Natural Disasters and Your Home: What Renters and Homeowners Need to Know

by K.C. Hernandez ; Updated December 30, 2017
Natural Disasters and Your Home: What Renters and Homeowners Need to Know

Whether it's fire or earthquake and whether you rent or own, you may one day be affected by a natural disaster that could displace you and your loved ones. Surviving a disaster is priority number one; but when smoke clears and waters recede, adequate shelter and dealing with property damage will likely become the main goal. Insurance will play a big part in picking up the pieces and rebuilding. Understand what's covered under your homeowners or renter's policy when it comes to floods, fires and earthquakes. Also, keep your policy information in your phone, wallet or online, so you can make contact without having to re-enter your home after a natural disaster.

Disasters That Affect U.S. Properties

Your area is probably more prone to certain kids of inclement weather, depending on geographical location. For example, California and the Southwest are no strangers to earthquakes and wildfires, while Florida and the South have more than their fair share of hurricanes and tornadoes. Knowing which type of disaster is most common to your region can help you plan and gather resources for protecting the place you live.

As of late 2017, hurricanes ranked as the most damaging natural disasters in terms of property damage in the U.S., with hurricanes Harvey, Katrina and Irma costing more than $400 billion dollars in damage altogether. Superstorm Sandy, a 2012 Atlantic hurricane, and the 1994 Northridge, Ca. earthquake round out the top five most costly natural disasters.

The Insurance Information Institute, which collects facts and statistics on U.S. natural catastrophes, classifies disasters into the following six categories:

  • Severe thunderstorms
  • Winter storms and cold waves
  • Floods and flash floods
  • Earthquakes and geophysical events (volcanic eruptions, tsunamis)
  • Tropical cyclones
  • Wildfires, heat waves and droughts

As of early 2017, severe thunderstorms, floods and wildfire-heat wave-drought-related events were the most common disasters in the U.S., according to the institute.

First Steps in Flood Preparation

If you live near a river floodplain or a low-lying coastal area, you may have the greatest risk of flooding, as these are the most susceptible locations; however, flooding can also occur in unusual areas. You don't have to live near a water source or a flood zone to experience a flood disaster. For example, you might end up in a flood if significant rain in your area fails to drain properly.

Check with a local environmental agency to determine your risk level for flood. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, website also has a tool that allows you to enter your address and receive flood risk information. This "Flood Map Service Center" provides an official flood map for your area. Because flood zones change annually, you should check these free resources each year.

You can sometimes prevent flooding or extensive damage to your residence when flooding is imminent. Spending time and money in advance can save you thousands of dollars in repairs should a flood occur.

Water diversion techniques, such as classic sandbags, are the most popular. Also, new sandbag technology that uses polyacrylate polymer eliminates the need to use large quantities of sand, and it saves space. Making a sandbag barrier is often the only adjustment to a home that a renter can make in order to keep flood waters out.

Homeowners have more options for preparing their property for flooding. Floodways built into your landscaping or yard can divert water from your property. Terracing, which is often used to maximize garden space, has the added benefit of slowing water flow. Finally, planting plenty of vegetation around your home helps the land retain water. Large trees and ground cover can help keep significant amounts of water from building up and damaging your property.

Additional steps a homeowner, landlord or renter should take to mitigate flood damage include:

  • Elevating the furnace, water heater and electrical panel
  • Installing check valves to keep water from backing up in the drains
  • Applying waterproof sealant to basement wall joints and first-floor joints if there's no basement
  • Turning off electrical power at the main breaker before flooding begins

If you rent, you should ask your landlord to take some of these preventative measures. It's important to learn how to turn off electrical power at the main breaker, whether you rent or own your residence.

Finding Flood Insurance

Renter's insurance and regular homeowners insurance do not cover flooding related to inclement weather. Homeowners and landlords can get flood insurance through FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program, which caps out at certain dollar limits. Some non-government insurance providers offer "excess" flood insurance at an additional cost, to provide coverage beyond what the NFIP covers. You don't need to live in a flood zone to get flood insurance, and the cost varies based on home value and your risk for flooding. The average cost for flood insurance was $660 at the time of publication.

Homeowners aren't required to carry flood insurance, but if you have a mortgage and live in a flood zone, your lender will require it. Likewise, renters may not be required to purchase insurance, but it is a good idea to do so, especially if your landlord doesn't have a flood policy. You can purchase your own flood insurance through the NFIP, and it is much cheaper than for homeowners, since renters don't have to rebuild or fix damage to the structure. In high-risk areas, however, it can cost up to $1,000 for a premium, and even moderate-risk zones can double your renter's insurance premium by adding flood coverage.

Fighting Fire Losses

Notorious for size and speed, wildfires or brush fires can destroy thousands of acres and homes in a matter of days. The good news is that most homeowners and renter's insurance policies cover this type of fire damage. The bad news is that living near a canyon or other high-risk factor will raise your premium significantly and can even prevent you from getting insurance with certain providers. For these homeowners, a standalone fire policy from an insurer may be the best option. In California, homeowners who can't get fire insurance through a regular provider due to their location can obtain fire insurance through a government-sponsored association known as FAIR Plan, as a last resort.

Much like flood insurance, fire insurance is cheaper and easier for renters to obtain than for homeowners. That's because renters aren't responsible for repairing a home's structure. But renters can find themselves immediately displaced in the wake of a wildfire, either as a result of evacuation or rental unit damage. As a renter, you may also experience a total loss or extensive damage to personal belongings. You should purchase renter's insurance, even if your landlord has a homeowner's or landlord insurance policy. A homeowner's policy likely doesn't cover your personal belongings or living expenses, or may not cover enough of the expenses you'll incur if you must leave the rental due to fire.

Protecting yourself in the aftermath of a wildfire as a renter or homeowner starts with taking inventory of your residence and your belongings. Homeowners and renters should walk the exterior and interior of the home with a video recorder to document high-end possessions. This evidence can be used in the claims process to verify the existence of expensive building materials, furnishings and electronics if they are damaged in a wildfire. Also, don't throw away damaged or destroyed belongings until the claims process is over.

Renters and homeowners should also keep receipts of all expenses as a result of evacuation and rebuilding. The "ALE" or "additional living expenses" portion of a homeowners or renters insurance policy can then cover hotel, food and rental expenses.

You can minimize your losses in a wildfire when building and landscaping your home by:

  • Using nonflammable construction materials and fire-retardant finishes
  • Keeping roofs and gutters clear of branches and debris
  • Planting fire-resistant plants 
  • Clearing your yard of dead vegetation and debris
  • Keeping space between trees
  • Not letting your yard dry out

Approaching Shaky Ground

High-intensity earthquakes are unpredictable and devastating when it comes to property damage. Earthquake insurance is not included in homeowners or renter's insurance policies. Most earthquake insurance in California is provided through a state-sponsored program known as the California Earthquake Authority or CEA, which is available to homeowners and renters. The purpose of a CEA policy is to re-establish your housing, but it doesn't cover all of your losses in an earthquake.

You can typically buy earthquake insurance from your current homeowners or renter's insurance provider as an add-on, or standalone, policy. Earthquake policies generally allow you to make repairs to your home and attached structures, cover your personal belongings and pay for a hotel or rental for a reasonable amount of time while your home is repaired. Earthquake insurance tends to come with a hefty deductible and premium. Deductibles may range from 5 percent to 25 percent. The average cost of a California earthquake insurance policy was $1.75 per $1,000 in coverage.

About the Author

K.C. Hernandez has covered real estate topics since 2009. She is a licensed real estate salesperson in San Diego since 2004. Her articles have appeared in community newspapers but her work is mostly online. Hernandez has a Bachelor of Arts in English from UCLA and works as the real estate expert for Demand Media Studios.