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Standard homeowners insurance doesn't cover earthquake damage. See what earthquake insurance costs in California, Seattle, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

Earthquakes happen daily in various places throughout the world.

Some of those earthquakes are unfelt by us and detectable only by seismogram recordings, while others are not just felt but cause severe damage and even death. The tricky part about earthquakes is, you never know where and when they'll occur or how severe they will be. This is where earthquake insurance comes into play. 

If you're questioning whether you should buy earthquake insurance, we certainly can't fault you (pun intended), but there are some important facts to consider before you make your decision. Here, we'll cover everything you need to know to make an informed decision on earthquake insurance.

What does earthquake insurance cover?

Standard homeowners insurance policies generally don't cover damage from earthquakes and floods. That's why people buy separate earthquake insurance – or flood insurance if you live in an area prone to those disasters. Here are some things covered by earthquake insurance once you've paid your earthquake deductible:

  • Earthquake damage to the home or other structures on the property
  • Earthquake damage done to personal property
  • Additional living expenses if earthquake damages make your home temporarily uninhabitable

Remember that since most standard home insurance policies do not cover earthquake-related damages, if an earthquake is the cause of your damage, you will be left uncovered without earthquake insurance.

Earthquake policies can differ from company to company and state to state. Some may even define the word "earthquake" differently.

For instance, a landslide or sinkhole – or a volcanic eruption – they do similar damage and can involve your house tumbling off its foundation – but they certainly aren't earthquakes. That said, some policies may cover all of those types of earth movements, while some policies may only cover an earthquake.

Be sure to ask your agent questions, like:

  • Are all types of earth movements (earthquakes, sinkholes or landslides) covered? Are man-caused quakes covered? (i.e., if a nearby explosion causes the earth to shake, and your house is damaged, are you covered?)
  • Will the policy cover the cost to stabilize land beneath the home? After all, maybe the ground underneath your home needs repairing as well.
  • Does your coverage include replacing the structure, contents, landscaping, and outdoor items, such as swimming pools, hot tubs or fences?
  • Are alternate living costs covered if your home is not inhabitable?
  • Does the earthquake policy pay the costs of meeting updated building codes?
  • Does the policy cover repair to brick, stone or rock veneer? Some don't.

What is not covered by earthquake insurance?

Earthquake damage can have a domino effect.

The actual earth movement may cause damage like foundation cracking, or it may cause damage that leads to other damage like explosions, fires, trees falling or even flooding from a resulting tsunami.

If a tsunami occurs after an earthquake that floods your area and causes external water damage, earthquake insurance will not cover those damages. Instead, you'd need a flood insurance policy for coverage.

If an earthquake causes damage that is already covered under a separate policy, the other policy will kick in for coverage. In other words, earthquake insurance will not cover things you have already covered under another insurance policy.

For example, if an earthquake ruptured a gas line and caused a fire, your homeowners policy would cover the fire damage. Similarly, if a tree falls on your vehicle due to an earthquake, your auto insurance policy would cover the damage.

Expert tip: As usual, before you buy any insurance policy, homeowners or otherwise, check the policy first and read through it carefully. Every policy is different, and what's included with one company may not be with another. For example, some earthquake policies exclude things like fences, pools and landscaping, while others include those in coverage.

Earthquake insurance cost

So, how much is earthquake insurance? Like other insurance types, that depends on various factors, especially where you live and the type of home you live in.

The vast majority of California homeowners don't have earthquake insurance, even though California is an area prone to quakes. Why? It can be expensive in high-risk areas. Some parts of the country pay more than ten times than other areas for the coverage.

Lower-risk areas might pay as little as $50 a year. A high-risk area, such as Los Angeles, might pay more than $1,000.

And earthquake insurance gets even more expensive if you live in an earthquake-prone state and live in certain types of structures. The cost of earthquake coverage may go way up 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

The type of coverage will affect your premium as well. A policy that covers replacement cost – rebuilding your home with new materials of similar quality -- will be more expensive than one that pays actual cash value, which considers the wear and tear of your home as it currently sits.

What is an earthquake deductible?

Homeowners comparing earthquake insurance quotes will need to focus not just on the annual premium but also on deductible amounts. Deductibles typically run 10% to 20% of the coverage limit.

If you insure your structure for $200,000 and have a 15% deductible, your out-of-pocket expense would be $30,000. If you have bought coverage for the contents of the home or additional living expenses while it's undergoing repairs, you may owe deductibles on those, too.

Earthquakes more than 72 hours apart are usually considered separate events. That would mean a second claim and deductible.

The deductibles, large as they may be, are considered uninsured losses for disaster relief. You may be eligible for low-cost loans to cover them.

Does earthquake insurance cover contents and living expenses?

Earthquake coverage for contents has coverage limits, sometimes as low as $5,000.

The coverage limits are lower than standard home insurance because most earthquakes won't destroy living room furniture and other expensive pieces such as pool tables. But what if an antique doll collection or valuable art is destroyed during a quake? It's essential to make sure that it can be replaced, or the owner is reimbursed at current market value if it is destroyed in an earthquake or its aftermath.

Earthquake insurance through major insurers typically provides some coverage for additional living expenses if you must live elsewhere due to earthquake damage. The limit set for earthquake insurance ALE is often relatively low, so this is something you will want to know ahead of time. Earthquake insurance through the California Earthquake Authority (CEA) typically does not include ALE but it can be purchased as an add-on.

Expert tip: Renters insurance does not automatically cover living expenses for those dislocated in an earthquake.

Where can I buy earthquake insurance?

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

The first step is to get an earthquake insurance quote from your provider if they offer it and then shop around for quotes from other providers as well.

Consumers can sometimes add an earthquake endorsement to their homeowners policy, but this is something to ask insurers when you're shopping around. Not every insurance provider offers earthquake insurance.

Homeowners looking for California earthquake insurance can buy from a private company or publicly-managed California Earthquake Authority (CEA).

Expert tip: If your home insurer doesn’t offer earthquake coverage and you are not sure who does in your area, look to your state’s department of insurance (DOI) website. “Most DOI websites have a consumer area where it give tips on buying insurance and some, such as California, have comparison tools that shows you how is selling the product and sample rates,” says Penny Gusner, senior consumer analyst for Insurance.com.

In what parts of the country is earthquake insurance most important?

According to the latest U.S. Geological Survey National Seismic Hazard Maps, all 50 states have some potential for earthquake movement. That isn't to say that every state is likely to have a significant earthquake. But you might be surprised that it isn't only the California coast that is at risk for earthquakes. Hawaii and Alaska have a high amount of risk, and so do states like South Carolina.

South Carolina?

Yep. South Carolina and North Carolina had a 5.1 earthquake in August 2020. Nobody was injured, and there was no catastrophic damage. Still, there were some cracks in the road, and some merchandise was knocked off grocery store shelves. In other words, it was a more significant earthquake than you would expect in the area.

Meanwhile, you've probably heard about the New Madrid fault, which runs along the Tennessee state line and affects Arkansas and Missouri. There are occasionally quakes along the fault, but fortunately, there hasn't been a serious one since 1811 and 1812, when three large earthquakes rocked the area, ranging from 6.7 to 8.1 on the Richter scale. Thankfully, there wasn't a lot of damage, probably because skyscrapers hadn't been invented, and the area wasn't exactly teeming with people. Missouri wasn't even a state in 1811.

Still, you don't have to go back to 1811 to find examples of earthquakes in America.

In the week of December 7, 2020, here are some of the earthquakes that occurred:

  • A 2.6-magnitude earthquake hit Everson, Washington, on December 7, 2020. It rattled some nerves but didn't do much rattling of dishes.
  • There was a minor 2.0 earthquake in the New Madrid fault area on December 7, 2020. The bit of shaking that went on was near towns like Darling and Marks, both in Mississippi.
  • On December 8, the northern part of Georgia experienced a 1.8 earthquake.
  • On December 8, in South Dakota, there was a 3.2 earthquake.
  • On December 8, 2020, in Wichita, Kansas, there was an earthquake. It was only 3.0 on the Richter scale -- but it was the fourth one in two weeks. On December 9, they had a 2.5 earthquake, and the next day, December 10, 2.7.

In other words, earthquakes happen a lot in a lot of states. According to the USGS, the states with the highest risk for earthquakes are:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Hawaii
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Kentucky
  • Missouri
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • Oregon
  • South Carolina
  • Tennessee
  • Uta
  • Washington
  • Wyoming

Bottom-line: Is earthquake insurance worth it?

The answer to whether or not earthquake insurance is worth it depends heavily on where you live and what kind of risk you're willing to take with your financial well-being.

Though earthquakes can happen anywhere, if you live in any of the areas deemed high-risk by the USGS, we recommend strong consideration of adding earthquake insurance to your insurance portfolio. There is peace of mind knowing that if an earthquake would occur, your property and belongings are covered.