While home insurance policies are sometimes known as “all-risk” policies, they do not always cover all risks that may cause damage to your home. One of the more commonly excluded perils on most policies is earth movement, which includes earthquakes. The reason it’s called “earth movement” is that the exclusion itself is much broader than just earthquakes. Many types of shifting or moving earth are not covered by your policy, and you may be surprised to find that some of these cannot easily be insured, no matter how much premium you may be willing to pay. Earth movement coverage is not something that is needed in California alone.
Earth Movement Exclusions
The standard home insurance policy’s definition of excluded earth movement includes sinking, rising, shifting, and the expanding or contracting of earth. And all of these exclusions can be combined with water or not. This means if you think of earth movement only in terms of earthquakes and other seismic activity, you are missing some key exclusions that can cause substantial uninsured damage to your home. Let’s look at each of these excluded movements in a little more detail:
- Sinking – If the ground under your home settles, it is generally defined as sinking. This can be the result of many factors, such as erosion due to water or poor compaction when the home was built.
- Rising – The opposite of sinking, if the soil under your home rises, bulges, or heaves, it will cause damage to your foundation and the house itself. While water can cause erosion, too much water in the soil can also cause it to expand.
- Shifting – With sinking and rising covering the vertical movement of earth, shifting covers the potential lateral movements that will also impact your home.
- Expanding – As if rising earth was not broad enough of an exclusion, the policy includes expanding earth as an additional exclusion. These exclusions are similar to each other, but the redundancy of the policy exclusion leaves no ambiguity of its intent to exclude earth movement damages.
- Contracting – Sinking earth is similar to contracting earth, but as with expanding and rising earth, the home insurance policy seeks to broaden its exclusions, allowing no room for potential coverage.
The earth movement exclusion includes all of the above directions in which the earth can move and cause damage that is not covered by your policy. In addition to these definitions, the policy also excludes the following types of phenomena that are more commonly understood: earthquake, landslide, mudflow, mudslide, sinkhole, subsidence, erosion or movement resulting from improper compaction, site selection, or any other external forces. Additionally, the policy further excludes earth movement resulting from volcanic explosion or lava flow.
Essentially, virtually anything that causes your house to move or shift is excluded by the home insurance policy. However, direct fire caused by any of the above is usually still covered. For example, if a mudslide moved your house several inches and severed a gas line, which then resulted in a fire, the loss of your home due to fire would be covered. However, if the movement resulted in a cracked or shifted foundation, those specific damages would still not be covered, as the foundation is not a loss resulting from the ensuing fire.
Getting Coverage for Earth Movements
Unfortunately, many homeowners recently found out just how far-reaching earth movement exclusions can be after Hurricane Sandy. Even those who had purchased flood policies were still uninsured because their flood policies contained exclusions for earth movement, even if they were caused by floods. The Insurance Journal reports that the State of New York is now using some of its emergency funds to help the affected homeowners. But homeowners cannot always rely on a governmental agency to step in on their behalf if they are not properly insured.
To avoid many of the earth movement exclusions, homeowners can purchase insurance that will add the coverage back to their home insurance policies, or they can purchase separate policies separate from their existing policies. In some states, insurance companies may even be required to offer you the option of purchasing earth movement coverage.
For instance, in California, insurance companies selling home insurance policies must offer earthquake coverage to their customers, though customers do not have to elect that coverage. But this is helpful in that it reminds homeowners that they must make a conscious decision to accept or reject coverage.
Much like national flood insurance policies, California earthquake insurance is available through a special agency set up to handle the unique risk. Insurers in California can choose to offer the coverage through their own resources, but the majority elect to participate in the California Earthquake Authority (CEA) program for insurers. If you are a California resident and elect to purchase coverage from your home insurance company, it’s possible they are still providing the coverage to you through the CEA. However, you have issued a policy directly from your insurer.
Specialty Exclusions Homeowners Should Understand
Even with agencies such as the CEA setting up special programs to cover earth movement, there are still some circumstances under which no policy will insure a loss. A common example of excluded earth movement is loss due to a manmade condition. Insurance companies are particularly uncomfortable with these risks because they are unpredictable, and therefore difficult to underwrite. So even though no one can really predict an earthquake, scientists do have some information about where faults are located and therefore the expected severity of damages. This amount of data assists the insurance companies in modeling potential losses and helps them to set what rates to charge.
However, with manmade conditions, it’s impossible for the insurance company to foresee when such an activity might take place. The most common types of manmade earth movement are those from nearby construction activity. In these situations, your only recourse is usually to pursue a liability claim against the party responsible for causing damage to your home. While that process is challenging and not nearly as straightforward as a first-party home insurance policy, it’s certainly better than no recourse at all. If you have a particularly valuable home, you might be able to find an insurance agent that has the ability to access Lloyd’s of London, where virtually any risk can be insured – albeit for a price.
Earth movement is an inescapable risk facing all homeowners and there is limited insurance coverage available. Before making any assumptions about what is or is not covered, you should carefully read your policy. If you are concerned about the lack of coverage, ask your insurance company or agent about buying back some of the excluded coverages. In the event of a catastrophic loss, you will be glad you did.