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Earthquake insurance basics

Read the Spanish version: Conceptos básicos sobre seguros contra terremotos

Earthquakes can suddenly turn any homeowner’s life upside down. And contrary to popular belief, most people are at risk no matter where they live in the U.S.

Everybody knows that earthquakes strike regularly in California. But other parts of the country also face significant danger. For example, since 2014, Oklahoma has recorded far more temblors than the Golden State, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

[Visitors from California can get an earthquake insurance quote through our partners here.]

Some of the worst earthquakes in U.S. history occurred in the New Madrid Seismic Zone of the central U.S. And Alaska is actually more susceptible to earthquakes than any other state, with a magnitude 7 event striking nearly every year.

Earthquakes have the potential to produce significant damage in 42 of the nation’s 50 states at some point in the next 50 years, according to a USGS forecast. 

How much earthquake insurance coverage should I buy?

If you decide to purchase earthquake insurance, buy enough to cover the costs of rebuilding your house and replacing damaged possessions. The amount of insurance you buy should be based on replacement and reconstruction costs, not the market value of your property and possessions.

You should also find out the policy's rules for filing claims before you sign any earthquake insurance policy. For example, it's important to know how much time you have to file a claim following a quake. In some cases, damage from earthquakes is not immediately apparent.

So, most U.S. homeowners should be prepared for the possibility of earthquakes. Unfortunately, your homeowners insurance policy will not protect you if a temblor damages your home. For comprehensive protection, you need earthquake insurance

Do I need earthquake insurance?

Most parts of the U.S. are at some risk for earthquake activity. Over one 20-year period – from 1975 to 1995 – earthquakes occurred in every state except Florida, Iowa, North Dakota and Wisconsin, according to the USGS.

And yet, just 8 percent of U.S. homeowners have earthquake insurance, according to a 2016 poll from the Insurance Information Institute. Even in California, just 11 percent of homeowners had earthquake policies as of last year, according to the California Insurance Department. 

The III urges homeowners to consider purchasing earthquake insurance if they live in an area that is especially prone to earthquakes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides resources – including a hazard map – that can help you gauge your risk.

The III also suggests asking yourself if you could afford to skip such coverage and pay out of pocket for earthquake-related repair and replacement costs to your home and possessions.

The USGS recommends talking to your insurance agent about coverage needs. The USGS also suggest you consider the follow items when weighing whether to purchase earthquake insurance:

  • proximity to active earthquake faults (see USGS faults map)
  • seismic history of the region (frequency of earthquakes)
  • time since last earthquake
  • building construction (type of building and foundation)
  • architectural layout
  • materials used
  • quality of workmanship
  • extent to which earthquake resistance was considered by the designer
  • local site conditions (type and condition of soil)
  • slope of the land
  • fill material
  • geologic structure of the earth beneath
  • annual rainfall
  • value of the building and its contents
  • cost of the insurance and restrictions on coverage (i.e. the deductible).

 

What does earthquake insurance cover?

Earthquake insurance covers damages to your home or personal possessions that result from the violent shaking and cracking that often accompanies a temblor.

However, earthquake insurance does not cover some losses. For example, if an earthquake triggers other types of damage – such destruction from a fire, or flooding from a burst pipe – your homeowners policy will reimburse you instead of your earthquake policy.

Earthquake insurance also does not protect your car. If an earthquake causes a tree or other item to topple onto and damage your car, you will need comprehensive coverage in your auto insurance policy to pick up the pieces.

What are the basic components of earthquake insurance?

Earthquake insurance typically can be broken into several components. For example, a policy from the California Earthquake Authority includes:

  • Dwelling coverage. This protects you if your home is damaged. It does not cover landscaping, pools, fences, masonry or separate buildings.
  • Personal property coverage. This covers things inside your home, including furniture, appliances and electronics. It does not cover breakables such as china or crystal unless you purchase additional protection. Limits begin at $5,000 and can be increased to $200,000.
  • Additional living expenses coverage. This reimburses you for costs if you must live somewhere else while your damaged home is rebuilt or repaired. Limits range from $1,500 to $100,000. The deductible does not apply to this form of coverage.

The above details apply only to CEA policies sold in California. Coverage from private insurers varies by provider. Before purchasing a policy, sit down with your agent and discuss exactly what is – and is not – covered.

How does earthquake insurance work?

Earthquake insurance works like most types of insurance. If a temblor damages your home, you should file a claim with the company that sold you the coverage.

Like most types of insurance, you need to pay a deductible before your coverage kicks in. However, unlike a traditional homeowners insurance policy, earthquake insurance often comes with what is known as a “percentage” deductible.

Such deductibles range from about 2 percent to 20 percent of your home’s replacement cost, according to the Insurance Information Institute. So, if you have a $300,000 home with a 2 percent earthquake deductible, you will be on the hook for $6,000 in damages before your coverage takes care of the rest.

If your deductible is 20 percent, you would have to pay $60,000 out of pocket before insurance begins to cover your repair costs. 

Percentage deductibles tend to be higher in states with greater risk of earthquake damage. The Insurance Information Institute says such deductibles are typically around 10 percent in Nevada, Utah and Washington, and 15 percent in California.

Where do you get earthquake insurance?

Because earthquakes are not covered as part of a homeowners policy, you will need to buy coverage as an endorsement to that policy, or as part of a standalone earthquake insurance policy.

Typically, private insurance companies offer this coverage. If you live in California, you can also purchase a policy through the California Earthquake Authority. It is privately funded, but publicly managed.

How much does earthquake insurance cost?

As you might expect, the cost of earthquake insurance varies depending on where you live – and how much your home is at risk.

A recent Insure.com analysis found that it might cost as little as $50 a year in low-risk areas. By contrast, California residents are likely to pay more than 10 times that amount.

The type of house you own also impacts costs. For example, premiums are likely to be lower if you own a wood-frame home than a brick home. Wood-frame structures typically can handle the stress of an earthquake better.

Here are some typical rates you might pay for each $1,000 in coverage, according to the III:

 

Pacific Northwest

  • Wood-frame home: $1 to $3
  • Brick home: $3 to $15

 

New York

  • Wood-frame home: Less than 50 cents
  • Brick home: 60 to 90 cents

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