August 29, 2011

If the house is a rockin'...

As the entire world knows by now, on 23 August 2011, a 5.8 earthquake occurred in the Central Virginia Seismic Zone . I was working from my home-based Taylor Legal office in Howard County, Maryland when the vibrations hit at around 1:55 pm, EST. I didn't even realize I was experiencing an earthquake until the shaking stopped.

While I grew up on Maryland's Eastern Shore, I lived in Kansas for almost a decade before settling in Howard County. In Kansas I became accustomed to tornadoes, having gone storm spotting (a major departure from my normal tornado mode of hiding in the basement with the local weather on the TV). I've seen hail the size of softballs, and lived through a micro-burst. I'm even okay with hurricanes, as advance warnings are sufficient to take cover and batten down (as I am doing now in preparation for hurricane Irene's approach). I can honestly say that I am not comfortable with earthquakes. What started as a small rumble evolved into a very loud shaking, and I felt like I was surfing in my office chair. The whole thing lasted about 30 seconds and was over so quickly, it didn't even occur to me to evacuate. Fortunately, we didn't sustain any damage to our current home – just a few pictures became cockeyed, and a candle migrated across the table.

The events made Katherine Taylor and me wonder -- as we were later discussing contract language for a couple of upcoming residential real estate settlements in which we represent the buyers -- what disclosures concerning earthquake damage, earthquake soundness or seismic activity must be made by a residential home seller to a buyer? I flipped through the most recent three-page Maryland Residential Property Disclosure and Disclaimer Statement, and there is no direct mention of seismic activities. If a building had suffered damage to any of the covered areas (i.e., foundation, heating system, etc.) of which the seller has knowledge, then would it have to be disclosed on the form? What if a buyer has moved from out of state and, not knowing that Maryland has had seismic activity, does not ask whether there have been any earthquakes? Does the seller have to disclose that there was an earthquake (even if the seller is not aware of any actual damage to the seller's home)? As Maryland building codes do not specifically address seismic engineering, there could be damage which is not apparent. Granted, earthquakes are rare events here. Allview Estates and Columbia were the sites of a series of small earthquakes in 1993 and again in 1996, but these were of a magnitude no greater than 2.0.

I looked at California's requirements, as that state experiences frequent seismic activity. The California Department of Real Estate offers a 79 page booklet called Disclosures in Real Property Transactions (link opens a .pdf), which requires sellers to disclose the absence of foundation anchor bolts; unbraced or inappropriately braced perimeter cripple walls and first-story walls; unreinforced masonry perimeter foundation and dwelling walls; habitable room or rooms above a garage; and water heaters that are not anchored, strapped, or braced. Additionally, the California Seismic Safety Commission has developed a Homeowner’s Guide to Earthquake Safety (link opens a .pdf) for further clarification and guidelines about earthquake safety.

Who would have thought that earthquake activity could become a question for a buyer in a real estate transaction in Maryland?

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