighborhood in an expensive zip code. Burglars and those perpetrating home invasions usually bypass unpretentious homes so they can target mansions or homes with expensive vehicles in the driveway. As the gap between haves and have-nots widens, desperate people will commit desperate crimes. If you drive an expensive vehicle, drive straight into your garage and close the door. An expensive car or boat in your driveway is a magnet for burglars and home invaders.

Scenario-specific Considerations

Making your residence resistant to burglars and intruders begins with a vulnerability assessment, which you or a physical-security professional can perform before or after you take occupancy. If you decide to do the assessment, grab a notepad and walk the perimeter of your residence.

Look for an easy way to break in, preferably hidden from view. Do you see a broken window lock? Is there a branch leading to a balcony or window? Can neighbors or passersby see the backdoor? Deadbolts on entry doors are probably the least expensive and most effective investment you can make to protect what’s yours. A barky dog, adequate outdoor lighting, a few large fire extinguishers, and a good electronic alarm system enable you to sleep better at night, especially when you’re traveling without your family.

Fire mitigation is critical if your prospective dwelling is in or near a wooded area. Clearing defensible space takes time but pays huge dividends in peace of mind when a wildfire is raging nearby. Earthquakes are difficult to prepare for but creating and rehearsing an evacuation plan (including where to meet if family members are apart when it happens), keeping heavy objects off upper shelves and storing after-quake items offsite are a great beginning.

Entry and garage doors should not contain glass because they’re your first line of defense. Likewise, if you have sidelights (narrow windows) next to your entry door, you are more vulnerable to break-ins. Ground-level windows are an invitation to burglars and intruders. Walkout basements (with large windows and glass sliding doors) are less secure than conventional ones. Ground-level condos and apartments are less secure than upper-floor units. Don’t be tempted to buy or rent a ground-level unit because it’s less expensive. It’s less expensive for a reason. This article is high-level information for those considering buying or renting a property. If you seek more detailed information consult a professional in the field.

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