Let’s Delve Deeper Shall We?

Evaluating San Francisco Properties + How Much Remodeling May Cost and What It Would Entail

Everything Under the Roof (or, maybe even the roof itself?!)
We are in a complicated, compact and expensive area of the country where land is scarce, neighbors get a lot of say over what you can do with a property, and many buildings are older that are difficult to replace (if that’s even possible)
This section of the site seeks to take a look at the various things you should look out for when buying a property. Then we’ll delve deeper to see how a property can be remodeled, expanded or restored — should you choose to do that. 

Things you want to ask about a property before buying it: 

How big is the parcel? 

(Will determine how lot coverage a structure can have to protect light and air requirements as well as fire safety access) 

How old is the structure? 

(Will determine rent control/eviction control issues, building materials that were likely used, whether certain protections for construction defects will apply, if historic review or preservation regulations apply) 

What type of foundation does it have? 

(Brick, masonry, concrete, none? How deep are the footings? What are footings?) 

Is the property on a slope or hillside? 

(Will impact insurability, need to do soil and grading work, liability to neighbors)

Is the property in a historic district, if so, what type? 

(Will impact ability to remodel, potentially impact property tax rates) 

What’s the property zoning and what authorized use(s) are permitted onsite? 

(Will impact expansion potential, density allowances, light and air requirements, parking allowances, if change of use is desired, what needs to be done to do it, if possible) 

Is the property in a seismic hazard/tsunami/forest fire zone?

(This one should be easy, right? Also, add in insurability) 

Does it smell damp? 

(Could indicate leaks, mold, water table, drainage issues) 

What condition are the systems in? (Structure, plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling) 

What do neighboring properties look like? How much of the parcel do they cover? Are they taller? 

(Will help determine ability to expand)

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

Okay, Say You Have to Remodel or Repair The Property You Want (or Own) How much will it cost?

(Here are some really rough estimates)

(As of 2020)

Commonly Seen Issues

  • Average Pest/Termite Report for A House or Older Condo Building: $5,000-$10,000 (common issues: dry rot/fungus, wood-boring beetles, termites in door jambs, exterior steps, mud sills, exterior doors, decks, faulty grade foundation where concrete and wood intersection is below soil level)
  • Replacement of deck/exterior stairs: $20,000-$40,000 (will likely be required for condo conversion) 
  • Asbestos Siding Removal/Abatement: $3,000-$20,000 (depending on size, height, extent, a licensed professional needs to do this with water, suits, negative pressure; many times people will leave asbestos alone or encapsulate it; commonly found in exterior shingles, heating duct coverings and joints, ceiling tiles and floor tiles) 
  • Electrical Service Upgrade from anything less than 100 amps to 200+ amps: $5,000 (PG&E charge plus labor and permits) + $20,000 (if service connection to house is underground);
  • Breaker Panel and Subpanel replacement (for Federal Pacific boxes for example) main panel ($1,500-$2,500 + labor and permit); sub panels ($500-$1,500 + labor and permit) 
  • Rewiring a house/condo: $6,000-$50,000+
  • Sewer Lateral Pipe Replacement (the connecting pipe from house to sewer main, often made of clay that shifts or compromised by tree roots, includes sidewalk and driveway replacement of impacted areas: $5,000-$15,000 (test to see if this needs to be done, $500)
  • 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+ (older SF wood floors can only be refinished so many times; new wood floors range about $15-$40/sqft)
  • Roof Replacement: $5,000-$30,000 (dependent on steepness, pitch, complexity and materials)
  • Basic Forced Air Heat Furnace replacement: $4,000-$7,000 (materials) + $4,000 labor for basic 
  • High-efficiency furnace replacement: $9,000-$12,000 (materials)
  • Adding AC to system: $4,000–$5,000 (add a compressor and condenser to system); ductless systems that exist apart from central: $5,000-$20,000
  • 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 warm board subfloors needed — in other words, very expensive, figure $40,000 for the mechanicals and labor and more to replace an entire floor and subfloor because you need to have engineered floor on top of radiant heat surfaces (expansion/contraction) 

Bigger Ticket Items

(as if the first column wasn’t expensive enough!) 

  • Window replacement: $10,000–$45,000*
  • Exterior Siding replacement: $10,000-$55,000**
  • Exterior Stucco replacement: $5,000–$40,000 (depending on what’s underneath as old-school; builders did not believe in ventilation in a moist climate like ours; new standards would add insulation, moisture-blocking barriers and pressure treated materials if appropriate) 
  • Foundation Replacement. $80,000–$100,000 (partial/simple situations); $200,000–$500,000 (could include adding a new garage, more living area and excavation but beware underground streams!)
  • UST Removal. $10,000–$20,000 (for underground heating oil storage tanks in very old properties, if they’re present) 
  • Adding a steel Beam Moment Frame for seismic strengthening. $13,000–$25,000 per frame (how many frames will your structural engineer require?)
  • Water Pipe Replacement/Water Supply Replacement. $5,000-$15,000 (from galvanized steel that plugs up like a blood vessel to copper, and/or larger copper diameter) 
  • Structural/Seismic Upgrade to existing foundations. $5,000–$10,000 (a good baseline course of adding bolts, straps, Ts, some stronger concrete in areas, engineered beams and plywood. The Simpson Strong Tie-down will become your friend)
  • Front Stair Replacement. $12,000–$50,000 (may require permits, historic matching requirements, materials may be rare; entire frame underneath changed, waterproofing added)
  • Terrazzo Stair Updating. $2,000–$6,000 (involves grinding down and off the dirty layer, applying a new coat and sealing the new surface from the elements) 


*Historic requirements are likely to apply for front-facing windows meaning that wood or wood-like materials need to be used

**Historic requirements may govern replacement materials (big planks of wood or brick style, potential abatement issues for lead and asbestos


Remodeling and construction after a boom, forest fires and COVID-19

Material costs are one thing — you can balance high and low and still have a great-looking and functioning result. But where the costs mount up: labor. Up until recently, Mission Bay construction projects like the Chase Center were pushing labor costs up quite a lot. And just when that got done, there were forest fires up north that destroyed homes that need to be rebuilt. On top of that, there is a shortage of people going into the trades, so it’ll only get more expensive as time goes on.

Take a look at who does what and how the division of labor during a remodeling project will be driven by the design and scope of a project. Labor costs will be also be impacted by how much interaction you have with these folks (the more the better) and how often you change your mind (the less the better) 




Click above for a larger version

How much is this going to Cost?

A few tips: you’ll want to shoot for a flat rate approach versus a time and materials (i.e., hourly) agreement with your contractor/subcontractor. The fewer change orders you have the better. The more materials you can source and have delivered the better. Project management is key as the worst part of the process is idle time and delays caused by supplies arriving late or long lead times (so plan ahead). Oh, and as for your set-aside contingency, instead of the standard 10 or 15 percent, set aside 25 to 40 percent as there will be surprises, random upgrades and splurges.  

From our own experience and that of many of our clients, when it comes to major remodels it seems that every contractor and subcontractor (or each trade) seemed to charge $30,000 (or more) no matter what was being done.

Multiply that by the things you have to have done: Floors, Drywall, HVAC, Electrical, Tile, Cabinets, Appliances, Tile, Counters, Glass, Stair installation, Deck replacement, Trim and Detailing, Windows, Sheer construction, Architectural and Structural Engineering Fees, Permit Fees, Material Costs… and well, you can see that things will add up quickly. 

Early planning, coordination, product and material hunting online (Amazon, Wayfair, Build.com, and even EBay) and at local stores (the big box retailers and other places with floor samples, or reclamation/salvage places like Building Resources in San Francisco or Urban Oar in Berkeley) can really lead to cost savings but will take up a lot of time too.  

On Per Square Foot Basis 

A Decent Remodel: $200-$400/sqft (next to impossible keeping to this figure if project is major) 
Good Remodel: $400-$600/sqft (resulting product could be builder-grade but functional) 
Luxury Remodel: $600-$1,000+/sqft (this is when properties are truly transformed)

By Room

  • Average/Good Kitchen Remodel (Cosmetic): $15,000-$40,000 (without appliances and cabinets))
  • Good/Higher End Kitchen Remodel: $40,000-$70,000 (without appliances)
  • Luxury/Ultra Luxury Kitchen Remodel: $80,000-$100,000+ (might include appliances)
    • Farm/Apron Sink: $400 (stainless steel); Porcelain:$800+
    • Countertops: $300-$2100 (per slab of quartz/Cesarstone at wholesale price); $50-$100/sqft (labor)
    • Undermount Stainless Steel Sink (thicker gauge): $200-$1,000+


  • 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)
Measure for Measure

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

Strategic Updates and Before and Afters with Kevin Ho + Jonathan McNarry, Vanguard Properties, San Francisco, CA

Strategic updates for getting your property ready for sale by creating the right look, touch, and feel is key to ensuring that our clients’ San Francisco properties are presented in the best possible light with Kevin Ho and Jonathan McNarry, top producers, realtors, and property sales experts at Vanguard Properties.

Paying for it All: San Francisco Financed Purchases + Mortgages Considered By Kevin and Jonathan

Kevin Ho and Jonathan McNarry of Vanguard Properties, San Francisco, consider some of the financing products they and their clients have encountered when buying and selling property in San Francisco over the past few years including fixed mortgages, adjustable ones and exotic ones — each suited for a given property and offering situation.

Planning Department and the DBI

ANYTIME ANYONE WANTS TO REMODEL their property in the City an entire, unwieldy permitting, entitlement and approval process may be implicated. Or…

Hey! I am first heading line feel free to change me

How About Your Property? 

Is a remodel feasible? Worthwhile? 

Feel free to bounce ideas off of us and we’ll tell you what we think and why. 

Remember, the above information is simply that — information. Real estate can (and often does) change without notice — especially when it comes to as sensitive a topic as construction, remodeling and land use. So tread carefully, wisely and patiently all the while being sure to consult the relevant professionals who work in this line of work every day. 

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