Many of Auckland's old town centres are studded with character buildings that could tumble and kill in an earthquake, a report exclusively obtained by the Weekend Herald shows.

A preliminary "earthquake-prone building register" released by the Auckland Council lists 393 unreinforced masonry buildings in the former Auckland City area likely to collapse in a moderate earthquake.

The list of pre-1940 commercial buildings reveals many hot spots in old town centres built at the turn of the 20th century, including Mt Eden, Kingsland, Balmoral, Mt Albert, Mt Roskill, Epsom, Remuera, Parnell, Ponsonby, Jervois Rd, Karangahape Rd, Queen St and the central city.

Council officers, who previously refused to release the list, claimed it was "erroneously" called the earthquake-prone building register.

The list is part of an earthquake-prone policy legally required under the Building Act and compiled by the former Auckland City Council.

The council stressed it was a list of buildings that could be susceptible to earthquake damage and not all the buildings had been properly assessed. The list of 416 buildings has been reduced to 393 after the council wrote to owners 10 days ago and heard back that strengthening work had been done on 23 properties.

Andrew Turpin, who owns several character buildings in Kingsland, does not believe old buildings can be brought up to modern earthquake standards, but accepts that they can be made more resilient.

"My questions is at what cost?"

He said many people were killed or injured by falling parapets and awnings in the Christchurch earthquake. He is keen to install posts on the footpath to support the cantilevered awning outside his heritage-listed Page's Building.

Auckland City adopted a "pragmatic" approach to allow the owners of earthquake-prone buildings to reduce risk over time - in many cases until 2045.

Wellington City Council requires earthquake-prone buildings to be strengthened within 10 to 20 years, depending on the type of building.

Following the Christchurch earthquakes, this is under review and may go back to a previous timeframe of five to 15 years, half that allowed for most Auckland buildings.

Auckland Council building control manager Bob de Leur said Auckland's light-handed approach was based on the low risk of a quake of sufficient intensity to bring down buildings.

"The last thing we want is to end up with areas of the city where we have totally vacant lots because property owners haven't got the money to upgrade these buildings at the present time," he said.

Terry Gould, a director of Phillimore Properties which specialises in heritage refurbishments, said the cost of earthquake-proofing old buildings was considerable.

He said cities overseas provided incentives to refurbish heritage buildings and, with the release of the list, it was time to debate incentives for Auckland.

"We don't want the situation which we have got with the St James Theatre where we end up with demolition by neglect, where the economics are just not there for building owners," Mr Gould said.

Dominion Rd Business Association manager Gary Holmes said building owners had already suffered a loss in rentals and property values due to the designation to widen Dominion Rd, which may not go ahead.

"To now have Auckland Council demand that long-suffering property owners must now spend many thousands of dollars in having their building reach the particular threshold in the building code, could potentially be a nail in the coffin of many Dominion Rd businesses," he said.

The Building Act 2004 defines earthquake-prone buildings as those likely to collapse in a moderate quake, causing injury or death, or damage to any other property.

A building is earthquake-prone if it is assessed as below 33 per cent of the design level of a new building. Engineers have argued for doubling the minimum 33 per cent strengthening threshold to 67 per cent.

Canterbury University associate professor of civil engineering Stefano Pampanin said: "Going to 34 per cent is not appropriate. Even going to 50 per cent is not good enough."

Consulting engineer Barry Davidson has gone one step further by saying many old brick buildings are death traps and should be demolished for safety reasons.

Auckland Council began work in November to draft an earthquake prone policy, merging those of the former councils, which will go to a committee next month and then out for public submissions.

View Unreinforced buildings in Auckland in a larger map