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Cost Of Earthquake Insurance Discourages Many Californians

Audio

Aired 4/8/10

The earthquake that rattled Southern California this week was a gentle reminder that not many Californians have earthquake insurance. Only 12 percent of homeowners are insured.

— The earthquake that rattled Southern California this week was a gentle reminder that not many Californians, and not may San Diegans, have earthquake insurance. Only twelve percent of homeowners are insured.

This could spell trouble when the big one actually arrives. But there are reasons why so many people have chosen not to be covered.

The epicenter of the earthquake felt in San Diego on Sunday was in rural Baja California. And it did some structural damage in Mexicali, Calexico and El Centro. But it could have been much worse.

"California homeowners, in this most recent event, basically dodged the bullet," said Glenn Pomeroy, CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, which is a state-managed non-profit that provides 70 percent of the earthquake insurance in California.

"Let's say the 7.2 that happened on Sunday happened under Los Angeles. We would see massive destruction. Homes destroyed. Infrastructure badly damaged," Pomeroy said.

The California Legislature created the earthquake authority after the costly Northridge Earthquake in 1994 drove most private insurance companies out of the temblor business. Pomeroy said the authority has the ability to cover billions of dollars worth of claims.

But property owners won't get anything if they don't purchase policies.

Pomeroy points out that the typical homeowner's insurance policy explicitly rules out coverage for earthquake damage. He says many homeowners don't realize this, or they believe federal disaster aid will come to their rescue in the event of a big earthquake.

Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the insurance industry in California, said people should not expect the feds to make them whole if an earthquake destroys their houses.

"Keep in mind that FEMA grants usually top out at about $30,000," he said. "And if you get or qualify for a low-interest loan, it's still a loan and you're going to have to pay it back."

Those may be good reasons to get earthquake insurance, but there are reasons why most people decide to just take their chances. Those reasons boil down to the rarity of severe earthquakes, the cost of insurance and high deductibles.

If your house is totally destroyed by an earthquake, insurance is great. However, a typical earthquake policy has a 15 percent deductible. If you have earthquake insurance on a house that would cost $200,000 to replace, and an earthquake does damage to your home, you will have to pay $30,000 before you get your first dollar of coverage. The temblor that hit El Centro and Calexico this week will result in few insurance payouts, in light of those deductibles.

State Farm insurance agent Steve Seibert works out of El Centro. He said many of his customers were upset to learn that they weren't covered because their earthquake damage was not catastrophic.

"So when you actually have a policy and it turns out that, wow, I have to reach this deductible or certain things in the policy aren't covered when I thought they were," said Seibert. "That's where it leads to the frustration."

Seibert says that in Imperial County, a place riddled with fault lines, earthquake insurance is expensive, often in the neighborhood of $1,000 a year. For many customers that can double the amount they pay to insure their homes.

Pat Abbott is professor emeritus of geology at San Diego State and he focuses on natural disasters. He said he does not carry earthquake insurance on his home, even though coverage in San Diego can be as little as $300 a year. He said if you live in a new house that was built to code, the cost of insurance may not make sense.

"For most people they are better off spending even a few thousands of dollars strengthening their existing homes, and remove problems they have, at a cost less than the deductible on their insurance policy anyway," said Abbott.

Pomeroy, the CEO of the California Earthquake Authority, said he recognizes the cost of insurance and the size of deductibles discourage many people from getting covered. But he said there is a move in Congress to pass loan guarantee legislation that would make it much cheaper for the earthquake authority to provide insurance, and that would make it cheaper for California homeowners to buy earthquake insurance.

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