Tips for Buying a Home In An Earthquake-Prone Area
There’s a lot to know about buying a home in an earthquake-prone area. Whether home buyers want to avoid purchasing a home in an earthquake-prone area or instead wish to prepare for living in an earthquake-prone area, it's important for prospective homeowners to know about earthquake zones and how to adapt to them. Knowing which homes and communities are safest can help buyers pick the right property for their needs.
Mapping Out Earthquake Zones Before Buying a Home
When prospective home buyers plan to purchase a home in a state with a high frequency of earthquakes, it's essential for those homeowners to plan ahead and decide the safest and most practical locations for them to buy a home.
To determine if a home is situated in an earthquake-prone area, the United States federal government provides seismic hazard maps, which catalogue locations in the United States most prone to seismic activity and earthquake hazards. Prospective homeowners should consult these maps to determine the risk of any home before purchasing.
Ascertain Whether a Building Has Earthquake-Resistant Structures
Earthquake-resistant buildings have changed significantly since their development, and as they become more efficient, it's important to stay up-to-date with the safest earthquake-proof technology. A few staple architectural designs in earthquake technology include specialized diaphragms, trusses, cross-bracing, shear walls, moment-resisting frames, and lightweight roofing.
Each of these has an important role to play in constructing homes that can endure earthquakes.
The diaphragm is a structural element of any building that operates by transmitting lateral loads to various vertical elements of a structure. Diaphragms often also serve as the flooring system in houses, though their primary purpose is to distribute weight throughout the house. Diaphragms built with earthquake durability in mind will share forces with vertical structures by having them strengthened horizontally and placed on their own deck.
Trusses are diagonal support columns meant to reinforce vertical and horizontal elements of a home's frame. They reinforce where a home's diaphragm is the weakest by providing additional load-bearing support in the event of an earthquake.
Developed as a specific type of truss and utilized especially in the construction of earthquake-proof buildings, cross bracing is the process of laying out trusses in an "X" shape to transfer seismic forces back to the ground. Cross-bracing provides additional stability in homes located in earthquake zones, making the home more likely to survive an earthquake.
Shear walls stiffen the structural frame of buildings in lieu of braced frames built with trusses, though they can be used alongside braces for additional stability. They work to counteract lateral force applied to the building by using a structural system of braced panels. Their use is sometimes limited, as they work best without any door or window holes and when they're placed at the halfway points of each half of a building. Despite such, shear walls are most commonly used on the exterior walls of earthquake-prone buildings, due to the more convenient positioning.
Moment-resisting frames have been in use since 1884, dating back to the development of the very first skyscraper in Chicago, IL. These specialized frames are designed to allow columns and beams to bend in the event of an earthquake, while the joints and connectors supporting them stay rigid. This allows buildings to yield some to offset the severity of damage caused by an earthquake without crumpling completely under the force.
Light roofing is a necessity in building earthquake-safe structures. A heavy roof is more likely to collapse during an earthquake, and it makes the entire house more unstable in the long-term. Metal roofing is often preferred for its durability and light weight compared to other roofing materials.
Get a Good Home Inspection
If the home a buyer is considering has been around for a few decades or more, it’s probably been through a number of earthquakes already. This may give an indication to how well built the property is, but it also may hold hidden structural issues. Damage from earthquakes isn’t always obvious. Chimneys and foundations can sustain serious damage that is invisible to the untrained eye, which means a house that looks fine on the surface may have actually sustained heavy damage.
This risk can be mitigated by a thorough home inspection. Talk to a real estate agent to get recommendations for a local home inspector, and make a point to attend the inspection while it’s being conducted. The buyer should ask questions during the inspection to ensure they understand the findings. If there are aspects of the property that are not covered by the inspection (the chimney, for example), have that part of the house inspected separately by a qualified contractor.
Price Earthquake-Proof Retrofitting
How do you make a building earthquake-proof? There are many structural additions that can be made to help a home survive the next big earthquake. Older properties in particular won’t always have the newest earthquake retrofits and upgrades. Find out what kind of accommodations can be made to improve a property’s earthquake readiness, then have those upgrades priced during the escrow period.
Get a Quote for Earthquake Insurance
Typical homeowners insurance will not cover earthquakes. Homeowners in earthquake prone areas must buy special insurance to protect their home and possessions. Earthquake insurance is relatively affordable, but standard policies are limited in their protections.
As a buyer gets quotes for earthquake insurance, spend time crunching the numbers and pay attention to deductibles. Never opt for a deductible that would be unaffordable after a big earthquake, and give serious thought to the amount of coverage you would need in order to get back on your feet after a disaster occurs.
Know Which Properties are Most Vulnerable
Some types of homes are especially vulnerable to collapse and damage during an earthquake. Some of the most vulnerable properties may include:
- Two story single family homes
- Older concrete structures
- Single family homes with “cripple walls”
Many of these types of homes can be retrofitted to be more stable during an earthquake. If a homeowner has already had these changes made to the house, ask to see documentation and certification to ensure that the retrofitting was done properly.
Research Earthquake Preparedness in the Community
Some communities are safer and more prepared for disaster than others. To find out what measures have been taken to ensure that a community is earthquake safe, contact the local schools and city hall to find out if the community has a disaster plan, what the local law enforcement and emergency services have done to protect the members of the community and which public buildings are earthquake retrofitted. The more prepared a community is for a disaster, the less disastrous an earthquake will be when it occurs.
It's also important to ensure that your household is prepared for an earthquake, should disaster strike. Plan to have non-perishable rations, bottled water, and emergency first aid supplies on hand to last between 3–7 days, in accordance with the Homeowner's Guide to Earthquake Safety.
Work With a Knowledgeable Real Estate Agent
Buying a home in a place that experiences earthquakes can be daunting, especially for home buyers who are new to the area. Working with a real estate agent can help make the process simpler and less stressful. Contact a real estate professional who understands the local real estate and can help buyers decide which property is right for their needs.