Like many of you, I was violently jolted awake at 2:40 am early Thursday morning. At which point, I blearily opened Twitter to confirm a 4.4 magnitude earthquake centered in nearby Berkeley. (Twitter was exploding with Tweets, even at that early hour.)
I grew up in California; the recipient of thousands of seemingly unregistered tremors, so earthquakes don't usually faze me much, but this one did.
In fact, I spent the remainder of the night tossing and turning, AND pondering about whether Cliff and I have earthquake insurance on our home - or not. And then I turned on a late, LATE movie.
My first text the next morning was to our contractor who had remodeled the house from top to bottom just a few years ago. Because the basement is now a finished garden apartment in which Cliff's 93-year-old mother, Zee, resides, ALL of the walls are sheet-rocked and painted. It's a lovely space, but is it safe?
"Happy New Year," Patrick," my text began, "Do you recall if you bolted our foundation during the course of construction before closing the walls?"(I'm certain I wasn't the only inquiry that morning.)
"That would be a better question for the engineer, but if memory serves me correctly, we did," Patrick quickly responded. "We added anchor bolts throughout and hold-downs as well." (Relief.) Bless you, Patrick, bless my engineer and bless my architect, Ahmad.
The next call was to my insurance agent, Aaron, at Brignoli and Ghiri. His funny and irreverent tag line at our weekly networking meeting is: "Protecting your 'ass-ets,' and indeed, I wondered if ours were fully protected. . . .
"Remember that earthquake quote you sent me last March?" I asked, "Did I follow up and if not, how quickly can we put that in place?" (I hadn't.)
For the record, most structural engineers I've met with (and I've met with many over the years), will opine that earthquake insurance is expensive (it is), offers limited coverage (it does), and has a very large deductible (up to 25%)Thus, if your current home will likely cost a million dollars to rebuild, you're going to contribute $250,000 before the job gets underway. (Yikes!)
These same engineers will assuredly tell you that you are much better off spending the money to retro-fit your home instead, and I'll broach no argument with them. There's no doubt these highly-educated professionals know what they are talking about. Every home in the state of California should be bolted and sheer-walled, at a minimum.
Still, with stories of the devastating North Bay fires fresh on my mind highlighting the large number of homeowners who were tragically under insured (or not insured at all), along with the experience of having lived through the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989, not to mention the fact that Cliff and I paid for our latest house in cash, I've a deep (and admittedly, conservative) appreciation for the necessity of this optional coverage.
Granted, earthquake insurance is not everything it should be - and it more than doubles are annual homeowners' insurance - but we simply have too much equity in our current residence to gamble on the San Andreas Fault. Let's just be real, in a game of chance, we're likely to lose that round - SPECTACULARLY!
BUT should you buy earthquake insurance? It's the $64,000 question all Buyers ask, and to be perfectly ambivalent, the answer depends on several key factors:
1) How much equity do you have in your home? (In other words, is it your own money at risk, or the bank's?)
2) What level of earthquake retrofitting have you undertaken and how current is the work? (Out-dated retrofitting doesn't meet current standards and may provide far less protection than you believe.)
3) Is the house built on bedrock or infill? (How stable is the soil?)
4) What type of foundation is the house built on? (Is the house on piers? Spread footings? Slab?
5) What is the foundation's current condition? (It's of little use to bolt a house to a foundation that's crumbling and about to fail.)
6) How risk adverse are you? (Are you willing to gamble?)
In the end, none of us knows when the next major "seismic event" will occur (not even the geologists), and whether it will be more than just an unwelcome wake-up call in the middle of the night, or something far more dire. What's more, only you can decide whether earthquake insurance is an added layer of security you want, need, desire - or don't - when it comes to your own home. I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority of properties do NOT carry earthquake insurance in the state of California, given the added expense (but probably should).
BUT for me, if I'm gonna shake, rattle and roll, I'd rather know that no matter the outcome, Cliff and I are in a position to rebuild, should we ever need to. Then maybe, I'll be able to get back to sleep the next time the ground rumbles and literally knocks me awake! (Maybe.)
How can I help you?
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Julie Gardner, has been writing The Perspective for 15 years and has published more than 600 essays. She is also a frequent contributor to the Sound Off column in the Real Estate section of The San Francisco Chronicle.