Two things to make your house much safer
You need more than basic insurance to survive a quake
Homeowners need make only two simple and inexpensive modifications to a house to greatly improve occupant survivability and mitigate damage caused by an earthquake.
When a major earthquake strikes Victoria, the extent of damage a singlefamily house sustains will be dependent on when it was built and on what soil it was built.
Newer homes, those built after 1970, will likely fare better than older homes in an earthquake because the building code changed to require houses to have foundation bolts. These simple bolts anchor the house to the foundation.
“In an earthquake, the side-to-side forces can shift a house off its foundation,” said Steve Hughes, owner of Home Check inspection services. “Even if it moves 100 millimetres, it can be very costly to repair.”
He says people can purchase do-it-yourself brackets from home-improvement stores that bolt on to the top of the foundation and on the sill plate of a house to minimize movement.
The second modification is to attach two tethering straps on the home’s hot water heater — something that is already done in a modern house. A hot water tank with water can weigh between 136 and 227 kilograms and, when ruptured, can cause water damage to a house.
“For $20 [for the cost of materials], you can save yourself a lot of grief,” says Hughes, who has more than 30 years of construction experience.
“Plus, in case of an emergency, the intact water tank holds the only potable water a family might get in awhile.”
He says eight out of 10 homes he has inspected don’t have seismic straps.
Perhaps it’s because Victorians have been lulled into a sense of complacency. Greater Victoria hasn’t had a major earth- quake for more than 100 years. The region has had a few good shakes over the years, the last one in 2001, when residents may have felt a magnitude 6.8 earthquake centred in Nisqually, about 50 kilometres southwest of Seattle.
But when the Big One strikes, Victorians will fare better than our neighbours in Richmond, says Teron Moore, a seismic specialist with Emergency Management B.C.
Most homes in Greater Victoria are built on rock or rocky soil, which is less likely to liquefy than the fine sandy soil found in Richmond or Seattle.
When it happens, people shouldn’t just wait around for help to come, says Moore.
“Families should be prepared to be self-sufficient for up to a week, with food, clothing and medication,” says Moore.
“In the worst-case scenario, one’s house may not be livable, with no water, sewer services or electricity.”
He says that the initial response is likely to be from neighbours helping neighbours. Recent earthquakes in New Zealand and Japan suggest 90 per cent of people affected by a disaster received community assistance prior to accessing regular emergency services.
“If you’re not injured, check on your neighbours, especially the elderly.”
People can mitigate the financial cost of repair and rebuilding a house after an earthquake by purchasing earthquake insurance. Note that standard homeowner policies do not include earthquake coverage.
Consumers need to purchase earthquake coverage on top of their standard household insurance. But there is a quirk. If the house burns down — perhaps set alight by a ruptured gas main after an earthquake — it is covered because loss due to fire is covered in standard insurance policies. You have to read the fine print in your policies to see if this quirk applies in your case.
Of course, you should not rely on this clause as a reason not to buy earthquake insurance.
“Ninety per cent of my clients have earthquake insurance,” says Eric Hartley, president of Bill Hartley Insurance.
“It is a common addition but can add up to 30 per cent on the cost of a typical homeowner’s policy.”
While most insurance underwriters don’t differentiate between houses constructed of different materials, the difference in damage can be stark.
A typical wood-framed detached single-family home in the area can take a lot of lateral shaking as wood “gives.”
A brick building, on the other hand, is highly vulnerable, especially if the mortar in the joints has decayed over time. That explains why you’ll see wooden structures that look relatively unscathed other than collapsed chim- neys after an earthquake.
But owners of heritage homes should be careful to read the fine print.
While some insurers may cover vintage homes, when it comes to repair, the insurance company may use new materials — which can detract from a heritage structure.
“Usually there is a clause in every insurance contract that defines repair with items of like quality — and not to replicate what was lost,” says Hartley.
“When there is a question as to the value of [repairing or replacing] a house, especially a heritage house, it is incumbent on the homeowner to ensure the house is insured to that value.”