How to Earthquake-Proof Your Home

Homeownership By Noah - March 24, 2021

An earthquake might feel like no more than a tremor that rattles your glassware. Or it can be a major event that knocks old homes off their foundation. You can’t know for certain which type the next earthquake will be, so how do you protect your home effectively?

Homeowners in high-risk areas for earthquakes need to weigh the tradeoff between insurance costs, retrofitting expenses, and how secure they feel in their home. If you don't have earthquake insurance but worry you should, we’ll help you consider major and minor protections to help you earthquake-proof your home and provide peace of mind for your family.

How Vulnerable Is Your Home to Earthquakes?

Learning just how earthquake-prone your home is starts with assessing your area. If you live in Florida, for example, hurricanes are part of life, but earthquakes are rare and likely to be minor when they do happen. For West Coasters, earthquakes are much more frequent, and more likely to leave damage in their wake.

Fortunately, your location doesn’t doom you to earthquake damage. You can take steps to strengthen your home to withstand even a sizable earthquake.

Start by reviewing your home documentation. Earthquake building codes have gone through multiple updates, often after a major quake proved that existing standards were insufficient. If your home was built earlier than 1990, there’s a good chance that the initial construction followed codes that are now outdated. Home inspection and seller’s disclosure paperwork from when you bought your home can include specific vulnerabilities on your property. For a few hundred dollars, a structural engineer can come by to do an in-depth assessment and identify possible weak spots.

If your own investigation or a professional engineer’s assessment reveals weaknesses, one option to consider is a seismic retrofit, which reinforces older homes to help them withstand earthquakes.

What Is Retrofitting?

Retrofitting usually involves work to help a building weather the different kinds of force an earthquake can bring. Some older homes are reinforced to withstand strong front-to-back force, but they’re weaker when it comes to the lateral shaking quakes can cause. Retrofitting can also add these protections:

  • Anchor mudsill to foundation: A home can slide across the foundation in an earthquake, weakening walls and rupturing utility lines. Retrofitting anchors your home more securely to the foundation.
  • Brace cripple walls: Cripple walls are short walls on the foundation that support the floor and exterior walls. They need to be reinforced for side-to-side as well as front-to-back forces.
  • Brace and possibly replace foundation: A brick foundation may crumble under earthquake forces. A concrete foundation is your most secure option.

Many retrofit estimates suggest earthquake retrofitting costs $3,000-7,000 on average nationwide. Homeowners on the West Coast should expect to pay toward the upper end, because they’re like to need higher levels of protection. Large older homes or more difficult projects may increase prices above $10,000. The best way to get an accurate sense of what retrofitting would cost for your home is to ask a few local contractors for an estimate.  It's also worth searching for local grant programs that may help reduce your out-of-pocket costs, such as California's Earthquake Brace and Bolt Program.

More Ways to Earthquake-Proof Your Home

Besides taking on a seismic retrofit, you can take other steps to reduce the risk of earthquake-related damages and protect the interior of your home.

Exterior weak points

While you consider whether a retrofit is right for you, you can minimize certain types of damage by concentrating on common weak points in a home.

  • Windows: You may be able to apply safety film as a DIY project. Safety film costs a few dollars per square foot, so you can tackle this as a low-cost way of protecting your home.
  • Garage: A garage is considered a “soft story” due to less reinforcement on the walls. A contractor can add steel reinforcements to keep your garage standing in an earthquake.
  • Brick chimneys: Bricks have a tendency to crumble and turn into mini-projectiles under earthquake force. A contractor can discuss options like adding protections or replacing the chimney entirely with a safer model.

Interior earthquake protection

Thoughtful planning can reduce the risk of major damages inside your home, and some are simple enough to tackle today.

  • Get a tankless water heater: A water heater tank can weigh hundreds of pounds, turning it into a missile when an earthquake strikes. Double-strapping can hold a tank in place, but switching to a tankless system is an even safer option. This usually costs $2,000 or less.
  • Set emergency shut-off valves: You want your electricity, gas, and water to switch off in an earthquake to reduce the risk of fire or flooding.
  • Bolt large items like bookshelves and dressers.
  • Use earthquake-safe hooks for wall hangings and position hooks on wall studs.
  • Protect valuable possessions. If you have a priceless vase on display, you might want to anchor the bottom of it to something supportive.
  • Have fire extinguishers on hand. Fires are common after earthquakes, so be prepared to extinguish a fire rapidly.

Do You Need Earthquake Insurance?

Homeowners who bought a standard homeowners insurance policy may be surprised to learn they’re not covered for earthquake damage. Most homeowners or renters insurance won’t cover earthquakes, although they likely will cover related damages, such as a fire caused by the earthquake. You’ll need to purchase earthquake insurance as either as an add-on to your existing homeowners insurance coverage, or as a separate policy.

What Earthquake Insurance Covers

Typically, an earthquake coverage covers repairs to your house and attached structures (like a garage),  additional living expenses should you need to move out of your home after an earthquake (like hotel bills), and your personal belongings. It's worth noting that earthquake insurance will provide personal property coverage if your things are water damaged due to a burst pipe caused by the quake, but it will not cover any water damage due to a flood – you'll need flood insurance for that.  Cars are also not covered with earthquake insurance, so you may want to review your auto insurance policy as well.

Earthquake Insurance Cost

Earthquake insurance premiums and deductibles are based on your location, property value, and the materials your home is made of. For a homeowner in the Midwest, where earthquakes are relatively rare, the cost of earthquake insurance may be much lower than a California homeowner, since many counties in the Golden State have a 75% risk or higher of being hit by an earthquake in the next 30 years.

For Californians, an earthquake insurance policy from your home insurance company or the California Earthquake Authority can cost thousands of dollars a year. A few years of insurance coverage can exceed the cost of a full earthquake retrofit, so some homeowners find that the cost is more than it’s worth, or they want to put funds toward work on the home rather than insurance coverage.  

In either case, getting a retrofit first can also help you save on insurance premiums. The CEA retrofit discount offers an earthquake insurance discount on eligible older homes that meet California’s seismic retrofit standards.

How Home Equity Can Help You Afford Earthquake Protection

Your home is one of your most valuable possessions, both in terms of its importance to your life, and the actual dollar value of what you own. Your home equity can be an excellent resource for you to draw from to continue adding security and value to your home.

With a home equity company such as Noah, a Home Value Investment can quickly provide you funds in hand put toward retrofit expenses, earthquake insurance, or other priorities.

A retrofit can cost a lot of money on the front end, but if it prevents your home from suffering major structural damage, you may be protecting tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of your hard-earned equity from collapsing with your house in an earthquake. Most importantly, reinforcing your house against earthquakes lowers the risk to the most valuable part of your home — your loved ones.