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10 Earthquake-Related Questions To Ask Your Landlord Immediately
Learning about your home is the first step in understanding your risk.
Two men inspect damage to cars and apartment complex after the floor of an apartment building collapsed onto the front end of a row of parked cars.
A memorable scene of desctruction after the 1994 Northridge earthquake damaged thousands of homes, some beyond repair.
AFP via Getty Images)
AFP via Getty Images)
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The Big One: Your Survival Guide
  • At LAist, we've thought a lot about how to motivate people to prep for the massive earthquake that's inevitable here in Southern California. We even dedicated an entire podcast to it.

  • We teamed up in 2021 with our friends at the L.A. Times to push Southern Californians to get ready. You can watch that virtual event covering the basics of quake survival. We've also gathered the best of our coverage in a no-nonsense guide to getting ready. No more excuses. Let's do this.

If you rent in L.A. — and that’s most of us — it’s time for a heart-to-heart with your landlord. We get it, we do. Finding (and keeping) a place here is hard enough without adding disaster planning to your checklist. But the reality is that you are living in a region prone to earthquakes. And a "Big One" — a quake that’s more than 7.2 magnitude — could happen any second now.

If you don’t know the condition of your apartment or house, you won’t know your risks if you’re home when another big quake hits. We’re here to help.

Ask these key questions.

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1. When Was This Building Built?

Changes made to earthquake code are not retroactive, so it’s really important to know when your building went up — it’s the starting point in your quest.

At the most basic level, knowing how long the building has been standing tells you how many earthquakes it has survived. Of course, quakes throughout the years have been of varying strengths and different eras required different building codes. Buildings that went up after the 1994 Northridge quake, for example, had much more stringent requirements. That said, many older buildings have been retrofitted. That leads us to our next question.

2. Has It Been Retrofitted?

Some Southern California cities, including Santa Monica, have passed mandatory retrofitting ordinances. If you live there, you can use this tool to see if your building is a “soft-story” building or a concrete frame one — and if it requires a retrofit. If it has undergone a retrofit, ask your landlord what the retrofit entailed and if you can see the documentation. If the building has not been retrofitted and was built before 1994 (the year of the Northridge quake), ask the landlord when they plan to do so.

3. Are There Foundation Issues?

Some of SoCal’s structures are built on hills or slopes. And oh what a view! But sometimes those buildings come with foundational issues. A structural engineer can verify whether that’s the case. Some property owners forgo this part of the inspection when buying the building because it saves money. Ask the person in charge of your building if an inspection was conducted and what the results were. If there were foundation issues, what where they and what did they do to fix them? If you don’t get a suitable answer you can sometimes find that information yourself in the sales record for the building on websites like Zillow, Redfin, or Trulia.

An image of damaged apartments in Northridge after the earthquake in 1994 with National Guard members sitting in front on the sidewalk.
The National Guard in front of the Northridge Meadows apartments, on January 24, 1994, where 16 people died during the earthquake in the night of January 17, 1994. Residents were allowed to enter the condemned building for 15 minutes at a time to collect personel effects.
(HAL GARB/AFP/Getty Images

4. What Kind Of Soil Is Beneath The Building?

Ever hear the term liquefaction? It is basically when the ground turns to quicksand after an earthquake. We created a tool for you that shows whether your building is in a liquefaction zone. Find out here.

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5. Are We On A Fault Line?

Fault lines in L.A. are more common than celebrities and traffic jams. You just can’t see them. You probably live on top of one or near one. Not all of them are capable of producing a large earthquake, but it’s good to know where you stand — so to speak. Learn more about individual faults here.

6. Has This Building Been Affected In A Previous Disaster?

If your building suffered damage in a fire, earthquake or another disaster, it may be more vulnerable when the big one hits. Find out if the owners made necessary repairs after the last big disaster.

7. What If My Place Becomes Uninhabitable After The Quake?

Your building must certain requirements at all times in order to be considered habitable. Here’s a comprehensive list from Cal Tenant Law. Make sure the following things work:

  • Electrical
  • Hot and cold running water
  • Plumbing and a functioning toilet
  • Heating and air conditioning
  • Windows
  • Doors
  • Appliances like stove and refrigerator
  • Undamaged flooring, ceilings and walls
  • No infestations

“One of the basic tenets of being a landlord is that your unit has to be habitable,” said Yazmin Guzman of the Housing Rights Center. “So, if the unit is not considered habitable for living then they are not able to collect rent.” Before you decide to withhold rent, document the damage.

8. Who You Gonna Call?

If there’s property damage after a disaster you need to report it. Get ready now. Make sure that you have a direct contact for your landlord and building owner and ask who would serve as a backup contact if you aren’t able to get a hold of them. Keep copies of all the communications you have with your landlord and building owner.

9. Is This Building Insured For Earthquake Damage?

Blanket homeowners insurance is NOT the same as earthquake insurance or fire insurance. Knowing about your landlord’s insurance policy will give you a sense of your situation after a big earthquake. If your landlord has the coverage, you might have a building to go back to at some point. If they don’t...*shrug.* Also ask them if they plan to provide alternate housing for you if the building is severely damaged. But, it isn’t just on them. Even as a renter you can buy earthquake insurance.

10. Where Is The Gas Shut Off?

You need to know how to shut off the gas because there’s a huge danger of fires after the earthquake. Some units have automatic shut off valves that will do the work for you after an earthquake but you won't know until you ask. Ask if the gas has an automatic shut off valve or if it is manual and then ask where the valve. If they don’t know — this is what you are looking for.

  • This story was originally published in January 2019 with the launch of the podcast. It has been lightly updated.

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