Hammering Away At It: Building & Remodeling SF

Like everything in San Francisco, doing up your home, tearing down a property or developing a new building or project is complicated and costly. But like everything in the Bay Area, it can become an incredibly valuable endeavor too.

One of the easiest ways to personalize and/or increase the value of your home or to get a deal by is remodeling it. So how much will it all cost? How long will it take? I may be able to give you a ballpark figure as to how much things will cost: $20,000 for a bathroom, $50,000-$80,000 for a kitchen, adding a garage $100,000 and contractors will do the same too. But until you’re actually in the process (and into the walls) everyone is only guessing.

Just Delete That Wall, It’ll Be Nothing! (Until It’s Something)

You’ll probably hear me or someone else say it: “Oh you can change that around after we buy it.” Or, well, that was done ‘without the benefit of permit.’ You’re likely to encounter many questions along the way as you seek to buy a home in City. Chances are that you only be able to find something that is <em>close</em> to what you want and that you’ll want to personalize your home to match your needs and aesthetics. But what does that entail exactly? How does a cosmetic remodel differ from one that is structural? Does “down-to-the-studs” mean it’s better than something that’s been there for 100 years? Why does a pest report matter in some cases and is waived in others? And is new construction really better than that 100+ year old Victorian? What’s the difference between an “over-the-counter” permit and one that needs ‘approval?’ Building and/or remodeling in San Francisco can be incredibly time-consuming and expensive but this even before you pick up a hammer or open a can of paint. What we’re talking about here is the process involved with getting approval to do almost any kind of work to your property.

Why This Matters

Building in San Francisco can be quite rewarding but, as you would imagine, our fair city requires a fair amount of logistical planning, permit work, and bureaucracy. It can be quite costly as well: permits, legal fees, material costs, code provisions, labor, revisions and the unknown X factors can radically alter any budget, good-faith construction bid, or weekend project. by several thousands of dollars and by months, if not years from what you originally intended.
All things being equal, it will take an average of one or two years to do a major remodeling project that expands beyond a structures ‘envelope’ (the 3-D space it presently occupies) or to build a house from scratch in the City on one of the few available vacant lots in San Francisco proper. Most of this time – as you can guess – will be spent in the planning and permitting stage with the actual construction work being relatively quick. You’re bound to encounter a remodeling/renovation/construction issue at one point here in San Francisco even if you’re only maintaining your home rather than just blowing it out and adding a floor. This section attempts to give you an overview of what that remodeling process is like if it’s done according to the book, i.e., with City-issued permits, or if you want to build anew. If you have the wherewithal, patience and resources, then read on…


The Stuff on the Outside & More

The Planning Department

The Department’s Site

Plans for the City’s Neighborhoods

How To Guides from the Department

Stuff on the Inside:


(aka The Dept. of Building Inspection)

How to Get a Permit (and Why) (pdf)

Forms and Things

Permit Tracking

Research Any Property’s Information

About zoning generally

Look Up Any Property’s DBI History & Zoning Here

Recent and Active Permits in the City


Top Kitchen Counter Materials

  1. Manufactured Quartz ($30–$100/sqft)
  2. Sealed Granite (same)
  3. Recycled/Broken glass ($40–$130/sqft)
  4. Laminate ($10–$50/sqft)
  5. Tile ($2–$60/sqft)


Bamboo (porous, stains easily, water-wicking)

Top Satin & Eggshell Paints

  1. Behr Prem. Plus Ultra Satin Enamel ($30/gal)
  2. Benjamin Moore Aura Satin ($60)
  3. Clark+Kensington Satin ($30)
  4. Kilz Casual Colors ($30)
  5. Behr Premium Plus ($25)

(according to Consumer Reports 2014)


Glidden (High Endurance Plus), True Value (Easy Care), Sherwin-Williams (Duration)

Top Semi-Gloss Paints

  1. Clark+Kensington Semi-gloss ($30)
  2. Behr Prem. Plus Ultra Semi-gloss Enamel ($30/gal)
  3. Valspar Signature ($35)
  4. Behr Premium Plus ($25)
  5. Benjamin Moore Aura Satin ($60)

(according to Consumer Reports 2014)


Farrow & Ball (High Endurance Plus), True Value (Easy Care), Sherwin-Williams (Emerald)

Top Dishwashers

  1. Kenmore Elite 12793 ($1300)
  2. Kenmore Elite 12783 ($1200)
  3. Bosch Ascenta SHX3AR (F)/(5) ($700)
  4. KitchenAid KDFE454CSS ($1500)
  5. Thermador Topaz DWHD640JFM ($1500)

(according to Consumer Reports 2014)


Fagor (deemed as a safety risk)

Question. Renovating a home in San Francisco versus buying a done, done home—which is easier/costlier/better?

This, of course, is a loaded question. On the one hand if you renovate you get to pick finishes and pay for your own choices, not someone else’s. But you’re going to need time (at least 2 months, if not 2 years), patience, and money. Nothing is ever guaranteed and prepare for the unexpected. Ripping out walls and floors and ceilings can reveal a whole slew of unexpected surprises. Most surprises in the City come in the form of: structural deterioration from termites, dry rot, fungus or inadequate engineering; outdated systems like electrical (knob and tube, Federal Pacific boxes) and plumbing (galvanized pipes and sewer lateral connections); patchwork past renovations; foundations, and past use of asbestos-containing materials. This is not to mention the requirement to build to modern codes. Quite naturally, San Francisco has its own Building Code. Another radical element: discretion or whimsy of neighbors (both owners and renters) up to 300 feet away, inconstant city inspectors and planners and haphazard, legislate-as-you go regulations. Thus the only thing that is certain is that there are no guarantees in San Francisco as the process is so subjective with various choking hazards on the way. The rewards are, however, pretty impressive.

Step 1: Enter the Planning Department & Your Neighbors 

If you are making major exterior changes to existing property, then you will be required to submit those changes to the Planning Department in addition to getting your building permits from the Department of Building and Inspection. If you’re expanding the structure’s footprint or enveloper then you’re going to subject to further review that may well end up at the Planning Commission itself. In any case, you will submit your application with a preliminary project description and a set of early plans with front and interior elevation drawings. Eventually, you will be assigned a city planner who will be your point of contact. The planner will sign off and move to issue a site permit. Think this sounds straight forward? Think again.

If your structure is more than 50 years old (and 85% of San Francisco buildings are) you will undergo historic review under CEQA and you may have may be required to submit revisions to your plans that comport with zoning, height and material restrictions as well as historic/architectural guidelines. This can add at least 6 months to your approval time. framing

If your renovation is confined within the existing envelope then skip ahead to Step 2; if not, keep reading.  After your plans are vetted by the Planning Department’s staff then, by law, the department now must do neighborhood notification. This is where your neighbors in a 150 foot or even 300 foot radius get notification of your intention to vary the landscape; a sign must also be posted onsite notifying passersby. This begins a 30-day period whereby anyone (renters, owners, random personality) can object to your proposed project by requesting further review by the department and by the Planning Commissioners themselves.

Neighborhood opposition is infamous in San Francisco. It is known as section 311 discretionary review (aka, DR) and DR can halt the entire permitting process down by months and months. Objection NIMBYs may go back and forth with would-be developers or applicants over the supposed a proposal’s worth and contribution to the neighborhood. Many times these discussions can be heated. Some of reasons stated are valid while others are frivolous – regardless, a DR request may, at some point, require the involvement of a land use attorney and before the Planning Commission itself.


Step 2: Don’t forget the DBI, they want in too

For renovations taking place inside a property’s envelope the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) is the primary point of interaction with the city.  While the Planning Department is concerned with the outside, if all the proposed renovations for a space are taking place within an existing envelope of a building structure, then the permits will be ‘over the counter’ – more clerical in nature which are much easier and faster to get. It’s the way to ensure work meets Code. San Francisco has about 135 inspectors and has recently adopted the International Building Code with local addenda out of the hope to be more efficient and consistent. But even in this context you are subject to the whim and caprice of a given inspector and their mood that day.


Rightly or wrongly, many folks have the impression that filing for a building permit will necessarily trigger a reassessment from the Assessor’s office, others say no only additions will trigger reassessment. I’ve heard conflicting views on the subject – even from the assessor himself. Thus, you have a large number of folks who simply want to save the time and application fees simply bypass the permitting process altogether by doing the work ‘off the record.’  This is the main reason of how the feature of the unwarranted unit or non–permitted work originates in the city.

And one more thing to consider: neighbors or a concerned party may well just turn you in to the DBI! But they could be happy for you too as doing a major interior or exterior renovation can lead to a neighborhood fiasco. But it can be a very positive experience that reinforces the relationships with your neighbors or create a better sense of community showcasing pride in your neighborhood.

FINAL DELIVERABLES: Building Permit (first of many), Job Card, Inspections, Certificate of Occupancy.

Question What about new construction, how does it compare?

Take all of the above and enlarge.  Typically, you’ll have to navigate the Planning Department’s rigamarole before wading into the depths of the DBI.

Site Permit/Entitlements & Building Permits

After plans for the house are drawn up, then the first step is to apply for the required Site Permit from the Planning Department. The goal is to obtain a Site Permit/Entitlement which will be issued at the end of a long review, revision and further revision process.

The Site Permit issuance and review will be done at first by staff where they will look at issues like  parking spaces and how the proposed building fits into the neighborhood and the overall city’s plans for the area. The Planning Department will be required to conduct various reviews (e.g., historic, environmental, etc) and hold various public hearings.

Next, the plan that emerges from the Planning Department will be one that is essentially completely ‘brand new’ to BDI. Most times, the interior plans are only general at this point, no finishes have been picked nor have details been finalized. The DBI will do a quick review but then a back and forth process begins where information requests and responses occur. At this time the DBI will be calculating their fees to charge you.

And after this you move to filing Addenda, which consist of the plans for structural systems and energy usage for example.    Overall, it may take anywhere  2 to 6 months to get your first set of building permits.

After this, there is then the process of taking an approved plan and turning into a full set of construction documents.   And, don’t forget that the typical cost overruns will be +15% because of changes or gaps in the plan.  Oh, and if you have second–thoughts and decide to change your mind about something repeat the above steps.

Q. But how can I afford all this?

Before the financial turbulence of 2008, folks would use the equity in their homes to get a line of credit that could be used to finance construction and renovation. Now those days and those loans are gone. That’s not the say they don’t exist– they do. But getting them may be more difficult than you think.

Self–funded – cash.

Self–explanatory. But, consider that the average renovation that I have encountered for homes is on the order of $100,000, which typically include some foundation work, electrical, kitchen and the bathroom. Other areas may not get that much attention. A major fixer home in the city – assume a single–family home that has been held in one family for 30, 40 or even 50 years that is a trust, probate or foreclosure sale – can cost anywhere from $200,000 on up to $500,000. But the results can be stunning and the equity gains astounding.

The construction loan — new homes and major renovations 

There are loans available that take advantage of an initial valuation and a future valuation based on increased equity resulting from improvements. To understand how this works, first take the premise that a bank will gladly lend on a property where a buyer puts down a 40%–50% down payment. Next, considering the difference in value between an unimproved property and the final beautiful and stunning end product. That delta– the value at time zero versus the value at time x– is compels a construction lender to fund these projects. Namely, you the buyer will have to invest and buy the property. Then, you will have to hire your architects, engineers and general contractors to prepare plans to submit to the city.


Which counter top will be top?

Which counter top will be top?

A construction lender will assess your plans and decide upon an appraisal of the proposed finished product to see if it makes financial sense. Once that is done this is the fix of the loan will be hired out between all the relevant parties. Typically, these construction loans average 3 or 4 percent higher than conventional home loans. But, this cost is usually made up in the resulting equity gain. Once construction completes the home is now appraised again. The construction loan is closed out and the home is then financed with a conventional home loan product if not sold.

This type of lending is premised upon the understanding that the dollar spent in construction will actually add more than that dollar to the home’s value. Think of this boost being able to save on a contractor’s markup.


Soft Story? 

Heads’ up for owners of buildings that have 5 residential units or more built before January 1, 1978, or should we say feet down? Under recent legislation all San Francisco buildings that are wood-framed, permitted for construction prior to 1978, contain five or more residential dwelling units and are three or more stories or two stories over a basement or underfloor area that have any portion extending above grade, and have not yet been seismically strengthened will be notified, screened and eventually if necessary, be required to complete certain upgrades and/or repairs. Certain buildings where owners have voluntarily upgraded will be exempted from the program. Otherwise the legislation creates a schedule whereby all work for every building is done by 2020.

  • Read more about the project HERE
  • And for the list of buildings is HERE (excel spreadsheet)

How Much Do Things Cost?

Decent Remodel: $200-$400/sqft
Good Remodel: $400-$600/sqft
Luxury Remodel: $600-$800/sqft
Average Kitchen Remodel: $15,000-$40,000 (without appliances)
Farm/Apron Sink: $400 (stainless steel); Porcelain:$700+
Countertops: $700-$1100 (per slab of quartz, marble, Cesarstone at wholesale price); $50-$100/sqft (labor)
Undermount Stainless Steel Sink (thicker gauge): $700-$1000
Average Bathroom Remodel: $10,000-$15,000 (basic labor only)
Toilet Replacement: $300-$500 (Japanese toilet: $3,000)
Bathtub: $200-$800 (in-wall mounted, material dependent); $1500-$10,000 (free-standing)
Recessed light fixture (can): $20-$50; $50-$200/can (labor)
Shower finish hardware: $100-$2,000; Bath sink finish hardware: $100-$600

Electrical Service Upgrade: $3000 (w/new panel)
Rewiring: $5,000-$9,000+
Sewer Lateral Pipe Replacement: $5000-$12,000
Water Heater: $800 (tank, materials only)
Tankless Water Heater: $800-$3000 (materials only, professional should install)
Refinish Wood floors: up to 1,000 sqft $2,000; 2,000 sqft $5,000
Roof Replacement: $50,000-$30,000
Furnace replacement: $4000-$6000 (materials)
High-efficiency furnace replacement: $9000-$12,000 (materials)

Like this:

Kevin K. Ho, Esq. + Jonathan B McNarry
San Francisco Real Estate Experts
+1-415.297-7462 (Kevin)
+1-415.215.4393 (Jonathan)
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