"All Perils" Means: Learn About the Geology
Every year in every state many property owners discover that their
homeowners insurance policy will not pay when their homes are damaged by common geological processes
such as earthquakes, expansive soils, floods, hurricanes, landslides and subsidence. These homeowners probably had the impression that their "all perils" insurance
policy would pay for almost any type of damage that their home would experience.
I felt the same way when I purchased my first homeowners insurance policy. I distinctly
remember sitting in the agent's office and listening to him tell me that I was buying an "all perils" policy. I felt good about that because I was covered for "all perils." I didn't read the policy word-by-word to see what it really covered - who reads 50-page insurance policies issued by leading companies in the insurance industry?
Everyone assumes that they cover everything. It's an "all perils" policy, right?
A few years later my work as a geologist brought me in contact with lots of
homeowners who were unable to collect when their homes were damaged by floods, landslides,
subsidence and other problems. I was surprised at how many people received this rude insurance awakening.
At first I blamed it on "cheap insurance." Then I began to realize that the people I met under
these circumstances were not going to have their losses covered by their insurance company - not even by
the companies that I always thought were the leaders of the insurance industry.
"Exclusions: What We Do Not Cover"
One day I received an updated policy from my insurance company in the mail and I decided to spend a little time reading.
I wanted to find out if my policy would cover the same disasters that I saw other people suffering. Sure enough,
the policy had an exclusions
statement that included a long list of geologic hazards. The list of exclusions was almost identical to the table of contents of an environmental geology textbook.
There was no coverage for landslides, floods, mine subsidence, mud slides, mud flows, volcanic eruptions,
surface water, sewage and a long list of other problems.
I have since looked at the exclusions statements of many homeowners insurance policies and my personal opinion is that
the typical homeowners insurance policy is not much more than a fire and limited liability policy - and maybe some
coverage for damage done by falling objects and wind.
Your homeowners insurance probably does not cover half of the things that you assumed it would.
In my opinion, the "all perils" name is misleading because the coverage excludes so many different types of losses that commonly occur. Many homeowners never learn about these exclusions until after their premium is paid and they have suffered an uncovered loss.
An Idea for Insurance Companies: Perhaps insurance companies could generate an enormous boost in revenues by offering their current policies as "fire, wind and limited liability coverage" (or another appropriate title). They could then offer a real "all perils" policy for a higher price. Don't you think a lot of people would appreciate this clarity and security -- and opt for the upgrade?
The lesson to be taken away from this is: "Learn about the geology before you buy the house." If the home has some
geological risk you should not buy it. Or, you should know exactly what your risks are and either find specific insurance
to cover them or live in the house informed of your exposure.
Below I have done my best to summarize what many homeowners policies do not cover and provide links to more detailed information. More detailed learning for these topics can be obtained by reading an environmental geology book or taking an environmental geology course at a university.
For site-specific information you can contact a consulting geologist or the geological survey
that serves the area where the house is located.
Expansive Soils and Homeowners Insurance
In a typical year in the United States, expansive soils cause damage to more homes than
earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Most homeowners insurance policies do not cover damage from expansive soils.
Expansive soils contain a significant amount of clay which can expand when wet and shrink when dry.
These volume changes can generate enormous forces which can damage foundations, underground utilities,
sidewalks, driveways and other parts
of a home. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that one half of the homes in the
United States are built on expansive soils and one half of these will have some damage.
There are certain areas of the United States where expansive soils are beneath much of the land. A general
guide to where they are is shown in the map and references at right. In those areas where expansive soils
are a known problem, professional inspection for the presence of expansive soils or expansive soil damage
should be done before purchasing an existing home or construction lot. Small areas of expansive soils occur
almost anywhere so inspection is never a bad idea.
Many state geological surveys
have detailed information about local expansive soil problems. The United States Department of
Agriculture has a publication titled "Understanding Soil Risks and Hazards" that explains some of the
problems with expansive soils.
The typical homeowners insurance policy does not cover damage from earthquakes.
A homeowner who desires this coverage normally needs to purchase a "named perils" policy - an
earthquake insurance policy.
One way to do this is to ask your homeowners insurance agent if your policy provides earthquake coverage.
If the policy does not cover earthquake damage then ask where you can
purchase the coverage. Some insurance companies will add earthquake insurance coverage to an existing
homeowners policy for an additional annual fee. In some geographic areas, earthquake
insurance is available through government-sponsored programs such
as the California Earthquake Authority. Many insurance agents can advise on the companies and
government programs that offer earthquake coverage in your area.
Another question that many homeowners ask is: "Do I need earthquake insurance?" There
are a few situations where a homeowner is required to have earthquake insurance to comply
with mortgage requirements. However, for most people the answer depends upon where the home
is located and the level of risk that the homeowner is willing to take.
The map at right shows the geographic variability of earthquake hazard in the conterminous United States. White areas on these maps have the
lowest hazard and the pink areas have the highest. Earthquake insurance is probably a very good idea in the red, pink, and
orange areas. If I lived in these areas I would buy the insurance. It is a prudent idea in the yellow areas.
Earthquake hazards are lower in the green, blue and white areas. If you live in one of these areas and want the
peace of mind that you are financially protected in the event of damage then the insurance is a good purchase.
I live in southwestern Pennsylvania and do not have earthquake insurance - perhaps I will regret
According to the National Flood Insurance Program, floods are America's #1 natural disaster.
They occur in every state and almost every community. Homeowners insurance usually does not cover flood
damage so it is very important to understand the flood hazards at your location and obtain appropriate
insurance coverage if needed.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency provides address-specific flood hazard information on the
FloodSmart website. There you can type in your address and learn about the specific
flood hazards at your location. They also have information for assessing flood hazards and
purchasing flood insurance.
FloodSmart recommends flood insurance even if you live in an area of low to moderate risk. This is because
25% of all flood insurance claims come from areas with minimal flood risk. Flooding occurs there
during exceptionally large flood events and also as a result of local drainage problems. Purchasing
insurance in these areas is inexpensive - it starts as low as $49/year for contents coverage or $100/year
for building and contents coverage.
Homeowners insurance usually does not cover "hurricanes" per se, instead, the coverage or exclusion
is based upon which element of a hurricane (such as wind or flooding) directly caused the damage.
These issues are not easily resolved and often must be settled in court. For example: a house was flooded by a
storm surge and the homeowner claims that since the surge was produced by wind that the damage should
be covered. The insurance company maintains that they do not pay for flood damage. Many of these types
of cases - based upon definitions and impacts - are difficult to resolve.
Persons who buy property in areas that might experience hurricanes should learn about the types of hazards
that come with these storms and how they impact the specific location where they will live. History is often
a very good teacher. For example, if a location was inundated by storm surge in the past, then a future
inundation will probably occur.
Homeowners insurance usually does not cover landslide damage. I have been to many homes that have been
damaged by landslides and know of only one situation where the homeowners insurance company paid for
the loss (after a lawsuit determined that the damage was done by a rock fall and the policy did cover damage
from falling objects). Anyone who intends to buy or build a home on sloping land should be cautious about
potential landslide problems.
Although landslide problems occur in all 50 states, some areas have a much greater incidence than others.
The three factors which determine incidence are: 1) slope steepness, 2) soil strength, and 3) moisture content
of the soil. The map at right shows areas with a high incidence of landslide problems in brown and red. Persons
buying or building in these areas should be especially cautious because of the special conditions which occur there.
The best way to protect yourself is to avoid buying or building in hazardous areas. If you are in doubt have an
expert inspect the site and look for building damage that indicates a building under stress. Even if no
landslide problems are revealed by the inspection, excavation, grading or fill placement can increase
landslide probability. Also, landslide damage on adjacent properties is a good indicator that your home might
be at risk - and will often result in difficult resale. Always be cautious on slopes and seek expert advice
if you are uncertain. State geological surveys often have detailed
information about local landslide hazards and problems.
Subsidence is usually not covered by homeowners insurance. The most common and damaging subsidence occurs in
areas above underground mining. Here, voids opened during mining slowly or suddenly collapse. This can damage
buildings, roads and utilities above. Your home can be damaged or ruined by this type of subsidence or it can be
condemned - even if it is not damaged. Condemnation occurs when the utility and road infrastructure of a neighborhood
becomes too expensive to maintain and local government refuses to provide continued service. If your home is condemned
you are required to move out - even if you rent, owe $100,000 on the mortgage or own the home free and clear.
Mine subsidence occurs where coal or another mineral resource has been removed below the surface. The map at
right and link to the USGS Coal Fields website shows where this most likely to occur. More specific information and
underground mine maps can often be obtained from
state geological surveys or mine regulation agencies. These agencies can often
tell you about minable resources beneath your property and provide information on any past or present mining activity.
You don't need mine subsidence insurance if your building is in an area with no minable resources below.
Avoiding properties above mined out areas is the best way to be safe from mine subsidence. However, existing
structures over mines can often be insured through government mine subsidence insurance programs or through
supplemental policies from insurance companies. Your homeowners insurance agent should be able to advise you
on where it can be obtained or you might contact a government agency in your state to ask.
The area where I live is entirely underlain by the Pittsburgh Coal, which was mined out decades ago. Although the
seam is a few hundred feet below the surface and there is no obvious subsidence damage in my area I bought
mine subsidence insurance from the Pennsylvania Mine Subsidence Insurance Fund.
For about $150/year I have up to $250,000 in coverage. Contact your insurance agent for information.
Subsidence can also occur from natural voids below, such as underground caverns in limestone. Extensive cavern
systems are beneath large areas of some states. The United States Geological Survey has information on areas where potential karst subsidence can occur.
Subsidence also occurs in some areas where large volumes of water or oil are being extracted through wells. In these areas the water aquifer or oil reservoir begins to compact and that compaction results in subsidence or fissuring at the surface. The United States Geological Survey has information about subsidence in response to water and oil production.
Last update of this article: August 2, 2012.
Contributor: Hobart King
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|Rocks Galleries of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock photos.
|Flooding is one of the most common disasters that is not covered by the typical homeowners insurance policy. However, flood insurance can often be purchased at a reasonable price. Photo of a flooded residential area in Greenville, North Carolina by Jerry Ryan, United States Geological Survey.
|A portion of the author's homeowners insurance policy that excludes the most common geologic hazards (underlined in red). Check your homeowners policy to determine if it covers hazards that are likely to occur in your area. Your insurance agent might be able to help you obtain additional coverage for hazards of concern in your area.
||Over 50 percent of these areas are underlain by soils with abundant clays of high swelling potential.
||Less than 50 percent of these areas are underlain by soils with clays of high swelling potential.
||Over 50 percent of these areas are underlain by soils with abundant clays of slight to moderate swelling potential.
||Less than 50 percent of these areas are underlain by soils with abundant clays of slight to moderate swelling potential.
||These areas are underlain by soils with little to no clays with swelling potential.
||Data insufficient to indicate the clay content or the swelling potential of soils.
|The map above is based upon "Swelling Clays Map of the Conterminous United States" by W. Olive, A. Chleborad, C. Frahme, J. Shlocker, R. Schneider and R. Schuster. It was published in 1989 as Map I-1940 in the USGS Miscellaneous Investigations Series. This map was generalized for display on the web by Bradley Cole of geology.com. More information is included in a geology.com article on expansive soils.
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|Landslide Incidence and Susceptibility Map
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|Map of areas underlain by water-soluble rock units such as carbonates, sulfates and halides with the potential to produce karst features. These include sinkholes, solution valleys, and solution-sculptured rock ledges that can cause problems for buildings, roads and underground utilities. A more detailed version of this Engineering Aspects of Karst Map is available on the USGS website.