The secret world of doomsday shelters (© Victoria Phipps/Getty Images)

The interior of an abandoned shelter. // © Victoria Phipps/Getty Images

You know all about the real-estate market. But what about the "underground" real-estate market — the secretive efforts of homeowners to install doomsday shelters at home?

If suppliers' reports are a gauge, the market is small but growing. Unlike 1950s-era fallout shelters and newer aboveground "safe rooms," meant to protect against storms and home invasions, bunkers are buried at least 6 feet under, in part to shield occupants from nuclear radiation.

You can buy a bare-bones shelter for $38,000 uninstalled or spend tens of millions of dollars — and a surprising number do — on a lavish, custom-made subterranean sanctuary.

Bunker builders cite a long list of client fears, from war and terrorism to megastorms and epic earthquakes. But the customers themselves aren't talking. "Secrecy is their defense," says shelter manufacturer Walton McCarthy, of Radius Engineering in Terrell, Texas. Shelter owners don't want neighbors and strangers pounding on the entry hatch in an emergency, he explains.

Also, many have installed shelters without building permits. While city and county authorities may disagree, McCarthy maintains that his prefabricated shelters fall outside building codes. "These have no foundations, so technically don't come under building code. They're self-contained and are not hooked up to the grid."

To sidestep nosy neighbors and building authorities, contractors may disguise the projects as swimming pool installations. "The hole is dug on Friday," McCarthy says. "We get there Friday at 5, by Monday it's in, and the neighbors can call whoever they want."

Small market, but growing
The home-bunker movement probably is not large. In 30 years, Radius has sold 1,100 shelters, from the six-person variety to ones big enough for 500. McCarthy says that business has doubled in the past five years, though, and that he's planning to nearly quadruple his 58-person work force and add a second plant.

Hardened Structures, a Virginia Beach, Va., company that makes custom and prefabricated shelters for homes, institutions and the military, reports that despite normal peaks and valleys in construction, its business has grown by 40% since 2005. The company's business is about half prefab products and half custom-designed, cast-in-place, reinforced-concrete bunkers, which average around 2,500 square feet. Hardened Structures has sold more than 1,000 shelters of all types, says Brian Camden, principal.

The larger bunker market is hard to assess. An industry group, The American Civil Defense Association, is apparently wary of attention. Sharon Packer, head of the organization and co-owner of Utah Shelter Systems, a manufacturer, did not return a reporter's calls and emails. People in the business are publicity-shy. "For years we wouldn't give interviews. They all want to make you look like a nut," Camden says.

McCarthy entered the field in 1978 as a young mechanical engineer, designing and making concrete shelters, then steel and now fiberglass. He wrote the “U.S. Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Design Standards.” And he reports that his business generates $30 million to $45 million annually through the sale of 50 to 100 shelters a year. Radius sells to businesses, homeowners, churches and government. Most of the shelters hold 20 people or more and can sustain life for one to five years. Half are sold in the Washington, D.C., area.

The smallest Radius shelter, an eight-person unit, costs $108,000. Here's what you get:

  • A ribbed, composite cylinder 12 feet wide, 11 feet high and 24 feet long; with no metal parts, it's meant to be undetectable by radar or thermal-detection devices.
  • Your shelter comes with a diesel-powered generator, a toilet and septic tank, a kitchen, plumbing, air filters, a ham radio, a shower, a DVD player and TV, bunks and furnishings. Radius sells preserved food separately.

Shipping is extra — about $10,000 from coast to coast, for example — and installation is an additional $20,000 to $25,000. And then there's excavation: The shelter requires a hole 25 feet deep, so it's too big to fit under a home.

Around 70% of his shelters are installed in vacant land outside heavily populated areas, McCarthy says. A deck or flower bed often disguises the entrance. "You hit like a garage-door button and open the hatch, you go in there and close the hatch … It's like a big camper is what it is."

More options
You also can:

  • Buy your own abandoned missile silo. Available properties range from a $2.8 million, 210-acre Titan 1 missile site outside Denver and a $2.3 million, 20-acre Atlas F site with a 2,050-foot runway in rural New York to a $295,000, 8,200-square-foot, hardened underground communications vault on 13 acres near Paris, Mo.
  • Purchase a fractional share in a Vivos luxury community under, say, the Mojave Desert or the mountains of Arizona. Developer Robert Vicino says that he's planning up to 20 community "turnkey" shelters of various sizes in the U.S. and that six are in some stage of construction. Vicino says he has 7,000 applications with "hundreds" of deposits in escrow; he declined to be more specific. Ownership in the biggest, a 944-person facility outside Omaha, costs $25,000 per person. The shelter nearest completion, in Arizona — "I won't say exactly where; we try to keep them as stealthy as we can," he says —  costs $50,000, or half-price for children under 16. At 14,000 square feet, there's room for 144 people. Membership includes food, clothing, fuel, water and communal shelter: a bunk in a four-person room. The Arizona shelter is planned to wrap up this year; the idea is to eventually turn over ownership — including maintenance, security and control — to each shelter's owners association. Vivos says its shelters will withstand a 50-megaton nuclear blast 10 miles away. Each has power generation with backup; water, biological, chemical and radiation air filtration; sewage disposal; and security and medical equipment.
  • Go the condo route: Survival Condo Project, the brainchild of Florida engineer Larry Hall, plans to convert abandoned Atlas missile silos in Kansas into fancy fallout shelters at a cost of $1.75 million per floor. 

Just don't look to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for guidance. It has no guidelines for building or installing a home shelter, an agency representative says. Military.com, however, links to several FEMA pamphlets from the 1980s with instructions for building home bomb shelters.