What earthquake insurance costs and what it covers

Will a standard home insurance policy cover your home for earthquake damage?

The short answer is no, though it may cover damage from a fire or broken pipes that follow.

But consumers can add a home insurance earthquake endorsement to their policy, although "not every insurance company offers earthquake coverage," says Don Griffin, vice president of personal lines for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Separate, stand-alone home insurance earthquake coverage is also available.

Unlike flood insurance, which is available from through FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), earthquake insurance is offered by private insurance companies.

Homeowners looking for California earthquake insurance can buy from a private company or through the publicly managed California Earthquake Authority (Its current slogan is "California Rocks!"). Costs vary dramatically, not only according to location but also by the age and construction of the home, and how big a deductible you choose.

For example, insuring a 20-year-old, slab-foundation, one-story wood-frame home for its replacement value of $425,000 in Napa, California, would cost about $1,383 a year, the CEA estimates. The same home built of brick would cost $2,451.

Even that policy requires a 10 percent deductible; that is, the owner would be responsible for the first $42,500 in repairs.

Only about 12 percent of California homeowners buy earthquake coverage.

Coverage is much cheaper in other areas of the country -- as little as 50 cents per $1,000. In general, you'll pay more for earthquake coverage if your home is:
  • Built of brick or masonry.
  • Multiple stories.
  • On a raised foundation.
  • Older (predating changes to building codes) and not retrofitted to limit damage.
  • In a higher-risk zone; that is, near an active area or on soil that is more likely to move.

While many homeowners might not think of buying earthquake coverage until the ground shifts beneath their feet, that's too late. After an earthquake of any consequence, there's a moratorium on new policies of 30 to 60 days (when the threat of aftershocks is present) in most states.

Earthquake insurance coverage

Earthquake insurance covers both the structure and the contents of a home. Homeowners decide how much insurance they want to purchase for each type of coverage.

"Generally, the structure coverage is more important because the more costly damage from an earthquake is usually in terms of cracks in the foundation rather than in damage to personal possessions," Griffin says.

Earthquake insurance also reimburses living expenses for homeowners while their property is repaired. Some insurance companies offer endorsements for outbuildings or swimming pools. In other cases, standard home insurance policies cover those items, says Griffin.

Griffin says earthquake policies and endorsements have deductibles that usually are set as a percentage of the home's replacement value from 1 percent to 10 percent.  In the case of an endorsement, the earthquake deductible is separate from and in addition to the deductible on the home insurance policy.

Some people might be tempted to skip earthquake coverage unless they live in California. But earthquakes can impact most - if not all - states.

The Insurance Information Institute says the entire Northwest U.S. is at high risk for earthquakes. Earthquakes are also a worry in several states along the New Madrid seismic zone within the central Mississippi River valley.

"If you live in an earthquake zone, you should realize that - as we saw after Hurricane Katrina - a government bailout could be long in coming and short on funding," says Pete Moraga, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Network of California. "Homeowners should think about what they are doing to mitigate their exposure to the financial impact of an earthquake."

Other types of damage may be covered

Some of the worst damage from an earthquake can follow the quake when gas pipes burst or cracked water pipes cause a flood. Homeowners insurance policies often cover such damages.

"A fire is a 'covered peril' in a standard home insurance policy and will be covered regardless of whether it is caused by an earthquake or not," says Moraga. "Homeowners who do not have earthquake insurance will still have fire damage covered."

Flood damage caused by a tsunami following an earthquake, such as occurred in Japan, would require a separate flood insurance policy, according to Moraga.

Any earthquake-related damage to your car would be covered under your comprehensive coverage, if you carry it.

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