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Bracing for a quake

A state grant program subsidizes retrofits for low- to moderate-income owners.

October 19, 2003|Kathy Sena | Special to The Times

No one can say that Phyllis Michel's North Hollywood home isn't built to last.

During the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, cans of food in her pantry split at the seams from the force of the shaking, creating a real mess, Michel said. "We really felt the Northridge quake here, too."

But through both temblors, the 900-square-foot wood-frame home, built in 1945 as wartime housing for Lockheed employees, suffered only hairline cracks in the ceilings. "Well, there were a few cracks on the sidewalk," she conceded.

Michel and her husband purchased the two-bedroom, one-bath house 45 years ago. Having the home bolted to its foundation, she said, had been on the "to-do" list for years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Quake retrofitting -- An article in the Real Estate section Sunday about grants to homeowners for earthquake retrofitting may have mistakenly given the impression that grant money is available now. The California Department of Insurance is accepting grant applications, and funds for homeowners living in Southern California counties will be available within the next 12 months.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 26, 2003 Home Edition Real Estate Part K Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Quake retrofitting -- An Oct. 19 story in the Real Estate section on grants to homeowners for earthquake retrofitting may have mistakenly given the impression that grant money is now available. Information trimmed from the story stated that the California Department of Insurance is currently accepting grant applications, and funds for homeowners living in counties in Southern California will be available within the next 12 months.

Then, about a year ago, she spotted an article that mentioned the California Department of Insurance's Earthquake Retrofit Grant Program. Established in 1996, the program was designed for low- to moderate-income homeowners. It pays for earthquake retrofitting, including bolting the home to the foundation, installing bracing for shear walls, securing the water heater and installing automatic gas shut-off valves.

Having her home earthquake-retrofitted has provided peace of mind, Michel said. The $2,985 cost was covered by the grant.

Who qualifies as having a low to moderate income varies by county. In Los Angeles County, a household with one or two people with a gross household income of $48,000 or less would be eligible, according to spokesperson Norman Williams.

Although not every homeowner is a candidate for grant money, bolting a home to its foundation makes good sense no matter what one's income, said Tom Pink, chief executive of, a San Jose-based Web site that provides earthquake-preparedness information and live earthquake maps as well as links to earthquake-retrofitting contractors throughout California.

During an earthquake, a house tends to shift off its foundation. The house can literally come apart at the seams, section by section. Attaching a house to the foundation and tying it together structurally reduces the likelihood of earthquake damage.

Bolting and shear wall bracing are two ways to strengthen a home.

* Earthquake bolting. Bolted connections where the sill plate meets the foundation help keep the house in one spot. Securely connected wall, floor and roof framing also helps create a single solid structure.

Anchor bolts are the most common way to attach a house to its foundation. But a thorough inspection of the foundation should precede bolting. If the concrete is weak or deteriorating, and drilling holes for bolts is likely to cause cracks or crumbling, the foundation should be replaced.

There are two methods for bolting sills to concrete foundations. Vertical bolting can be accomplished only if there is enough workspace between the top of the sill plate and the bottom of the wall top plate. Horizontal bolting is useful when space between foundation and floor is minimal.

* Shear wall bracing. A shear wall is a system that ties the floor, roof, walls and foundation together to give a building greater strength. The top of a shear wall is fastened to the second floor or roof framing, and the bottom is fastened to the sill plate. The sill plate is then fastened to the foundation at intervals as required by local building codes.

Cripple walls, the short stud walls between the floor and foundation of some houses, were among common points of failure in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Turning a cripple wall into a shear wall through retrofitting reduces the risk of collapse during an earthquake.

Building codes require such seismic-design elements in new construction. Homes built after 1965, when the standards started changing, should be covered under such codes; homeowners can consult their city's building codes for specifics.

Earthquake bolting and bracing for shear walls costs between $2,000 and $4,000, according to Nancy Board, president of Tremor Ready Inc., an Encino-based earthquake-retrofitting company.

Potential insurance discounts can increase the appeal of retrofitting. Insurance companies must disclose any available discounts for earthquake-hazard reduction, such as retrofitting, in writing, according to the California Department of Insurance.

Insurance carriers affiliated with the California Earthquake Authority, created by the California Legislature in 1996 to provide earthquake insurance to residential property owners, offer a discount for earthquake retrofitting, whereas those not affiliated generally do not, according to Judy Bridge, an account manager-underwriter for independent insurance agency Hoffman Brown Co. in Sherman Oaks.

Michel, for example, who is insured through State Farm and carries the additional earthquake authority coverage, will receive a 5% discount on her earthquake insurance premium because of the retrofitting.

Homeowners must have or be purchasing a residential property policy from a member insurer to be offered an earthquake authority policy.

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