All Shook Up: The Pros and Cons of Earthquake Insurance

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake showed why it's a bad idea to build brick and masonry buildings in an earthquake zone.

Early last month my then-12-year-old daughter Nina had her nerves frayed by three magnitude 4.5 earthquakes that struck Southern California over a two-day period.

Although the three temblors were extremely modest by Southern California standards, the epicenters were roughly five miles from our home — which meant we were among those who experienced the brunt of the shaking. Believe it or not, one of the shakers that happened shortly after I had turned in for the evening was so sharp that, for a brief moment, I thought it was going to toss me off the bed.

Thankfully, the quakes left no damage to our two-story home. Nevertheless, Nina was constantly on edge, afraid that our house couldn’t withstand the shaking. As such, I tried my best to assure her that, unlike brick buildings, wood frame homes like ours that make up the vast majority of residences in Southern California are extremely flexible and, therefore, able to withstand most earthquakes with relatively minimal damage.

That’s not to say that during a major temblor lots of pictures can’t fall off the walls, cupboards won’t be emptied of their contents, and windows won’t crack or break — but the odds of our wood-frame house being turned into a terrifying heap of splintered lumber and shattered glass are long.

Earthquakes Can Happen Almost Anywhere

Of course, earthquakes in America aren’t limited to the western United States; there have been some significant temblors east of the Rockies too.

Last year, an earthquake registering 5.6 hit central Oklahoma. More notably, between 1811 and 1812, four major earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater struck the region surrounding New Madrid, Missouri. The shocks were so powerful that they were felt as far away as Ohio and Virginia.

The East Coast isn’t immune from the occasional seism either.

In 1886 a magnitude 7.3 quake struck Charleston, South Carolina, and Cape Ann, Massachusetts, experienced a strong temblor measuring 6.0 in 1755. More recently, a magnitude 5.8 shaker struck Mineral, Virginia in 2011. Other significant modern-day earthquakes in the eastern US measuring over 5.0 have struck Plattsburgh, New York, in 2002 and Pymatuning, Pennsylvania, in 1998.

In fact, according to the US Geological Survey, 23 states had at least one earthquake in 2011 big enough to be felt by someone.

The Pros and Cons of Earthquake Insurance

The reason I bring this up is because my homeowners insurance policy needs to be renewed this month; the basic premium is slightly over $600. As part of the process, the insurance company is also offering me the opportunity to buy earthquake insurance for an additional premium of $526.

So, is earthquake insurance worth it? That’s hard to say because there are so many variables to consider, and earthquake insurance policies and rules vary on a state-by-state basis.

In my case, the earthquake insurance policy being offered by the California Earthquake Authority would cover $304,638 to rebuild my home. Unfortunately, there is a 15% deductible on the structure’s replacement cost, which means the first $45,695 in damages will come out of my pocket before I see a penny from the insurance company.

Here’s the rub: Short of my home being completely destroyed, it’s fairly unlikely I’d encounter damages far above the policy’s large deductible. That hunch is backed up in a CBS MoneyWatch article by Kathy Kristof who wrote:

Total loss claims from fires are common, but they’re rare with earthquakes. California’s two biggest quakes — the 1989 Loma Prieta quake and the 1994 Northridge quake — give some clues. Roughly 45,000 claims were submitted after the Loma Pieta quake, and the average value (not adjusted for inflation) was between $9,000 and $18,000. (If you figure a 3% inflation rate, the $18,000 claim would be worth just over $36,000 today.) The Northridge quake generated 195,000 claims with an average value of $35,000 — about $60,500 in inflation-adjusted dollars, assuming a 3% average inflation rate.

It also doesn’t help that the earthquake insurance would only cover $5000 worth of damage to the contents of my home. That’s almost ludicrous.

If my home was older, or built of brick or masonry construction, I would probably buy it, but it’s not. I have a relatively new wood-frame home — built just 15 years ago — that is bolted to the foundation and constructed to the latest earthquake-resistant standards.

That’s why, after carefully weighing all the risks, I’ve decided to take my chances and decline the earthquake insurance because, for me, the potential benefits simply don’t justify the cost of the coverage.

Photo Credit: California Watch

Comments

  1. 1

    says

    It sounds like a pretty steep price when it has that high of deductible and can really only be utilized if there’s a full loss. I live in Missouri and have never thought about having an earthquake here.

  2. 2

    Mike says

    I live in the SF bay area and have always passed on earthquake insurance. The deductibles are way too high for me. I’ve lived through some big quakes here and the homes and buildings always stand up well to the shaking.

  3. 3

    says

    We live on the Pacific Rim, and so have to make this same decision. Our area is subject to mega-quakes up to 9+ magnitude. We do have earthquake insurance, and it’s about as costly and has the big deductible just like the policy you describe. I hear your logic though; it’s a tough decision. Our house is wood frame also, but built in 1966, so I’m guessing not especially earthquake-resistant. We also have a huge structural beam that runs the length of the house. I’m not qualified to have an opinion on this, but I worry about this beam being jolted off of whatever is holding it aloft and then falling. That would pretty much wreck the house I’m guessing. I think about half the homeowners in our area have earthquake insurance.

    • 4

      Len Penzo says

      Yeah, Kurt. If I lived in an area that has a history of 9+ magnitude quakes, I am certain I would buy the insurance.

      As a minimum, I would also retrofit my home so that the home is securely bolted to the foundation — a house that stays in one piece but slides off its foundation is probably toast. I’d also make my cripple walls shear resistant by attaching plywood panels to them.

  4. 7

    says

    “If my home was older, or built of brick or masonry construction, I would probably buy it, but it’s not. I have a relatively new wood-frame home” – Haha, somehow we just talked about this on my site.

    Do you have a fireplace? Does it (and the chimney) carry hairline cracks from previous quakes, or is it some flexible metal?

    My opinion: regardless of what the three little pigs said, there’s no place safer than inside a stick-built house in an earthquake. You’re in more danger from the pipes in your house breaking than the house itself.

    Bolting to the foundation is a nice feature – I think CA building codes didn’t specify that was necessary until the 70s. Another thing to watch out for (at least here in the Bay) is multi-story houses built before 1984 when the codes on the garage were different – picture houses on stilts in an earthquake. No good.

    • 8

      Len Penzo says

      Fireplace, yes. No cracks though. The free-standing portion of the chimney is very short and situated in the center of the house.

      My home’s foundation also has a post-tension concrete slab foundation that is designed to resist bending during excessive shaking.

      As for the faux-cantilever construction (supported by thin posts) as you mention, LA has its share of older homes overhanging steep hillsides and supported by a series of supporting stilts. Scary. Nice views, but potentially deadly if the epicenter of a very large quake is close.

  5. 9

    says

    Is the possibility of earthquake damage as high for you as floods are for us? We have to buy a separate $320 flood insurance policy here along the Gulf Coast since flooding seems to happen randomly and you never know, but it doesn’t sound like you have the same high probability of eventually being shaken to the ground.

    • 10

      Len Penzo says

      I don’t know what the relative probabilities are, Crystal. However, I believe there are contoured flood hazard maps available that define the probabilities of your property being inundated by a flood. I don’t know if they are put together by insurance companies, or FEMA or the Army Corps of Engineers, but I am fairly certain they exist.

      I used to have an old contour map of Southern California that detailed the amount of shaking the ground will experience depending on location — but I lost track of it. I believe it is based upon soil composition and elevation (as I understand it, homes in the foothills like mine, or on mountains tend to see less shaking due to the dampening effects of the hills).

  6. 11

    Spedie says

    Good article. I am selling my brick home (I live in MO) and buying a no-brick home also in MO. MO has had some of the most powerful earthquakes in USA history – the one in the 1800’s caused the mighty Mississippi to change directions for awhile.

    Len, what do you think of homes with basements? Nearly all houses have basements in my area. They are poured concrete in most cases.

    I also have the 15% deductible – it would be over 40 grand if something ever happened. I could drop the earthquake insurance and save some cash.

    I need to consider the basement angle…

    • 12

      Len Penzo says

      Spedie, I’m not a civil engineer — I’m an electrical engineer, but at the risk of putting my foot in my mouth, I’ll give my $0.02 anyway and practice civil engineering without a license. lol!

      There is always the chance a basement could fail in an earthquake (i.e., although when I say “fail”, I suspect cracking would be much more likely than caving in). More likely though, I think the biggest risk of having a basement would be having the upper floors of a brick or masonry building collapse into it.

      However, if it was a newer wood frame home, I would suspect the added risk of having a basement during an earthquake is minimal. In fact, my hunch is it would be riskier to have a multi-story wood-frame home with no basement than a single story wood-frame home with a basement (as long as the home was bolted to the foundation) — but that’s just my educated guess.

      You really should consult with a civil engineer to be sure though. :-)

  7. 13

    says

    Hey Len. I totally agree with you, in your situation earthquake insurance really isn’t worth the money. I think it’s difficult for many people to imagine a time where they need earthquake insurance. For a few, it might be worth the investment, but for most — I’d say pass on it. :)

  8. 14

    says

    I just renewed my homeowners insurance. I chronicled my process for an article I will publish next week (Monday). I went with an insurance company that insures earthquakes themselves vs. the state. BTW, I have a 10% deductible for earthquake coverage.

  9. 16

    says

    When I was a practicing advisor people would always ask about these types of policies. Then I’d ask them about disability and long term care insurance coverages (which people file claims against at a rapid rate) and they’d want nothing to do with it. We’ll make sure we have cat insurance but take risks with our biggest assets: our ability to earn an income and keep our nest egg protected. Truly frustrating.

  10. 17

    says

    As earthquakes is the frightening fact of life. This is very important to take it before any loss. This post is very much useful for me. But till now also I am not getting the difference between the earthquake insurance and the home insurance. Please help me in it so that I will also apply for that. Thanks.

  11. 18

    Josef says

    I live in Christchurch, New Zealand. We lost our house in the 7.1 and 6.4 major earthquakes nearly two years ago. We had total replacement insurance. It took us 18 months of haggling and fighting to get plans drawn up for a new dwelling. Land prices have sky rocketed, it cost us a lot more to buy a new section, since our old one was deemed not suitable any more by the Government. Hopefully we can start building next month. Here in Christchurch thousands of people are still in limbo regarding earthquake cover. Insurance companies are dodging their responsibilities everywhere. Nothing moves fast. Hurricane Katrina comes to mind.

  12. 19

    Rando Mperson says

    A couple considerations, the average amount of loss doesn’t tell you the risk of a total or near total loss. Homes nearer the epicenter will suffer far more damage than those on the periphery. The wider area of moderate damage will drag down the average. Second, the Northridge and Loma Prieta quakes are not the two largest in CA history and do not represent the top end of what’s predicted. The “big one” is predicted to result in $200 billion in damages compared to $20 billion in Northridge. In CA, the big one is not a matter of “if” but “when” and is considered overdue.

    Third, construction type and dwelling age are factored into the premium so in a sense your actual risk of damage is already factored into the premium and is theoretically neutral between different home types based on cost/risk.

    Lastly, EQ insurance is to protect your assets. If you have little or no equity in your home your exposure might boil down to the damage to your credit to walk away. If you have substantial equity, then that’s really what you need to protect.

  13. 20

    says

    Earth quake insurance are so high and i do not think that is a wise decision to make. Instead we should invest in building quality houses which will stand earth quakes

    • 21

      Len Penzo says

      Great point, Joshua. The best part of that statement is, a basic wood frame home that is bolted to the foundation is both earthquake resistant and extremely economical.

  14. 22

    says

    Earthquake insurance would be great in California, but I was literally quoted about $300-$400/month in premiums, and that just seems WAY too high. Unfortunately, the company even wanted me to insure our land, which does not make sense to me at all given that the land is not going to be destroyed (because unlike the movies, the ground beneath our house is not going to split open, chances are at least). Anyways, I tried to get them to insure just the renovation or replacement costs, but they wouldn’t so I didn’t buy any. Any suggestions?

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