Seismic retrofitting: Are homeowners getting ripped off?

Special Reports

'There is no code standard'

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — ​Some homeowners are not getting what they think they are paying for when having their homes seismically retrofitted to protect against a giant earthquake. ​

“It’s the Wild West. You can do anything you want and call it a ‘seismic retrofit.'”, said Michael Wieber of NW Seismic. For the past 25 years, Wieber is a contractor specializing in seismic retrofitting of homes.

Wieber’s description of the rules and regulations — or the lack thereof — highlights a murky gray zone for homeowners.​

Contractor Michael Wieber, Sept. 12, 2019. (KOIN)

Residential seismic retrofitting is unregulated and only requires a rudimentary sketch for a county or city building inspector to sign off on the work that can costs thousands. ​

“An inspector looks at this (sketch) and looks at the work and says, ‘Yes, that’s what you did.’ Not that it would be effective in any way in an earthquake,” said Wieber. “It’s considered a voluntary upgrade.”​

Terry Whitehill, the head building code official in Portland, confirmed what Wieber said is true.

Terry Whitehill, the head building code official in Portland, Nov. 8, 2019. (KOIN)

“There isn’t a code standard,” Whitehill said. “All we can do is look at what they’re proposing to do and make sure they’re not making the building any less safe than it already is.”

He said the state mostly leaves voluntary upgrades — like retrofitting — up to cities and counties. The City of Portland’s website includes guidelines on how a retrofit could be done to a house.​

The State of Oregon’s Construction Contractor’s Board also states the following:​

“The City of Portland is the only jurisdiction in Oregon that has adopted specific, prescriptive standards for earthquake retrofitting.”​

The word “prescriptive” means the city is only offering suggestions, not mandatory regulations. And since no one in Oregon or Washington has any requirements about how a residential seismic retrofit has to be done, contractors don’t need any extra training to do the work.​

“Let me put it this way: Probably once a week, we are retrofitting a seismic retrofit that was permitted and installed by a seismic retrofit contractor who does nothing but seismic retrofits. It’s the Wild West,” said Wieber.​

Dr. Mary Lu had her Portland house seismically retrofitted, Nov. 8, 2019. (KOIN)

Dr. Mary Lu had her Portland house seismically retrofitted 3 years ago. She recently wanted more work done so she brought in structural engineer BJ Cure of Cascadia Risk Solutions. But Cure, who specializes in retrofitting, had some troubling news.​

Instead of using clips that guard against the side-to-side motion of an earthquake, the previous contractor used brackets meant to keep a house from lifting off the foundation in a hurricane.​

Cure said without the proper clips, Dr. Lu’s house could “actually slip”. ​

“I go out to houses all the time where I see shoddy work,” said Cure. “It’s like a link in a chain. You have to look at every little link. If you’re missing one link, that can be the failure point.”​

Commercial concerns over residential ​

Buildings in Portland, Nov. 8, 2019. (KOIN)

Whitehill told KOIN 6 News he has not heard any talk of changing the codes for houses to ensure homeowners are getting what they think they’re paying for. He points to the city of Portland’s failed efforts to force the owners of commercial unreinforced masonry buildings to do seismic retrofitting.​

“We haven’t had the best luck when we try to do seismic ordinances of late and so as much as we know how important this is, if you don’t have support out there in the community for this kind of work, it makes it really tough to put requirements in place,” he said.​

But residents like Dr. Lu want to feel safe under their own roofs.​

“If I can at least have a little bit more certainty that I can be in this house and it’s not going to fall down on my head and crush me — that’s really the peace of mind I’m looking for,” she said.​

Something is better than nothing

Though Wieber and Cure are concerned homeowners are not always getting what their homes need in a retrofit that can cost between $4,000 and $80,000, they aren’t necessarily calling for more regulations. They’re concerned added expenses that come with more government codes would prevent more people from having their homes retrofitted.​

A worker installs metal plates to a Portland home’s foundation during a seismic retrofit, Sept. 12, 2019. (KOIN)

Wieber and Cure do encourage anyone who owns a house on a hillside or a house that has an unusual shape or construction to hire an engineer, not just a contractor, a sentiment shared by Brad Hilliard with the Oregon Division of Financial Regulation, which has jurisdiction over earthquake insurance companies. ​

Hilliard said hiring a licensed engineer helps homeowners cover all of their bases; from making sure the right materials are being used based on a home’s location to getting a retrofit that’s scaled to match the projected earthquake.​

“Could it be an extra expense versus just going with a contractor? -Yes. But if you’re gonna do it, make sure it’s done correctly,” Hilliard said.​

Earthquake insurance: Retrofit required?​

​”Insurance companies are going to have different standards and it’s all going to depend on how old your house is and what type of construction you have,” Hilliard said. “So there may be some type of a retrofit requirement because it could also be based on where it’s located.”​

Factors insurance companies may consider include the age of a home, what kind of soil it rests upon and whether it’s on a hill.​

What a homeowner can expect from an insurance company also depends on whether a home is paid off. Hilliard said insurance companies will write a check to a homeowner after an earthquake but the name of their mortgage company will also be included as a recipient.​

A screw used to attach a seismic retrofit plate in a home. (KOIN)

​The mortgage company may choose to use the insurance money to first pay off the homeowner’s loan and whatever is left can be used to rebuild or the homeowner can use the full amount to rebuild and continue to pay their mortgage.​

“A lot of times, mortgage companies in disaster situations will say, ‘OK, we’ll sign off on the check but we need to see the estimate, we need to see the signed contract and we need to see that work is starting before we just hand the money over,'” Hilliard said.​

In Oregon and California, just 15% of homeowners actually have earthquake insurance. In Washington only 11% have coverage.

Oregon’s earthquake insurance market

For those who opt to purchase it, Hilliard said they shouldn’t expect a speedy rebuild of their homes in the event of a 9.0-magnitude Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. Critical infrastructure like hospitals and roads will be prioritized. But they can rely on additional living expenses like lodging, food and clothing during the years it could take to rebuild.​

“It’s just a matter of weighing the cost of the premium, weighing the cost of the deductible versus your comfort level — how you’ll be able to get back on your feet if you lose everything,” Hilliard said.​

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