Are You Covered? Few Washington Homeowners Hold Insurance For Landslides

Mar 25, 2014

Though much of the Puget Sound region is "especially vulnerable" to landslides like the one that claimed 14 lives in Snohomish County over the weekend, only a handful of Washington homeowners' insurance policies would cover damages from a similar disaster.

The typical Washington homeowner's policy specifically excludes coverage for damage caused by "earth movement," including landslides, says Northwest Insurance Council president Karl Newman.

Even in the slide-prone Pacific Northwest, the price of adding coverage for earth movement often scares homeowners away.

For example, the owner of a $300,000 home would typically pay $600 annually for the most basic home insurance policy, Newman says. A comprehensive package of flood, earthquake and mudslide coverage would typically cost another $1,000 per year.

Insurance experts don't have clear numbers on how many homeowners carry landslide coverage. But Newman says less than 15 percent of Washington homeowners have earthquake insurance, which does occasionally cover landslide damage.

"When you look at all the steep hills and slopes and banks and rivers and the Puget Sound itself creating these banks and whatnot, there's a lot more risk out there than is being covered," Newman said.

The $1,000 price tag for a typical Washington home is worth it, Newman says, for those who live in areas at high risk of floods or slides.

But while the additional $1,000-worth of insurance coverage , known as a "difference in conditions" policy, will cover damage to things in a home, it often doesn't cover damage to the house itself. For that, homeowners have to obtain yet another layer of protection that state officials say normal insurers aren't always able to provide.

"It could be that it's available and very expensive," said Kara Klotz, a spokeswoman for Washington's Office of the Insurance Commissioner. "It could be that it's easier to find in eastern Washington where the risk is low, than it would be in western Washington where it's very wet here and the risk is higher."

Homeowners interested in obtaining coverage for structures on their property can find commercial-grade insurance through their insurance broker on what's called the "surplus lines" market.

Though numbers are difficult to nail down, it's clear only a relative handful of homeowners or businesses take this step. Newman says there are fewer than 10,000 surplus lines policies active in the state of Washington that potentially offer landslide coverage. For reference, there are 1.6 million owner-occupied homes in the state.