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Are California Homeowners Protected Against Sinkholes Caused By Aging Infrastructure?

Sinkholes and Aging Roads

By Tanya Svoboda
February 2021

Building and improving America’s infrastructure has been on the mind of our leaders for decades. In the 1930’s it was FDR’s public works program, in the 1950’s Eisenhower introduced his highway project, and in the 2000s Obama promised “shovel-ready projects all across the country.” Yet, political debates, environmental concerns, and lack of funding have left portions of our country’s infrastructure in disrepair.

California’s recent extreme weather conditions have exacerbated many of the state’s infrastructure issues. These infrastructure concerns pose unique challenges, not only for the agencies who monitor and maintain them but also for the homeowners whose properties  are often at risk for damage when the systems fail. Neglected storm drains have led to sinkholes in California causing damage to highways, schools, and private property. And recent storms are leaving homeowners with gaping holes and big repair bills.

Eroding Storm Pipes Can Cause Sinkholes on Private Property

In Vista, California neglected storm drainpipes are causing major sinkholes in homeowner’s yards and the damage is worsening with every storm. Damien Lopez, a homeowner in Vista, noticed a small hole in his yard but originally attributed it to gophers. However, “It grew from a small hole to a three-foot hole, to a four-foot hole,” he said in the article Vista Homeowners Fight to Get Repairs to Sinkholes From Drainage Pipes. Then, a storm in April threatened his entire home. “[The hole] tripled in size that last storm,” Lopez said. “And we were actually afraid the whole house would be coming down.”

Because the pipe running through Lopez’s yard is a city drain, he and other residents are working to get the city to address the issue. But the City of Vista is not taking responsibility. The City told News 8:

“The property owner’s home was built pre-City incorporation (1963). The developers sought and the County of San Diego allowed the developers to build the storm drain systems in question. When the developers sought to give these stormwater pipes to the County of San Diego, and make it the County’s responsibility to inspect, maintain and repair them, the County refused. When the City of Vista incorporated, the City inherited the County’s past decisions. Because the County refused to accept the pipes, the pipes were not considered public pipes. These pipes are all buried underneath the ground on private property. Therefore, the City has no legal right to access the property, and thus, has never inspected, maintained and/or repaired these pipes.”

It is nuances like this leaving homeowners responsible for repairing the damage caused by these dilapidated storm pipes.

Does Insurance Cover Damage from Sinkholes?

The Insurance Information Institute (III) notes that the answer is complicated. “When homeowners insurance policies are priced, the real estate value of the land is excluded.” That means the price of the actual land is not considered. This is why most standard homeowners’ insurance policies do not include damage related to earth movement, most commonly, an earthquake. But, III continues, “Sinkholes, unlike earthquakes are hard to predict, and difficult to investigate. They are also extremely costly to repair.” While some states at high risk for sinkholes will require insurers to offer option sinkhole coverage, California does not currently qualify as a high-risk state.

Here are some tips for mitigating the risk to your property and pocketbook when it comes to sinkholes:

  • Check your property for signs of sinkholes after a storm. Signs include:
    • A circular depression on the ground.
    • The surface level drops in a localized area over time.
    • Cracking on the pavement.
    • Water well levels suddenly dropped.
    • Openings in the ground where rainwater disappears.
    • Cracking foundations with depressions in the ground.
  • Check with your county appraiser about the availability of a statewide sinkhole database.
  • Consult with your insurance agent to find out if coverage for earth movement is available in your area.

While deteriorating infrastructure in parts of California is putting some homeowners at risk for sinkholes on their property, most areas of California are unlikely to be affected by sinkholes. Properly monitoring your property and updating your homeowner’s insurance when applicable can help protect your property from dangerous and costly repairs.


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