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Don't Have Insurance? Then Read This 

A few steps worth taking

Wednesday, Aug 1 2001
If you can't afford or choose not to buy earthquake insurance, there are other ways to minimize your financial exposure to quake damage. Here are a few steps worth taking, ranked from the cheapest and easiest to the more expensive and involved.

- Find out what dirt you are living on top of and plan accordingly. Different parts of the Bay Area vary a lot in how they respond to shaking. Looking at a geologist's map of your neighborhood will give you a sense of how seriously you'll feel an earthquake, and what to plan for. The Association of Bay Area Governments offers surprisingly easy-to-read seismic-risk maps of the greater Bay Area at its Web site,

- Live somewhere sturdy. With the housing market finally softening, it's increasingly possible to avoid buying or renting a home that is not retrofitted or falls short of modern safety standards. Wood-framed houses take shaking fairly well. Masonry doesn't. Unreinforced masonry really, really doesn't. So-called soft first-story apartments, the boxy multiunit buildings with parking bays below, are particularly tottery structures. And the Marina is not the only place where housing sits on soupy landfill in the Bay Area.

- Buy a cheap drill and bolt everything down. The city of San Leandro has published a good guide to household earthquake readiness, available from the city or online at The classic steps are to strap the water heater to the wall and bolt bookcases to the wall studs. You can also put little latches, available cheap at good hardware stores, on the kitchen cabinet doors, so dishes don't go winging across the room like stone Frisbees when the shaking starts. Place furniture so it is less likely to hit anything if it topples (do not, for example, put a 400-pound bookshelf beside your bed). Know where the gas shutoff is and which way to turn it to close the valve (half a turn in either direction in most cases), and keep the right size wrench nearby.

- Consider buying insurance even though it stinks. The California Earthquake Authority's insurance plan isn't very good, but it could be worth the expense in your particular situation. The policy is sold through most private insurers and probably merits the hour to investigate.

- Retrofit your house. State, county, and Bay Area city governments offer precious few incentives for homeowners to retrofit their houses. Berkeley will give you a small tax break if you happen to live there. But other money is available. The Association of Bay Area Governments publishes a guide to public grants and loans for retrofits, found at money.html. Depending on where you live, going through the expense and tumult of retrofitting -- hiring a contractor to bolt your house to its foundation, shore up the chimney, or make other modifications -- is probably worth it if you can handle the costs or are willing to take out a sizable loan. It's not cheap, but people spend as much remodeling kitchens, for less practical reasons. And a retrofit could easily pay for itself, either by limiting damage in a quake or by increasing your house's market value. But it's a large, often prohibitively costly investment.

About The Author

Marc Herman


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