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Get Cracking : Thorough Inspection Before a Quake Strikes Can Help in Assessing Damage Afterward


Obvious signs of earthquake damage to your home--broken glass, crumbling stucco, buckled driveways--are easy to detect, but in many cases looking for less-apparent signs and adding them up will be what lets you know whether your home has suffered underlying structural damage.

If it's clear at the outset that your home has not ridden out the quake well, get in touch right away with a city or county building inspector. Their services are usually free, and they can tell you if you need a more detailed review by a commercial inspector or engineer.

The best way to detect if a structure has sustained earthquake damage is to have been familiar with any imperfections before the temblor. Routine inspections of property, documenting any existing cracks with a photograph or note, will help later evaluations of the structure.

For that reason, even if you do not suspect that your home is damaged, it is important to inspect it now. Get to know your home so that you will have points of reference.

As you inspect for damage, try to differentiate structural from cosmetic changes. For example, says Eugene D. Prowizer of A Aa Building Inspector Services in Culver City, a broken sheet of drywall might be a cosmetic problem. It's what has happened to the framework behind the drywall that will indicate if there is structural damage.

As you check a house for damage, experts suggest starting outside and working your way into the house.

Here are some things to look for:

Are Things Leaning?

Stand back from the house and look at it in relation to the ground, checking to see if it is leaning. "You'd be surprised at just how much the eye can detect," said Tom Carroll of AmeriSpec Home Inspection Service in Orange.

Walls, ceilings and floors in most houses are not perfectly square or plumb. But if after a quake there is a slant of more than a couple of inches in any structure, the house needs to be inspected by a professional. Also check to see if trees are out of kilter. Their roots may have shaken loose, and they may be ready to topple.

Inside, place a ball in the middle of uncarpeted floors and see if it rolls to a corner. "If it starts rolling like heck, you know something's not quite right," said Jim Beyers of Golden State Inspection Services in Anaheim.

Is Fireplace Intact?

Chimneys and fireplaces seem to sustain the most damage during earthquakes.

On the outside, check the chimney for any cracks in the bricks or mortar. There are usually some cracks in the chimney of an older house, but if there is any crack that really seems to be pulling apart, it may mean trouble, said Bill Hogue of Sierra Property Inspection in Los Alamitos.

Also check to see if the fireplace or chimney has pulled away from the wall of the house. If there is a gap of more than one inch, do not light a fire before having the chimney inspected.

Hogue also recommends climbing onto the roof to make sure the spark arrester has not been shaken off. Also make sure the flue liner, the clay pipe that usually rises a few inches above the chimney, has no noticeable cracks.

The flue liner is designed to hold the heat within the chimney and not in the brick or wall, where it is a fire hazard.

Is Foundation Cracked?

Check all along the bottom of the house and any other buildings for foundation cracks.

Experts suggest that any crack more than one-eigth of an inch wide should be considered suspicious; if it is more than half an inch wide, it is serious and you may want to call a building inspector.

If there is a crack in the foundation visible from the outside, it may be wise to lift the carpet inside and see if the crack has opened into the house, Hogue said.

If the house is on a raised foundation, the very least that should be done is to check in the crawl space under the house for any obvious dislodged posts.

A better move would be to crawl under the house, checking all joists and beam connections.

"Pay particular attention to see that the house is bolted to the foundation. If it is an older home that is not bolted to the foundation, keep in mind that a significant aftershock could knock it off its foundation," Carroll said.

Do Windows and Doors Work?

Outside, check the tops of windows and doors for any cracks along the corners of the framing. But cracks alone are not an indication that there has been significant damage. Inside, check to see that all doors and windows still open and close the way they did before the earthquake.

If doors now open by themselves or stick, there was significant movement of the house that may be an indication of more serious problems.

Glass in sash windows is held with putty. Over time that putty can become brittle and break apart during a quake. "No broken glass does not necessarily mean the windows are OK," Carroll said. "A pane could be hanging in place by a thread and may need new putty."

Dislodged doors and windows are more likely to occur in homes with raised foundations because footings are more likely to shift, according to Beyers.

Is There a Gas Leak?

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