Smart SpendingSmart Spending

Living dangerously -- and paying richly

Buying a home in one of these gorgeous spots could cause you to lose your life or your property. But the appeal of these often wild and lovely places endures.

By Marilyn Lewis Sep 19, 2013 11:58AM

 Breaking wave © Martin Ruegner/Digital Vision/Getty ImagesSome of the most-desirable real estate in the U.S. has a potentially crazy penalty attached: Live in one of these gorgeous spots and you could lose your life or property.


Living the dream

Life among California's sun-drenched cities and spectacular mountain roads and towns, for example, holds the near certainty that you'll eventually experience a quake, landslide or wildfire. And yet, four of the 10 most-expensive U.S. ZIP codes on this Forbes list are in California. The rest are in New York or New Jersey, where Sandy created such devastation last year.


If you're determined to live dangerously but you're on a budget, your best bet is to locate in Florida or Tornado Alley, as the Gulf Coast and Southern Plains states are known. And you can play it safe and cheap -- since the safest places tend to be budget-friendly -- by consulting hazard maps at Trulia. These show where natural disasters like wildfire, hurricane, tornadoes and quakes are most apt to strike.


But the appeal of lovely, wild and dangerous places endures. Living in the mountains  is the dream of many, despite the fact that mountain homes can become nightmares in the late-summer wildfires that have become a yearly ritual in the Rocky Mountains and California. Wildfires wipe out homes and sometimes entire communities each year. (Check this USDA map for wildfires burning right now.)


The dream of living at the beach dies hard, too. Even after hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Sandy (2012) killed thousands and flooded neighborhoods, owners of ruined homes keep rebuilding along shorelines vulnerable to storm surges and rising sea levels.

Governments trying to build protective dunes or stop building in flood zones often find emphatic opposition from homeowners.


Why danger zones attract

What gives? What makes us willing to pay high real estate prices for a big risk? Jed Kolko, chief economist for Truia, an online real estate market, explains it in a blog post:

The most expensive metro areas in the country are in California and Hawaii -- both of which are at a higher risk for earthquakes. Even though the weather is a natural blessing that helps keep housing demand (and prices) high. Also, coastal cities tend, on average, to be more expensive than the interior of the country -- not because they flood more often but because coastal locations have historically been centers of economic growth and have tighter housing supply. Of the five natural disasters we looked at, only tornadoes tend to regularly hit cheaper metros more often than pricier ones.

Trulia began focusing on natural disasters after watching Hurricane Sandy, says spokeswoman Korina Buhler. "When Hurricane Sandy hit, we knew we had to provide more information on natural hazards for consumers," she says.

Back then, Trulia already had created interactive U.S. maps of crime, commutes, rents, school ratings and of course home prices. You can see the maps here. (Insert a ZIP code or click on the map to zoom in; select the data you want on the left of the map.)

Mapping hazards

To add maps of hazards, Trulia engineers gathered public data on quakes from the U.S. Geological Survey and the California Geologic Survey, on wildfire from the U.S. Forest Service, on flooding from FEMA and on hurricanes and on tornadoes and hurricanes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


These maps use vivid colors to show risk from these hazards in the U.S., including Alaska and Hawaii, although the wildfire maps cover only the lower 48 states. (Sorry, Canada, you're on your own.)


You can see the likelihood of each type of disaster in a specific location. You may, like me, be surprised to see the relatively intense earthquake risk in the region between St. Louis and Memphis, from the New Madrid Fault. You probably know that coastal California and the Seattle region are earthquake bull's-eyes. But did you realize that Charleston, S.C., Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City and Bozeman, Mont., have an elevated risk of quakes?


The good news

You'd expect Realtors, a big slice of Trulia's business, to scream bloody murder about, for example, a map showing huge swaths of residential real estate in screaming red, for fire danger.


But Buhler says there have been no complaints. Perhaps that's because Trulia has focused on the good news: finding safe homes in budget-friendly areas. Buhler envisions agents and buyers using the maps to locate ideal home sites.


"The places that avoid disaster tend to be cheaper on average," Kolko told Inman News.

Here's Trulia's list of least-risky places to buy a home and median per-square-foot asking prices:



Syracuse, N.Y.






Akron, Ohio



Buffalo, N.Y.



Bethesda-Rockville-Frederick, Md.



Dayton, Ohio



Allentown, Pa.-N.J.









Warren-Troy-Farmington Hills, Mich.



 More from MSN Money:

Sep 19, 2013 6:02PM
Albuquerque and Santa Fe get no tornadoes, floods, or earthquakes. No tornadoes, either, and 350 days of sun a year.
Please help us to maintain a healthy and vibrant community by reporting any illegal or inappropriate behavior. If you believe a message violates theCode of Conductplease use this form to notify the moderators. They will investigate your report and take appropriate action. If necessary, they report all illegal activity to the proper authorities.
100 character limit
Are you sure you want to delete this comment?


Copyright © 2014 Microsoft. All rights reserved.

Fundamental company data and historical chart data provided by Morningstar Inc. Real-time index quotes and delayed quotes supplied by Morningstar Inc. Quotes delayed by up to 15 minutes, except where indicated otherwise. Fund summary, fund performance and dividend data provided by Morningstar Inc. Analyst recommendations provided by Zacks Investment Research. StockScouter data provided by Verus Analytics. IPO data provided by Hoover's Inc. Index membership data provided by Morningstar Inc.


Smart Spending brings you the best money-saving tips from MSN Money and the rest of the Web. Join the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.