Strengthening structures: Tips for an earthquake-proof house

In earthquake-prone regions, safeguarding your home is essential. With the right home upgrades, you can protect your loved ones and mitigate the potential damage caused by earthquakes.

Vivian Tejada
May 10, 2023
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If you live in one of the 16 states with the highest earthquake risk, it’s important to protect your investment and earthquake-proof your home. Houses built before 2000 don’t usually meet current seismic building standards. Unless you own a newly-constructed property, it’s a good idea to get your home retrofitted before an earthquake has a chance to strike.

Over the past few decades, there have been a number of devastating earthquakes across the world that have caused major structural damage to cities, homes, and individuals. Organizations such as Earthquake Country Alliance have emerged in an effort to help protect people and property from earthquake damage.

Homes that aren’t up to building code may become unlivable after earthquakes, forcing homeowners to spend tens of thousands of dollars in damages before they can move back in or rent out the property. To avoid ending up in this situation, here are some tips for designing an earthquake-proof house from top to bottom:

Preparing the foundation for a major earthquake

Earthquake-resistant buildings all have one thing in common—a strong concrete foundation. The foundation of a building is what everything else rests on and should be able to withstand earthquakes. Here are a few ways you can create an earthquake-resistant foundation:

Reinforce the foundation

The foundation of a building is supposed to be durable enough to withstand outside forces. However, changes in the soil beneath the foundation or the weight above the foundation can create shifts in the foundation itself. When the foundation cannot handle those shifts, such as ones caused by intense seismic forces, the foundation can start to break.

Breaks in the foundation compromise the integrity of the entire home. That’s never a good thing, and it’s a costly repair. It’s best to have a structural engineering professional reinforce your home’s foundation by either mudjacking, underpinning, or lifting the house. This will decrease the chances of serious damage to your property during an earthquake.

You could also consider a base isolation for your home's foundation. Base isolation involves constructing the building's foundation with rubber and lead in a way that reduces the swaying of a home during an earthquake.

Bolt the foundation to the home’s frame

Depending on what the foundation expert finds, they may suggest that, in addition to reinforcing the foundation itself, you bolt the foundation to the home’s frame. Foundation bolting, also known as bracing bolting, is the process of connecting the home’s wood frames to its concrete foundation with anchor bolts.

In older homes, there’s a piece of wood that rests on top of the foundation called the mudsill. During an earthquake, an unbolted mudslide can cause your home to slide right off the foundation. Foundation bolting allows you to add an extra layer of protection to your home’s foundation by bolting down the mudsill in the foundation.

Secure structural components through seismic retrofitting

Aside from the home’s foundation, you also want to secure other structural components to your home, such as pillars, walls, and chimneys, through a seismic retrofit. Earthquake retrofitting helps stabilize your home during seismic activity and can salvage parts of your home that may otherwise be damaged by earthquake forces. Here’s what you can do to secure the structural components of your home:

Install structural steel connectors and shear walls

Enhancing the stability of your home through the installation of structural connectors is crucial for making it earthquake-resistant. These connectors, which may include metal brackets or straps, absorb seismic waves and ultimately fortify the structural integrity of your home. Shear walls act similarly by reducing the movement of a structure during a seismic event which in turn reduces the damage to the home and its contents.

The seismic forces released during an earthquake exert tremendous pressure on a home. By placing structural connectors within the home, these forces are effectively dispersed throughout the house, enhancing the home's overall earthquake resistance. This ensures that key structural elements like walls, floors, and roofs remain securely connected, which reduces the likelihood of separation or collapse during a natural disaster.

Reinforce cripple walls

Cripple walls are short walls that support the floor and exterior walls of a building's structure. Similar to mudslides, they can easily shift during an earthquake if they are not braced. Cripple wall collapse can cause severe damage to your house and even personal injury. It's best to implement seismic protection by bracing your home's cripple walls.

You can brace cripple walls by installing plywood panels, framing clips, or OSB sheathing. These materials significantly improve the structural integrity of a home’s walls, enhancing their ability to withstand seismic forces.

Retrofit the chimney

Brick chimneys account for the most common damage during larger earthquakes. When they collapse, they often hit nearby homes, cars, and even bystanders. Retrofitting your chimney with safer materials reduces the chances of bricks loosening during an earthquake and causing harm. You can retrofit a brick chimney by adding a diagonal steel brace to reinforce the bricks or by replacing the upper portion of the chimney with lighter materials like metal or stucco.

Upgrading windows and glass

Windows pose a big risk during an earthquake because they can break into separate pieces and fly across the property, causing harm to those within and outside the home. This is especially true with a soft-story building, which has multiple floors with windows and glass. Consider the following solutions to protect your home’s windows during an earthquake:

Install safety film or laminated glass

By installing safety film or laminated glass on your home’s windows, you reduce the chances of window glass shattering. Safety film is a transparent layer applied to the glass, while laminated glass consists of multiple bonded layers. Both options reinforce the glass, making it resistant to breakage and preventing dangerous shards from flying across the property during a storm.

Reinforce window frames and sashes

Window frames and sashes are prone to detachment or collapse during seismic events. Reinforcing them with metal or wood braces or upgraded hardware enhances their resilience. This reduces the risk of your windows collapsing on themselves and could also prevent dangerous debris from entering the home.

Place locks on windows to keep them shut

Securing windows with locks during a seismic event is a simple way to protect your home from earthquake damage. Although they won’t prevent your windows from breaking or collapsing, locks will at least prevent them from opening.

Securing hazardous items

Anchor down heavy furniture and appliances

During an earthquake, the inside of your home can become a hazard as well. Securing heavy furniture and appliances is very important given that an earthquake can destabilize them, causing them to tip over unexpectedly.

By properly anchoring heavy furniture, such as bookshelves and cabinets, to walls or floors, you reduce the likelihood of accidents and structural instability. This is especially important if you are not evacuating and are remaining within the house.

Secure water heaters

Water heaters are extremely heavy items that, if tipped over, can cause serious damage to your property and even pose safety hazards. Water heaters are susceptible to damage and disconnection during seismic events, which can lead to water leaks, fires, or even explosions.

When securing a water heater, it’s important to strap both the top and the bottom with two separate, heavy-gauge metal straps. Securing just the middle of the tank may not be enough if the earthquake is strong enough to shift the water heater at its base.

Securing home systems

Maintain electrical systems

Ensuring the safety of electrical systems is also important. Seismic events can damage these systems, leading to fires and electrocution. Homeowners can minimize the chances of electrical malfunction by maintaining proper electrical wiring, using surge protectors, and conducting regular inspections.

Secure gas shut-off valves

Safeguarding gas systems is equally important as ensuring electrical systems. During seismic events, water pipes and gas lines are prone to damage, which can result in leaks, flooding, or even fire and explosion hazards. By ensuring that shut-off valves are easily accessible, fully functional, and clearly labeled, you can promptly shut off the gas supply during an earthquake. It’s even better to have an automatic gas shut-off valve installed that is triggered by strong vibrations.

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Financing earthquake-proof home renovations

There isn’t a standard cost for earthquake-proofing a home, but according to the California Earthquake Authority, it can cost anywhere between $3,000 and $7,000 to retrofit a home. Large homes built on a hillside will typically cost more. Luckily, there are a few ways you can finance home renovations.

Homeowners insurance

Purchasing homeowners insurance is a must, especially if you live in an area prone to natural disasters. Since earthquake-proofing a home can be expensive, some owners prefer to take out an additional insurance policy and use these funds to repair their homes after an earthquake has occurred.

Insurance companies don’t sell standalone “earthquake insurance policies,” so you will need to use a combination of your home insurance policy, as well as supplemental policies to get adequate earthquake coverage.

An additional policy covering earthquake damage usually costs the same amount as a homeowner’s insurance policy. Most policies provide financial protection for:

  • the dwelling (structure of the home)
  • Detached units (like a detached garage)
  • Personal property
  • Living expenses if you are displaced

PACE loan

Another common way of financing home renovations is through a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loan. PACE loans finance 100% of a homeowner’s property renovations up to $250,000, as long as the renovations make the home more efficient or safer.

PACE loans come with competitive fixed interest rates and terms of up to 30 years for some projects. In some cases, homeowners don’t need to make an initial cash payment towards the loan.

However, borrowers do need to settle associated loan fees along with their next property tax bill. Failure to make payments on a PACE loan could result in the loss of your property, so it’s important you carefully consider your financing options moving forward.

Home equity loan or HELOC

Retrofitting a home can also be financed through a home equity loan or home equity line of credit (HELOC). Both financing options leverage the equity you have in your home and utilize your home as collateral. A home equity loan is repaid much like a mortgage, whereas a HELOC is repaid only after the draw period ends. Just like with a PACE loan, you run the risk of losing your home if your home equity loan, or HELOC, is not repaid.

HEI

Homeowners also have the option of financing their earthquake retrofitting projects through a Home Equity Investment (HEI). An HEI allows homeowners with a 500+ credit score to access a lump sum of cash with no restrictions on how the funds can be used, no monthly payments, and no income requirements.

Instead, homeowners repay the investment amount plus a percentage of the home’s future appreciation at any time during a 30-year term. Homeowners pay back the HEI in a lump sum when the house is sold, refinanced, or at some other point in time. A Home Equity Investment is an attractive financing option for homeowners because it comes with:

  • Lump-sum payouts
  • No monthly payments
  • If the home value goes down, the payback amount may be smaller
  • There are no restrictions as to how money is used
  • No prepayment penalties ‍

Using an HEI to earthquake-proof your home

Living in an earthquake-prone area without a securely retrofitted home can be worrisome for a homeowner. It’s best you take measures to protect your home before it’s too late. Instead of depending on insurance agencies in the aftermath of an earthquake or risking homeownership through a collateral-based loan, consider a Home Equity Investment.

Point provides a unique financing solution to homeowners with unique financial needs who need to earthquake-proof their homes and secure peace of mind. Visit Point to find out if you qualify to fund your goals without new monthly payments.

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