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Shaken but Insured : Mobile Home Policies Will Pay for Most Quake Damage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If there’s a silver lining for owners of earthquake-damaged mobile homes, it’s that most were insured for quakes--compared to just one-third of all other houses in Southern California. About 5,600 mobile homes--one out of 10 in Los Angeles County--were deemed uninhabitable after the Jan. 17 temblor. But it is expected that the majority will be rebuilt because quakes are usually included as part of mobile homeowners’ comprehensive insurance policies.

“About 85% of the people here didn’t think they had earthquake insurance, but they found out they had it,” said Curt Atwell, owner of Crest Mobile Home Village in Simi Valley. Atwell said all but two or three of the 40 homeowners at his seniors-only park had coverage.

“Earthquake insurance is one of the greatest benefits of a mobile home policy,” added Ruth Walker, a spokeswoman for Foremost Insurance of Grand Rapids, Mich., the nation’s biggest insurer of mobile homes. Foremost has about 150,000 policyholders in California and has received 2,707 claims from the Northridge earthquake, she said.

Still, many insured residents of mobile home parks--particularly those who are retired or have small incomes--say they cannot afford their deductibles, typically 5% on mobile home policies, or $2,000 to $3,000.

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Insurance will be crucial in the rebuilding of such places as Tahitian Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, where more than 60 of the 240 mobile homes went up in flames after the quake. Charred remains of ovens, car shells and ashes still litter a large section of the grounds. Many homes have been emptied of furniture. Signs on the windows identify the insurance company and policy number.

Not surprisingly, the remaining residents are shaken.

“I don’t think mobile homes are that safe,” said Jean Priestman, 56, as she sat in her cold, dark home, still without utilities a month after the quake and just a couple of houses away from a burned hull. “I’m not anxious to be here alone.”

Priestman, insured through Foremost, said she will repair her home. But some owners at Tahitian and other mobile home parks have walked away, contractors and residents say, and others have sold their damaged homes on the spot for as little as $3,000.

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According to the 1990 U.S. Census, there are 555,000 mobile homes in California, most of them in the Southland. And in the wake of the Northridge quake, many of their owners have renewed concerns about safety--along with worries about further depreciation of their homes, which tend to lose value even in good economic times.

Mobile home owners also face higher insurance premiums as a result of the quake. Foremost last week applied to the state for a 13.6% rate increase. That would come on top of a 29% increase it was granted earlier this year.

Currently, the company charges $200 to $300 a year for a comprehensive mobile home policy in California. That’s relatively expensive, given that an average trailer sells for about $30,000--or about one-seventh the price of a single-family house in the region. Conventional homeowners’ premiums typically run $500 to $600 a year without earthquake coverage; adding it costs an additional $2 per $1,000 in coverage.

Among the 5,600 mobile homes severely damaged by the quake, about 4,500 trailers slid off their tripod supports, according to the state’s Housing and Community Development Department. Most of those were in the San Fernando Valley, but the quake also affected several mobile home parks in Simi Valley. Altogether, the state says, 184 mobile homes burned to the ground in fires ignited mainly by quake-ruptured gas lines.

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The extent of the damage varies widely from park to park.

At Sunburst Park Mobile Homes in Chatsworth, all but a few of the 118 homes lurched off their piers. Two burned down; a 92-year-old woman died when her home burst into flames.

JK Construction, an Orange County contractor that has set up its own trailer for an anticipated year of work at Sunburst, said it has already put 80 homes back on their tripods at a cost of $1,500 to $3,500 each. The overall repair bills will be much higher, work crews said; floors, aluminum siding, awnings, wood paneling and utility lines all have to be fixed.

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Bev Miller, a 17-year Sunburst resident, says she is fortunate to have survived. The earthquake made her double-wide home jump three feet and land on the ground, crushing water and utility lines underneath her trailer and causing a gas leak that wasn’t shut off for 24 hours.

“They said we were real lucky we didn’t have a fire,” said Miller, who with her husband, Jim, has been living in a rented motor home next to their trailer.

Sharon Frick vividly described the morning of the earthquake at the Tahitian park in Sylmar.

“Oooh, it was such a boom!” she said. “The fire started; we had to get out, but the door was stuck. All the gas mains were exploding. . . . If there’s another earthquake, it’s all going to happen again.”

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Frick also has insurance, but she isn’t sure she can pay the $2,000 deductible because she has been laid off from her job. Her employer, the Robinsons-May department store at Topanga Plaza in Woodland Hills, was damaged by the quake and may not reopen for several months.

“It’s so discouraging,” Frick said. “It looks like a bomb hit this place. All our neighbors are gone.”


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