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How to Prepare Your Home for an Earthquake

5 ways to protect your living space and prevent unnecessary loss or damage.

Older homes should be inspected by a professional, and reinforced and retrofitted as needed.

Michiko Kurokawa / Shutterstock

More than 100 earthquakes of 3.0 magnitude or higher occur in California each year, and the ground shakes even more often in Alaska, Nevada, and Wyoming. Every state in the West is at risk of tremors. Yet only 14 percent of homeowners across the West have earthquake insurance, according to an industry poll. 

Here are five ways to help avoid unnecessary damage to your house and belongings in an earthquake. (Want tips for protecting loved ones and pets? We have you covered.)

1. Check the foundation.

“Earthquake proofing” is a common phrase, but it’s misleading: There’s no way to protect your home from every possible scenario. However, making sure your house is properly anchored to a sound foundation will help prevent it from shifting or sliding off during an earthquake, which can badly damage the structure and endanger anyone inside.  

Keep an eye out for deep cracks in ceilings, walls, and foundations. These can be signs of vulnerabilities that you’ll want to have repaired before the next earthquake hits. “Retrofitting can reduce or prevent costly damage, and help protect your biggest asset,” says Margaret Vinci, manager of earthquake programs at the Seismological Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

As a general rule, the older the home, the more likely it is to need work. If you’re concerned, ask a seismic engineer or certified earthquake expert to conduct a visual inspection. The California Earthquake Authority (CEA) maintains a list of contractors who have registered with it; this is a good place to start, but be sure to check the provider’s references and consumer reviews before hiring. 

The CEA also runs a program called Earthquake Brace and Bolt that offers some state residents up to $3,000 to retrofit their homes. The funds typically go to homeowners whose houses are at the greatest risk of earthquake damage and would benefit the most from retrofitting. The registration period typically takes place in the fall each year.

2. Secure your living space.

Fasten or tether to the wall any large, movable items, such as televisions, bookshelves, and dressers. Brace overhead light fixtures. Anchor big appliances like the water heater, furnace, and refrigerator too. Hang heavy items, such as paintings and mirrors, away from couches and beds. Store breakable items in low cabinets with latches.

Smart Tip: The Earthquake Country Alliance offers step-by-step guides to securing items in your home.

3. Review your insurance coverage.

Most homeowners and renters insurance does not cover damage caused by earthquakes. 

Buying additional earthquake insurance isn’t as expensive or limited as you may think. AAA Earthquake Insurance, for example, is available to homeowners for an average of about $850 a year and renters for $80-$120 a year in California. (The price varies with the age and location of a home, as well as whether it’s been retrofitted.) A typical policy covers the dwelling, personal property, and/or living expenses if you’re temporarily displaced.

“Insurance is one of those things we don’t think about until something happens, but of course when something happens, we’re glad to have it,” says Gary Reid, insurance operations and speciality product manager for AAA. “You definitely want to educate yourself on your options.”

4. Take stock of your belongings.

Create a complete inventory list of your possessions. This will help you determine a sufficient amount of earthquake insurance coverage, as well as simplify filing an insurance claim in the event of any damage or loss. 

Snap photos and shoot videos of your belongings, receipts and warranties, and the structure of each room—and upload them to cloud storage for safekeeping. A video tour of your house will give insurance adjusters a clearer picture of the pre-earthquake condition of the walls, flooring, light fixtures, and other parts of your home.

5. Know how to shut off the gas and water supplies.

Keep wrenches that fit your gas and water main valves handy. If you suspect a leak or safety issue following an earthquake, shut off the supply. Hissing sounds or a rotten-egg odor are signs of a gas leak; avoid lighting matches or flipping any electric switches while checking for trouble. 

However, if there is no evidence of a hazard, don’t shut off your gas service, because it isn’t something you can restore yourself. That’s a job for a professional, and in the aftermath of an earthquake, it could take several days or longer for your utility provider to get to your house.

If you’re cooking when an earthquake hits, turn off the stovetop or oven immediately. There is no need to unplug small appliances. However, if you suspect a gas leak, don’t use appliances of any kind until you’ve verified that no leak exists. Sparks can cause a fire or an explosion.