As the governor’s Coastal Insurance Working Group prepares to recommend solutions to high wind insurance premiums paid by homeowners in Mobile and Baldwin counties, another coastal Alabama group is celebrating a milestone in home fortification — a process it claims can reduce those same premiums by as much as 60 percent.

Smart Home America, a Mobile-based nonprofit promoting home fortification for sustainability and affordability, certified its 1,000th home built to the fortified home gold standard last week at Quail Creek in Fairhope. The home was built by Truland Homes using standards based on 20 years of research from the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a nonprofit that tests construction methods against winds up to 130 miles per hour, wildfire, hail and other disasters.

According to IBHS, a bronze-level home features sealed roof decks that are securely attached and high-wind-rated, roof-mounted vents that resist water intrusion. Silver-level homes meet the bronze requirements but have additional safety measures related to attached structures such as columns and gables braced to withstand high winds. Gold-level fortified homes are built with additional hazard mitigation measures such as properly secured chimneys and secure connections for walls, roofs and foundations.

A 2009 state law recognized the fortified standard and gave the Alabama Department of Insurance the authority to allow insurance companies to consider home mitigation efforts when writing policies for coastal residents. According to Smart Home America Board President Steve Simkins, homes fortified to the IBHS standard can see wind premiums 25 percent to 50 percent lower than homes built without mitigation efforts.

It’s a marked change since 2006, Simkins said, when people he talked to were afraid because their wind premiums were rising and their homes were not built to withstand a major storm.

“We were going into a recession and were on the heels of some of the biggest catastrophes in history, and people were afraid they wouldn’t be able to keep their homes, afraid they wouldn’t have a home to come back to after a storm and afraid they couldn’t keep up with their mortgage payments because wind premiums were so high,” Simkins said. “One of the primary things we know we can do to help is to fortify homes against storms, and that will lower premiums.”

Orange Beach was the first municipality to adopt the IBHS-fortified standard as a requirement for all new homes built in the city. Building official Lannie Smith said shortly after the 2009 legislation passed he approached other city officials about adopting a policy requiring homes be fortified and offering residents a refund on their building permits with proof of fortification.

“It just makes sense to build to that standard, it is better for everyone involved,” Smith said. “When you are building a new home, it isn’t that much of an additional step to build to fortification standards.”

The city passed the standards as a supplement to its building code and requires residents to apply for permits to re-roof their homes, as new roofs must meet the fortified standards.

According to Executive Director Sandy Folan, Habitat for Humanity Baldwin County requires its new homes to be built to the fortified gold standard. Folan said around 35 new Habitat homes have been built to the standard this year. Habitat for Humanity in Mobile has also adopted the standard.

“It makes sense for two reasons, one of which is that it lowers the insurance premiums for people who get Habitat homes,” Folan said. “We want to make sure our families have a home that is affordable. We want our homes to be somewhere they can go back to after a storm. When storms hit, low-income families don’t always have the money to get a hotel room, so our homes are built to withstand storms so our families can return home as soon as possible.”

State Rep. Steve McMillan previously owned a home on Little Lagoon, where he paid a $5,000 wind insurance premium with a 10 percent deductible. After retrofitting the home to the fortified standard, McMillan said his premium fell to $3,000 with a 5 percent deductible. He said the owner who later bought the house from him pays an even lower premium now.

McMillan credited former State Sen. Ben Brooks and his successor, Bill Hightower, for their efforts in seeking solutions to high insurance premiums in coastal counties. Hightower said there isn’t a “silver bullet” to fix all the problems homeowners face, but combined efforts at the state and local levels can help ease the pain.

“You can try incrementally to improve the situation, and this is an excellent example of stakeholders at every level coming together to try to improve the way we handle insurance in the state,” he said.

Hightower said if just 50 percent of the homes are built or retrofitted to the fortified standard, it would change the insurance market considerably.
“If just half of the homes in a neighborhood get fortified, it positively affects the rest of the neighborhood,” Hightower said. “That’s the beauty of it.”

According to Smart Home America President Julie Shiyou-Woodard, the group’s next initiative is pushing fortification to homeowners replacing roofs on older homes. The initiative, called “Don’t Goof When you Re-Roof,” launches in December and will give homeowners tips on how to re-roof to the fortified bronze standard.

“If you build your home strong it will get through that next wind event,” she said. “That makes it sustainable because it doesn’t end up in a landfill. The stuff in your house doesn’t end up in a landfill after a storm. It is a no-brainer, a smart way to redo your roof or build a new home.”

Another fortification initiative, the Strengthening Alabama Homes grant program, pushed by the insurance industry and state legislators, will begin in the spring and allow citizens to apply for government grants to pay for home mitigation efforts. Meanwhile, the Coastal Insurance Working Group is working toward a Dec. 31 deadline to forward its recommendations to Gov. Robert Bentley.