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What Every Salt Lake Homeowner Should Know About Earthquakes

By March 1, 2020January 6th, 2021Elephant in the City, Moving to Salt Lake

If you grew up in Salt Lake City, preparing for an earthquake is probably seared into your mind. Chances are at some point the thought of “The Big One” kept you up at night, but complacency may have placed it on the back burner alongside other everyday risks. Newcomers moving to Salt Lake may have some idea that they are living in an earthquake zone, but may not be aware of the imminent risks. Whether you’ve lived with the threat your entire life, or are new to the area, the fact is that the large majority of homes in Salt Lake City are susceptible to significant damages in the event of a quake. Particularly at risk are older neighborhoods like Yalecrest. And while most residents in Salt Lake have an emergency preparedness pack ready, most individual homes are vasty underprepared. Here is what every Salt Lake City homeowner needs to know to prepare their home for an earthquake.

The Odds

Experts estimate that last big earthquake hit Salt Lake City 1400 years ago. Geological surveys show that a magnitude 6-7 quake hits the Wasatch Fault, and the subsequent Salt Lake Valley, every 1300-1500 years. That puts the chances of having an earthquake of magnitude 7 or greater in the next 50 years at 43%. And that probability rises to 57% when the richter scale drops to 6. To put this in context, this is higher than the chance of getting cancer (38%) and slightly lower than having heart disease (68%), two of our nation’s biggest killers.

Worse-case Scenario

Salt Lake City estimates that 350,000 residents will be displaced in a worse-case, 7-magnitude earthquake scenario. Eighty to eighty-five percent (80-85%) of homes would sustain moderate to severe damages. Roads and freeways would be impassable and basic services suspended for weeks or months.

Homeowner Facts

First and foremost, Salt Lake City homeowners should be aware that their homeowners insurance policy will not cover earthquake-related damage. While Earthquake insurance is available, it is extremely expensive and typically associated with a high deductible (we delve more into this later).

While earthquake codes were written into Salt Lake’s building standards in 1975, it is commonly accepted that most buildings built before 1980 do not meet seismic requirements. It should also be clarified that a home that meets earthquake codes is designed to stand long enough for occupants to vacate. A home that is up to seismic code may or may not be inhabitable after an earthquake.

Unreinforced Masonry

Unreinforced masonry or URM describes structures built with walls of multiple layers of individual bricks, stone or concrete blocks. If your home is made of any of these materials and built before 1980 your home is at high risk of collapsing during an earthquake.

This Building Damage Estimate Interactive Map can help you determine your home’s earthquake resilience and if you qualify for the Fix the Bricks program. Enter your address and discover nearby fault lines and the likelihood of your home’s survival during a quake. About 99% of Yalecrest-area homes can expect 70-100% structure loss.

How to Prepare

Yalecrest resident Divya Chandrasekhar, an Assistant Professor in City and Metropolitan Planning at the University of Utah, specializes in community disaster recovery. She has some specific advice for improving your and your family’s survival in the event of an earthquake.

Know Your Home’s Risk

First, Chandrasekhar advises all Salt Lake residents to be aware of their earthquake risk. That includes knowing your home’s: 1) Proximity to faults, 2) Liquefaction potential and, 3) Ground shaking intensity.  

If you live in the Yalecrest neighborhood, and really any part of Salt Lake, you will be impacted by at least one, and possibly other geological incidents including landslides, slope failures, rock falls, and more.

Neighborhood, Household and Home

Second, Chandrasekhar suggests you approach emergency preparedness from three angles: neighborhood, household and home. In her opinion, Salt Lake City and its residents are better prepared in the first two areas, but lags behind in the third, home preparedness. Our focus for the remainder of this article is specifically on home preparedness. For more information on neighborhood and household preparation, Chandrasekahr recommends visiting The Great Shakeout , Be Ready Utah, and S.A.F.E. Neighborhood websites.


First Line of Defense

Within our neighborhood, K.E.E.P. Yalecrest (the Yalecrest National Historic District advocacy organization) has a well-laid out guide for what seismic risk looks like for older homes. Both K.E.E.P. Yalecrest and Chandrasekhar recommend the first line of defense in earthquake preparation is to seismically retrofit your home.

Fix the Bricks

Salt Lake City’s Fix the Bricks program provides funds to retrofit URM structures within city limits. Each year, Salt Lake City submits a grant to FEMA to release funds for homes on their waitlist. These funds cover two major seismic retrofitting expenses: 1) The establishment of roof to wall connection; and, 2) The securing of chimneys to the main structure.

The average compensation grant through Fix the Bricks is around $24,000, or 75% of the total cost of a seismic upgrade.

Salt Lake City resident Scott Jones has been on the Fix the Bricks waitlist since October 2017. His family recently moved from the 700 block of Emerson Ave east to the Gilmer Park neighborhood. Because his home had not yet been awarded FEMA funds, he was able to transfer his waitlist position. In October 2018, his new house was submitted as part of the 2019 FEMA grant. He expects to receive funds in October of this year. In Scott’s opinion, “It’s a long time to wait, and it requires a lot of patience, but they say Salt Lake is the next in line [for a big quake]. So, I think it’s worth it.”

Chandrasekhar also thinks it’s worth the wait. “If there is one thing I could recommend to a Salt Lake City homeowner, it would be to register for Fix the Bricks. Every person who owns a home with URM should be on the waitlist.”.

Add Retrofitting to Your Home Improvement List

If you prefer to finance your own seismic retrofitting, you can expect to pay 1-3% of your home’s total value. Chandrasekhar recommends adding the cost of retrofitting into your budget if you are refinancing your home. She also recommends making seismic upgrades when updating kitchens, bathrooms, or replacing a roof. While the jury is still out on whether seismic upgrade increase your home’s value, it is a sure thing when it comes to saving a life.

Earthquake Insurance

Earthquake insurance is a controversial topic. Specialists like Chandrasekhar recommend seismically retrofitting a home before paying for the high cost of earthquake insurance. According to the State of Utah, “There is more uncertainty attached to the peril of earthquake than almost any other peril addressed by property and casualty insurers.”

Cost Factors

Shane Pinneo, of American Family Insurance, spoke with us about the nuances of adding earthquake insurance to your home policy. According to Pinneo, “The biggest rate driver in earthquake insurance is the construction of the home and the age of a home…Most homes in the Harvard Yale neighborhood built before 1950 will not be insured through a traditional national insurer.”

Sub-Market Providers

Agents like Pinneo can still write high-risk earthquake policies, but they will most likely contract through a sub-market provider like Lloyds of London. These monthly payments can cost upward 100% of your monthly home insurance payment. They also tend to come with a 5%, 10%, or 20% deductible, with lower deductibles being extremely expensive.

The State of Your Finances

When considering earthquake insurance, a homeowner should review the state of their finances and what their financial future will look like if their home is severely damaged. Your insurance provider can review options and help you make an informed decision. You can also contact Shane Pinneo at for more information or an earthquake insurance quote.

Be Smart, Not Scared

Thinking, particularly overthinking, about the next “Big One” can be overwhelming. It is easy to let fear obstruct reason when we dwell on potential losses. Following professional advice, taking reasonable precautions, and having an even-paced implementation plan is the best course of action.

In Chandrasekhar’s words, “Be smart, not scared. Let your fear propel you to do something.”


Elephant in the City is a Yalecrest Homes blog series exploring the funny, awkward, and serious questions about moving to and living in Salt Lake.

Vol 1: The Public vs. Private School Debate in Salt Lake City
Vol 2: Adventuring in Utah’s Great Outdoors
Vol. 3: What Every Salt Lake Homeowner Should Know About Earthquakes