Will Safe Rooms Become a Must-Have in Canadian Homes?

Toronto Real Estate News
BUNKERKIT Modular Secure Room
Modular Safe Room by Bunkerkit

The law in Israel requires every new house to have a panic room. Londoners started to build them in their high-end homes for protection against burglars, and Mexico's richest homeowners use them as additional protection against kidnapping. Safe rooms are becoming more and more popular around the world. But there's one country that takes the lead in the number of panic rooms built. From Manhattan executive suites and Los Angeles mansions to weather-resistant panic rooms in tornado-prone areas like Oklahoma, the United States has the largest community of panic room owners in the world. Will the Canadian public also adopt the trend?

The History Behind Panic Rooms

You can track the idea of safe rooms to ancient Egypt, when pharaohs' architects would build a secret chamber inside the pyramids in order to protect the entombed treasure from tomb raiders and other petty thieves and ensure a peaceful rest for their rulers. The medieval concept of a safe room was a lot closer to the modern idea of protecting the life of residents instead of salvaging property. The main fortress called the "castle keep," located in the deepest part of the castle, was designed so the lord or king and his court could keep safe during a siege. Seventeenth-century England in its times of religious turmoil became yet another chapter in safe rooms' early development. The so-called "priest holes" were designed to hide Catholic priests when the persecution of Catholics was at its height in England.

The modern age of panic rooms began in the United States as part of the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. These panic rooms were hideaway rooms for slaves escaping from the South. Panic rooms were almost 100 years later used for stashing valuable goods again. The 1920s Prohibition incited hundreds of pub and bar owners to build secret safe rooms to hide their whiskey from the authorities.

The 1960s and its fear of nuclear warfare brought a final development to panic rooms. From simpler hideaways, they became fallout shelters that could provide a core family with all the essentials — like clean water, air, and food — for weeks. The modern residential panic rooms as we know them began appearing on the West Coast of the United States around 25 years ago.

What's a Safe Room, Really? 

In 2002, David Fincher's film Panic Room, starring Jodie Foster, introduced a wide audience to the concept of a fortified panic room in a wealthy Manhattan townhouse. The character Foster plays tries to withstand an attack with the help of high-tech surveillance technology.

Modern panic rooms are often much less dramatic than the one presented in Panic Room. You'd usually find them under the name “safe rooms,” and they're much more often used as protection against extreme weather conditions (think tornadoes) than against home invasions. There's no typical safe room. The security, size, and placement in the home all depend on the homeowner's needs. Many homeowners choose to simply fortify a walk-in closet or bathroom, while others build a room with no other use. Some homeowners attach the room to a son or daughter’s bedroom, where parents can flee quickly with their child.

panic room movie
David Fincher's Film Panic Room 

Gary Paster, president of U.S. American Saferoom Door Co., has built over 200 safe rooms in 22 years and was a consultant on the movie Panic Room. He shared his experience:

Some are hidden. We have bookcases, which are also doors. For people who have smaller homes, they’ll typically be walk-in closets. They go from very extravagant, like in the movie, to very basic.

Some panic rooms are designed as bomb shelters. These are meant to protect residents in case of any national emergency. They have separate plumbing and ventilation systems and their own stores of food and water. American Saferoom Door Co.'s safe rooms business has increased by 25 per cent since 9/11. But smaller violent events like the 1997 shooting of Gianni Versace in his Miami home can also result in more demand for safe rooms.

How Much Does a Safe Room Cost?

About 60 to 70 per cent of private orders come from affluent people in the entertainment business. The cost of a panic room depends on a lot of different factors. You can order a panic room to protect you from burglars or any other intruders. These panic rooms are usually cheaper. The average price for a panic room that would hold a four-member family typically starts at around $50,000. On the low end, converting a closet or extra room into a panic room usually starts around $3,000. Plywood reinforcements for a closet cost around $2,500, and bullet-resistant electronic doors typically start at $22,000. Add another $3,000 to $10,000 if you want your panic room professionally designed.

According to Bankrate, remodelling isn't as cost-effective as including a safe room in the original plans. Installing bullet-resistant Kevlar and adding a dedicated phone line, backup generator, and security features such as keyless entry (if you're cooking dinner and something goes wrong, you don't want to have to find a key) in an existing room might cost from $40,000 to $60,000.

The price of more elaborate safe rooms built to withstand any doomsday scenario might climb up to $500,000 — depending on amenities. Independent power generators, air filters, surveillance, clean water supply, and radio and telephone communication are all expensive.

The cost of a panic room is one reason they're not likely to become a must in Canadian households. It's not that we can't afford them, but we don't have enough reason to make such a significant investment. Let's have a closer look at some of the reasons people decide to build a panic room and see if Canadians might go for them.

Safe Room by Titan Home Security
Safe Room by Titan Home Security

Will Toronto Follow London's Example?

London became a safe haven for rich foreigners who are well off enough to leave their home countries, but most of them bring their security fears with them to their new homes. A rapid increase in the demand for panic rooms, machine gun–proof doors, and gun safes in the United Kingdom's capital became significant last summer. Andrew Langton, managing director of high-end estate agency Aylesford, commented for Reuters:

I recently showed a property to an eastern European billionaire and when he walked outside I presumed he had gone to look at the wonderful garden. He was actually inspecting the buildings that overlooked it. 

Overseas investment in top London neighbourhoods used to be dominated by Middle Eastern oil magnates and U.S. bankers. Since the financial crisis struck and political turmoil in areas like North Africa and Russia became more significant, people of more than 100 nationalities now invest their money in London property.

Safe Room
Safe Room

London doesn't hold the same reputation for danger as cities like Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, and Caracas, but incidents in recent years showed that the new wave of Londoners isn't necessarily safe from their old foes.The ultimate example of luxurious apartments with high-end security — including advanced CCTV circuits, mail scanning services, bullet-proof windows, and of course panic rooms — is One Hyde Park: The Residences of Mandarin Oriental. Clearly, the demand for flats like these is significant in the City on the Thames. The most expensive apartment in this development project sold for 136 million pounds. 

According to Reuters, a 16-million-pound (approximately $25 million) house for sale in the district of Kensington is also a very telling example. It includes two panic rooms, two separate CCTV systems, safes for guns and ammunition, bullet-proof windows, and machine gun–proof doors.

Why is the situation in the United Kingdom at all relevant to our original question? If you look carefully, you can see some very close parallels. London has its Russian and Middle Eastern investors who fell in love with the British real estate market, whereas Canada is one of the most targeted overseas real estate markets for Chinese investors. But the situation is still very different.

Canada is well known as a country that almost never enters any major conflicts, and people perceive its politics as quite liberal and mostly friendly to foreigners. Canadian society is very multi-cultural, and most newcomers integrate quite easily. So far, it doesn't look like all the Chinese who invested in Canadian real estate properties will move to Canada to escape Chinese politics. The relationship between Canada and China is also different than the relationship between Russia and the United Kingdom. It's very unlikely that people from overseas who move to Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, or Montréal will be scared enough to build London-like fortresses. So far, Canada's safe reputation remains intact.

Mirror Etrance Safe Room
This mirror doesn't reveal all the secrets, it's actually a secure entrance to a chamber. 

Are We Going to Build Weather Safe Rooms?

If we forget a few survivalists who build complex post–nuclear war shelters with equipment worth hundreds of thousands dollars, the last group of people who own a safe room live in areas are likely to be hit by a tornado. These underground safe rooms are typically built in the basement, and thanks to their steel and concrete structure, they're able to withstand pretty much anything. The simplest of these usually costs around $4,000 to $5,000.

The United States is one of the countries in the world most tormented by tornadoes. The tornado states like Oklahoma have been continuously devastated by this phenomenon. The Oklahoma City suburb of Moore was recently destroyed by a tornado in May 2013, but despite the life-saving potential of personal storm shelters, the cost still turns most homeowners off.

A little over 3,000 residential storm shelters are registered in Moore, a city of about 56,000,

said community development director Elizabeth Jones. Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis wants to propose a city ordinance requiring all new homes to have storm shelters.

All of this sounds quite reasonable, but when we look at the Canadian data, we see that the number of tornadoes that touched the ground and caused fatalities is much smaller than the U.S. data. Most Canadian Tornadoes occur in the south of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. British Columbia and the territories remain almost untouched.

The Trend Isn't Likely to Catch On

As you can see, tornado safe rooms are very unlikely to become a Canadian must-have — mainly because of the low number of tornadoes in general and the limited ground they cover.

All in all, Canada is probably never going to join the countries that have large numbers of panic rooms. Luckily enough, we're still one of the countries where you don't need to fear for your life as much as you do in other parts of the world.

6 thoughts on “Will Safe Rooms Become a Must-Have in Canadian Homes?

October 2, 2013 at 10:50 am
DAVID PYLYP says:

WOW
That really could be a fascinating trend if it catches on… But only in detached houses? What about in condos? What should those people do?

David Pylyp
Toronto Condo Question

Reply
July 28, 2014 at 5:58 am
vanita says:

Great post!

Reply
August 15, 2014 at 1:12 pm
R.Dilon says:

Actually a lot more homes than you think have those rooms in Canada, they’re called “gun room” It’s almost mandatory if you have more than a few firearms. At one point it becomes cheaper than a few good safes. It can even become a handyman’s project. Plans to build one are all over the internet. Then, all that is stopping you is the space you have and your budget.

Reply
August 18, 2014 at 2:49 pm
Jamie Sarner says:

Hi Dilon,
Thanks for your comment! You’re right, there are many safe rooms in Canada, and plans to build one are available online too. However, you have to be a good handyman to build a good quality safe room.
Regards,
Jamie

Reply
October 23, 2014 at 4:54 pm
John says:

The hardest part I am finding is trying to find a Toronto based company that manufactures and installs these rooms. Try to do a Google for safe rooms Toronto and surrounding areas in Canada. You’ll get lots of american companies listed or people selling just the vault door but no local retailers for the construction of these rooms especially in preexisting houses. Thanks to R.Dilon suggestion of them being called gun rooms I started calling local firearm ranges and had one of them give me a company that they would be willing to suggest, even they only knew of the one. It would appear that for storing valuables your choices are buy a safe or make do with a steel door on a old bedroom. Not very convenient for storing larger valuable or antique items for fire safety.

Reply
October 24, 2014 at 2:42 am
Jamie says:

Hi John,
Thanks a lot for your comment! Yes it’s not easy to find a good contractor, but I think a serious construction company shouldn’t have a problem with a custom project like this. Let us know whether you were able to have your safe room built and who helped you!

Regards,

Jamie

Reply

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