The Pros and Cons of Earthquake Insurance

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(Sacramento, CA)
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Howdy Hoover has vivid memories of the deadly Loma Prieta quake that shook the Bay Area.  He was at home in Sacramento when it hit.

"I remember in 1989 during the World Series watching the first game on television, looking out at my pool and just watching the waves roll across the pool from the earthquake in San Francisco."

There was no damage to Hoover's home from the quake. And Hoover says based on his experience as a longtime Sacramento resident, he's never considered buying earthquake insurance.

"In the fifty years I've been here I really haven't seen any damage in Sacramento. So I don't worry about it."

Hoover is one of about a dozen people gathered for a picnic near the golf course in Sacramento's upscale Land Park neighborhood, where there's no doubt a lot of equity amassed. Home prices there now easily exceed a half-million dollars. Standing nearby, is Hoover's friend and Land Park resident Bill Oliver who says he has earthquake insurance - prompted 30 years ago after feeling tremors from distant quakes.

"We'd get a few that roll through here. I've got a few cracks in my patio and garage floor to show that there's a rolling motion that comes through there."

Hoover and Oliver represent the two sides of homeowners in California when it comes to earthquake insurance. Oliver is by far the exception. Only 13 percent of homeowners in the state have this type of coverage. In places like Sacramento, where quakes are less likely, the number drops significantly. But the insurance industry and state officials are trying to shake-up those numbers, even in locations like Sacramento. 

 We tend to think of the Central Valley as nearly earthquake free. But as the science evolves, we're finding surprises everyday.

Candysse Miller is with the Insurance Information Network of California, a pro-industry group. She says even though a major quake hasn't hit the region, homeowners should be prepared. 

"You could be at the coast, you can be near the mountains, shakers can occur just about anywhere."

Deductibles for earthquake insurance policies are high -- commonly fifteen percent. Depending on where you live, premiums can run between 300 dollars to more than a thousand dollars a year. But industry critics say earthquake insurance is not for everyone.

Douglas Heller with the non-profit Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights says high premiums and deductibles make it a bad investment for many. He believes only long-time homeowners should consider a policy.

"I don't know that you have to own your home outright for it to be a rational decision. It's more economically rational to have earthquake insurance the more equity you have in your home."

The number of homeowners in the state with earthquake insurance reached 29 percent following the six-point-seven magnitude Northridge earthquake a decade ago. 

State Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi is concerned the relative calm of the last ten years has made Californians complacent. According to Garamendi, the four quakes earlier this month were a wake-up call to uninsured homeowners. 

"If there's a major earthquake, there's going to be a very serious financial wipeout for thousands upon thousands of homeowners, particularly given the extraordinary increase in the value of homes. Large amounts of equity are going to be crashed, along with the home."

If you are an uninsured homeowner are you leaving yourself open to financial disaster? Unfortunately there is no established formula for determining whether or not to buy earthquake insurance. 

Agents say when it comes to risk, everyone has their own comfort level. For anyone considering buying quake insurance, officials recommend shopping around and comparing policies.