Plan to Buy?

Are you planning to buy a house, apartment, or condominium?

I Plan to Buy an Older Building
I Plan to Buy a Newer Building

I Plan to Buy an Older Building

We ask these questions:

  • Do you understand the risks of an unreinforced masonry (brick, stone, etc.) building (URM) in a large earthquake?
  • Have you determined whether the building is a URM?
  • Have you seriously considered the earthquake resistance of any building you plan to purchase?
  • Do you intend to immediately retrofit or replace it following modern building code specifications?
  • Does it have a liquefaction risk? Liquefaction is “fluidization” of silty or sandy sediment that can cause buildings to settle, break apart, or tilt, and is usually caused by shaking—learn about it, and consider it in your decisions.  Due to the way URM foundations are constructed, liquefaction impacts on URMs can be much more severe than for a non-URM.
  • Is the location worth it? We know—we’ve heard all the arguments!  The location is perfect, the neighborhood is quaint and charming, we love the big trees, it’s close to parks, the house has character missing in newer houses, etc.  Have you weighed yours and your family’s safety against all of these arguments?
  • Is it worth the personal risk?
  • Is it worth the financial risk?

Personal Risk 

FEMA and UCEM studies show that most deaths and serious injuries in the next major earthquake in Utah will occur in URMs—as many as 98% of all deaths in some scenarios.  The risk in a URM is much greater than being inside a similar-size building that meets modern seismic building codes (usually properly designed wood- or steel-reinforced buildings).

Financial Risk

Not only does a URM carry higher personal risk, but it may also carry higher financial risk:

  • The value of URMs may decrease as potential buyers become more educated about their associated risks.
  • As renters become more educated, they may gravitate to renting properly reinforced apartment buildings.
  • In general, earthquake insurance costs much more for a URM than for a similar-sized building that meets modern earthquake building codes.
  • Even a moderate-size earthquake may damage a URM to the point that it will need major reconstruction or even need to be demolished, whereas a well-built building may ride out the same earthquake with less damage. This means that while the initial cost of a URM may be less than a more modern building, the final cost may be much more.
  • Also, retrofitting is intended to save lives and decrease injuries in an earthquake, not prevent damage to the building.  Even if a building has been retrofitted, it may still be damaged to the point that it could need extensive and expensive repairs, or even need to be torn down—then you’ve lost your money twice!
  • If your business is in a URM, you may not be able to renew operation for many months to years; and without an operating business, how easy will it be to get a loan to rebuild?

The Good and Bad News!

Buildings that meet modern seismic codes should survive most earthquakes with less damage than URMs.  However, building codes are designed to save lives, not buildings.  In some cases you may be able to reoccupy the building with only minor to moderate repairs.  However, in many cases, even a building that meets modern building codes may have to be demolished after a serious earthquake.  But there is good news too.  The U.S. Resiliency Council indicates that buildings can be built with earthquake resiliency so they can be usable immediately after the earthquake for only 1 to 10% more initial cost.  This small cost can often be recouped within a few years due to higher efficiency, lower insurance rates, and higher resale value.

What to do:

  • Read “How to Recognize a URM.” Know the clues before you search for a home.
  • Determine if the building you are considering meets modern earthquake building codes.
  • Consider the personal and financial risks before buying a URM.
  • Consider buying a non-URM building—but first read “I Plan to Buy a Newer Building”

I Plan to Buy a Newer Building

Even newer homes, apartments, and other buildings should be evaluated for earthquake safety.  In addition to shaking issues, you may want to investigate:

  • Does it have other structural concerns such as a “soft story,” non-ductile concrete frame, unreinforced chimney, parapet walls, or weakly attached signs or other fixtures?
  • Is it built directly on a fault (fault map)?
  • Does it have a liquefaction risk? Liquefaction is “fluidization” of silty or sandy sediment that can cause buildings to settle, break apart, or tilt, and is usually caused by shaking—learn about it, and consider it in your decisions.
  • Is there danger of rocks rolling into your house from a nearby slope?
  • Is there a nearby building, wall, chimney, or other tall structure that could fall on your building during an earthquake?
  • Is it on or adjacent to a slope or in or near an area with known landslides? (learn more about landslides in Utah.)
  • Is it below a canyon mouth or in another area that might experience a debris flow?
  • Does it have other earth-related issues such as expansive or collapsible soil or radon gas?
  • Look inside for tall shelves and bookcases, weakly attached chandeliers or mirrors, precarious electronics, high vases and ceramic objects, or other objects that may fall.
  • Determine if gas and water lines have flexible connections.
  • Assure that water heaters and other large objects are properly anchored.

See more suggestions at www.ussc.gov (Utah Seismic Safety Commission) and BeReady.Utah.gov.

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