How to shop for a safe home in earthquake country

8 January 2016:  Editorial

We’ve all been there

You’ve finally zeroed in on a home that you can actually—somehow—afford. It’s within commute range, in a good school district, and has enough space for your family. Everything else you’ve liked has been too expensive, and everything else affordable has been too depressing. And miracle upon miracle, your bid was accepted by the seller.

Alley and Dan shop for homes in Sausalito, California, with their eyes open using Temblor

Now you just want to close the deal. Soon you will be scanning title and loan doc’s and the home disclosure report as fast as you can, signing your signature a mind-numbing 140 times in front of the title officer. You don’t want to hear anything that could stand in the way of closing, and neither does your real estate agent. You just want to stop searching and start living.

But there’s a fly in this ointment

At closing ceremonies, you learn through the home disclosure natural hazards report that the house is in an active fault zone, or in a liquefaction or landslide zone, or has not been bolted to its foundation. And even this news gives you no idea what the likely cost of seismic damage could be, or how much it would cost to retrofit the home, and whether this makes sense. What are you getting yourself into?

You really want to think twice before buying this home—on a fault and a landslide.

Temblor provides a better way

We designed Temblor so that you can shop for a safe home in earthquake country with your eyes open. Just by pulling out your phone, you can learn what the seismic hazard and costs would be for any home you look at. You can compare homes in different locations to see their relative hazard and how the likely damage would change, or you can compare the damage cost of an older and newer home in the same community.

Alley and Dan find a seismically safe home, which will lower their cost of ownership

Say, for example, you work in San Francisco (54). San Rafael (36), Burlingame (66), and Berkeley (80) are all within 50 minutes by car, but their seismic hazard rank (shown in the parenthesis) are very different. Now, let’s consider the 30-year cost of seismic damage to the same 1960 three-bedroom, two-bath, 2250 sq.ft. home in each city. Temblor makes this easy to estimate as well:  The chance of suffering $100,000 damage is 1 in 9 in San Rafael, but 1 in 6 in Berkeley. Or, let’s say you compare a Berkeley home built in 1960 with one built in 1990: The chance of $100,000 of damage over 30 years drops from 1 in 6 to 1 in 8 for the newer home.

Finally, say you buy that 1960 home. Should you retrofit it right away, and would that save you money? Temblor estimates that your retrofit would cost about $6,600 and your expected damage would drop by about $16,500, giving you a $9,900 net benefit, plus a three-fold increase in safety for your family. Now you know it’s the smart move.

Another free tool we recommend to assess your quake resilience is QuakeCAFE, which allows you to quickly assess how prepared you are compared with other Californians, and to share advice on how we could be better prepared.  It works on all screens and takes only a minute.

Ross Stein and Volkan Sevilgen, Temblor

You can check your home seismic rank at