Let's Get Physical:
Properties, Permits and Potential in San Francisco

On A Hot Tin Roof… 

It may take some sleuthing when it comes to evaluating a property’s potential, the state of its current systems and bigger ticket items that will need to be replaced in the foreseeable future 

Behind the staging and under the marketing, there are things to look out for. Here’s some general background information to help you in your diligence. 



A general understanding of how houses work is something you may want to have when buying such a valuable asset. And given that most of the housing inventory in San Francisco is older, knowing what to look for behind the staging, under the paint and in the basement, for example, should help you understand if there’s work to be done or underlying issues (despite what the marketing says) thats should go to help inform you of what a property is really worth. Conversely, the fact a property needs attention, deeper awareness will work to our advantage because other folks may be unwilling to take on issues that may really be only minor ones in the grand scheme of things. Here’s a quick overview of some of the issues and questions we see often … 

Your House, Your Systems

Really Rough Estimates 

(as of 2018, you should confirm per property for applicable prices)

  • Average Termite Report: $5,000-$10,000 (mudsills, faulty grade, deck planks)
  • Replacement of deck/exterior stairs: ($20,000-$40,000) 
  • Asbestos Siding Removal/Abatement: $3,000-$20,000 (depending on size, height, extent) 
  • Electrical Service Upgrade: $5,000 (PG&E), $20,000 (if service is underground); main panel ($1,500-$2,500); sub panels ($500-$1,500) 
  • Rewiring: $6,000-$20,000+
  • 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: $5,000-$30,000 (dependant on steep grade, materials, complicated)
  • Furnace replacement: $4,000-$6000 (materials) + $4,000 labor 
  • High-efficiency furnace replacement: $9,000-$12,000 (materials)
  • Hot Water Radiant Floor Heating: $20,000 boiler (but also serves as domestic hot water supply, engineered wood floors needed), pex tubing ($1-$5/linear foot), gypcrete or warmboard subfloors needed 
  • Window replacement. $10,000–$15,000*
  • Exterior Siding replacement. $10,000-$25,000**
  • Foundation Replacement. $80,000–$100,000 (simple); $200,000-$500,000 (includes adding garage, living area, excavating, beware underground streams)
  • UST Removal. $10,000–$20,000 (for underground heating oil storage tanks, if present) 
  • Steel Beam Moment Frame. $13,000–$25,000
  • Water Pipe Replacement/Water Supply Replacement. $5,000-$15,000
  • Sewer Lateral Pipe Replacement. $7,000-$14,000
  • Structural/Seismic Upgrade to existing foundations. $5,000–$10,000
  • Front Stair Replacement. $12,000–$25,000
  • Terrazzo Stair Updating. $2,000–$6,000


*Historic requirements are likely to apply for front-facing windows

**Historic requirements may govern replacement materials, potential abatement issues for lead and asbestos

Remodeling and construction during a San Francisco building boom

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? Take a look below and see. 



Click above for a larger version

On Per Square Foot Basis 

Decent Remodel: $200-$400/sqft
Good Remodel: $400-$600/sqft
Luxury Remodel: $600-$1,000+/sqft

By Room

  • Average/Good Kitchen Remodel: $15,000-$40,000 (without appliances)
  • Good/Higher End Kitchen Remodel: $40,000-$60,000 (without appliances)
  • Luxury/Ultra Luxury Kitchen Remodel: $80,000-$100,000 (with appliances)
    • Farm/Apron Sink: $400 (stainless steel); Porcelain:$700+
    • Countertops: $300-$2100 (per slab of quartz/Cesarstone at wholesale price); $50-$100/sqft (labor)
    • Undermount Stainless Steel Sink (thicker gauge): $700-$1000


  • Smaller Average Bathroom Remodel: $10,000-$15,000 (basic labor only)
  • Larger Average Master Bathroom Remodel: $30,000-$65,000 (basic labor only)
    • Toilet Replacement: $300-$500 (Japanese toilet: $3,000)
    • Bathtub: $200-$800 (in-wall mounted, material dependent); $1,500-$15,000 (free-standing)
    • Recessed light fixture (can/housing): $20-$50; (trim+module): $15-$200; $50-$200/can (labor)
    • Bath Vanity Lights: $40-$2,000
    • Bath Vanity Cabinets: $80-$5,000
    • Bath fan: $50-$200/80-140 cfm 
    • Bath Tile: $.85-$600/sqft 
    • Shower finish hardware: $100-$4,000
    • Bath sink finish hardware: $100-$1,000

Planned to be Amazed: The Permitting and Approval Process

Click on the image for a larger version

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

Research Any Property’s Information

About zoning generally

Look Up Any Property’s DBI History & Zoning Here

Recent and Active Permits in the City

Stuff on the Inside:


(aka The Dept. of Building Inspection)

How to Get a Permit (and Why) (pdf)

Forms and Things

Permit Tracking

Some Brief Rankings 


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)

Worst (Not Recommended) 

  • Marble
  • Bamboo (porous, stains easily, water-wicking)

Top Interior Paints

  1. Behr Marquee, Prem. Plus, Prem. Plus Ultra ($30-43/gal)
  2. Benjamin Moore Aura ($70)
  3. Clark+Kensington ($32)
  4. HGTV Home, Sherwin-Williams ($41)
  5. PPG Diamond ($25)

Less So 

  • Glidden Premium
  • Color Place Interior (Walmart)

(according to Consumer Reports 2018)


Top Exterior Paints

  1. Clark+Kensington Exterior ($35)
  2. Behr Prem. Plus Ultra Exterior (Home Depot) ($39/gal)
  3. Sherwin-Williams Emerald, Duration ($72)
  4. Valspar DuraMax ($39)
  5. Glidden Premium Plus ($25)
  6. Benjamin Moore Aura ($60)

Less Good/Bad

  • Color Place (Walmart)
  • America’s Finest (Walmart)

(according to Consumer Reports 2018)

Top Dishwasher Brands

  1. Bosch ($560-$1700)
  2. KitchenAid ($900-$1500)
  3. Kenmore Elite ($700-$1500)
  4. Whirlpool ($400-$500)

Not So Highly Rated

  • Viking
  • Electrolux
  • Frigidaire  

(according to Consumer Reports 2018)


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 before you move to get your building permits from the Department of Building Inspection. If you’re expanding the structure’s footprint or enveloper then you’re going to subject to further Planning review that may well end up at the Planning Commission itself if not the Board of Supervisors and the Board of Appeals. 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 likely 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. 

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 including plumbing and electrical), Job Card, Inspections, Final Certificate of Occupancy.

Question: What about new construction, how does it compare?

Take all of the left 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 DBI. 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.

Whose 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)

But Is It Worth It?

You wouldn't be faulted if you think all of the complications surrounding renovation and remodeling in San Francisco isn't worth it. You'd be wrong for the most part. Remodeling any property — so long as you don't pick the wrong finishes or personalize a space too extremely — will add value as most people don't have the time, patience, money, knowledge or gumption to slog through the processes described above. If you need confirmation of this take a look at historic property sale prices below.

Charting San Francisco price real estate growth

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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