Evaluating San Francisco properties, spotting a property’s potential and how remodeling works in SF
(generally speaking).

Delving Deeper. 

Evaluating, Updating, and Renovating Property in San Francisco

(psst. if it were easy and cheap, everyone would be doing it)

This page has, by far, proven to be one of our most popular pages on the entire site. It figures because this is essentially the page where you get to see San Francisco real estate through the eyes of two the City’s top agents (and their dog — you never know what things Raffi will detect that we humans can’t.  We’ll go over the basics and then move into the possibilities in terms of how you can add to a property’s value through minor updates to wholescale, blow-out renovations with neighbors, change orders and the whole spread. 

Anything is possible in San Francisco, it’s just a matter of money and time. Sometimes it’s a lot of money and time. Like a lot.

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 ...

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)

Things to look out for in Single-Family Houses
Multi-Unit and Newer Buildings

The Inspection Contingency. It used to be that the inspection contingency involved actual inspections and inspectors. These days inspection contingencies tend to rest in more esoteric areas like specialized inspections, questioning the veracity of previous inspections, or pondering the purchase generally. How come? To encourage speedier and stronger offers, seller agents started hiring the very inspectors that they’d hire as a buyer agent to do a pre-sale inspection for a given property and then send out copies of the resulting inspection report to interested buyer agents. 


Knowledge Put to Work

From the beginning stages of brainstorming ideas, to the execution and final sale, Kevin and Jonathan were with us every step of the way. They knew exactly what needed to be done and who to talk to, whether it be design, painting, hiring contractors or staging. They had a wealth of resources, all extremely skilled and competitively priced. I travel all over the country for work and Kevin and Jonathan will actively help you manage your property during the construction process. Kevin himself did work at our place (changing our shower head) and also met me at different stores to pick materials multiple times.

They were also incredibly knowledgeable about the market and what potential buyers would be looking for. Kevin was especially helpful with pointing us to the best “bang for buck” renovations to improve the look and feel of our property. They can help you allocate your budget and know where to spend money and where we can pull back. 

— LJ and L., Sellers, 2-Unit Building, Duboce Triangle/Haight who gained $700,000 worth of value in about 2 years by following our advice.

Great on Scott

Certain numbers are arbitrary will others matter greatly. When it comes to houses most people badly misjudge ceiling heights, room sizes, yard sizes, etc. 

Hint: you only ever need 8-ft tall ceilings — 8'5" feels like 9 ft, anything over 9 feels like 10 ft but people will say they’re 12-ft ceilings when 12-ft ceilings really are just too tall).

Measure for Measure
The most common measurements for household items from Kevin Ho and Jonathan McNarry of San Francisco's Vanguard Properties.

Question. Renovating a home in San Francisco versus buying a done, 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.

Labor vs. Material Costs?

Figure that the costs of any remodeling work done will be half and half but this depends on expertise of the tradesperson involved and/or the availability of the materials/finish selected. 

Construction in SF
There's raising the roof and then there's really raising the roof.

Quick Rankings 

Of stuff relevant to, well, houses. 

(As based on our experience, hearsay and research) 

Top Kitchen Counter Materials

  1. Manufactured Quartz + variations ($30–$100/sqft)(Cesarstone, Silastone, Cambria, Neolith)
  2. Sealed Granite (same)(careful with the edge profile)
  3. Recycled/Broken glass ($40–$130/sqft)
  4. Laminate ($10–$50/sqft)(Formica brand and 3M)
  5. Tile ($2–$60/sqft)(porcelain vs. clay)

Worst (Not Recommended)

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

Top Dishwasher Brands

  1. Bosch ($500-$1700)(price goes up by finish metal and dB reduced, less than 46 the better)
  2. Thermador ($1500+ to start)
  3. Miele ($1200+)
  4. Whirlpool ($400-$500)
  5. KitchenAid ($1200+)

Not So Highly Rated

  • Viking
  • Electrolux
  • Fisher & Paykel
  • Frigidaire

(according to Consumer Reports 2020)

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)(click the arrows)

Fixer House Art
Looking at properties in SF.
Roles during a Reno
Who does what and why?

How Much is This Going to Really 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, delays, 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.

Material Wait Times 

Most Bay Area vendors (see right) will have most materials in stock. Along with your Home Depot, Lowes and Discount Builder’s Supply, you should be pretty good for most basic things and even beyond the basic items. But for specialty finishes, high-end appliances, custom-made items, and anything European, the wait times will vary. So expect to do a lot of waiting. Here are some common lead times:   

All Good Things Come To Those Who Wait 

Kitchen Cabinets (domestic): 6-8 weeks; (European): 3-4 months (more if company takes August vacation)

Appliances (big-box retailers): 2-3 weeks (delivery); (high-end): 6-8 weeks; (imported): 10-12 weeks 

Lighting (widely available): 2-3 weeks if not stocked; (high-end): 3-4 weeks; (imported, European): 3-4 months; (custom/bespoke): 6 months 

Windows (assuming custom sizes): 6-8 weeks; (custom - high-end/specialty): 3-6 months 

Doors (custom): 3-4 weeks

Hardware (Baldwin/Emtek quality privacy/passage): 10-14 days

Furniture (catalog): 6-8 weeks; (custom): 10-12 weeks


Area Vendors

There are so many vendors we work with. Ask us for more  but in general.... 


City Lights for all things from the big lightning brands, outlets and switches (ask for Sean) 

Circa Lighting (look there, then go to City Lights!) 

DWR (ask for Hiro, and ask to see the sample room) 

Coup d’état on Rhode Island (pricey but stunning) 










Best Tile on Bayshore 

East Star on Carroll (ask for Ken)

Ceramic Tile Design (ask for Heidi) 

Ann Sacks in the Design Center 

Fireclay Tile in SOMA (super custom and great shapes)

Floor Craft on Bayshore (it’s in their name, isn’t it?) 

Heath Ceramics on 18th Street in SF (ask for Marie) and there’s an outlet (!) with factory seconds and thirds in the shed (warning: you will spend hours there, make sure you have all your measurements down solid and bring a calculator) 

Walker-Zanger in the Design Center

Porcelenosa off of Division near Townsend  

Plumbing Trim and Fixture: 

Floor Craft on Bayshore (ask for Fred) (showroom)

Ferguson’s on Valencia (showroom)

Excel Plumbing on Van Ness (pipes but showrooms)

Central Plumbing on Fillmore (more pipes and things)


Creative Paints, Benjamin Moore (Webster, Ocean Ave Geary, Taraval, mention Kevin Ho and Vanguard Properties for trade pricing) 

House of Color on 24th Street, Benjamin Moore (expanded lines), excellent supplies (ask for Adalena) 

Farrow and Ball, 4th Street in Berkeley (uber expensive but popular, also great wallpapers) 

Lowes (their in-house, Valspar brand)

More vendors.... 

General Supplies 

East Star on Carroll 

Discount Builders Supply on Mission 

Home Depot (the contractors Pro store in Colma) 



Specialty Hardware Stores for Victorians, great service:

Cliff’s Variety on Castro in the Castro

Central Hardware (now in Dogpatch) 

Builder’s Discount on Mission and Duboce

Electrical Supplies: 

Universal Electric on 10th Street (ask for Winnie)

B+K Electric on Mission 



Flora Grub on Jerrold off of 3rd (trendy, excellent plants)

The SF Flower Mart on Brannan off of 6th (we’re members if you need something, otherwise not all vendors open to the public but there are public hours) 

Sloat Garden Center 

Home Depot, Westlake center 

Home Depot, Emeryville (it’s insane how much more they have here) 

Flower Craft on Bayshore (check out their discount section) 

Lowes on Bayshore 

Broadmoor in Colma (where all the stone, mulch, tools and gravel comes from and more) 

Lumber, Decking, Fences, Trim, Millwork 

Beronio’s off of Marin and Bayshore 

Shakespeare in Berkeley (veneers, woodworking) 

Golden State Lumber 


Home Depot 

Reclaimed Building Materials (everything you can think of) 

Building Resources off of 3rd in Bayshore on Illinois/Avador (where SF contractors bring all the things they tear out, great pricing) 

Urban Oar in Berkeley, off of Dwight (much pricer than you’d expect) 


Floor Craft on Bayshore 

BCS on Mission Street 

Monarch in Potrero 

Purcell Murry in Potrero

Best Buy


Home Depot 



Ebay (really) 



On A Per-Square-Foot Basis

While things will vary, this method is a really rough yardstick to gauge the actual costs of a redo (yes, we see the pun).

(Good) Decent Remodel: $250-$500/sqft (risk: next to impossible keeping to this figure if project is major)
(Better) Good Remodel: $400-$600/sqft (resulting product could be builder-grade but functional)
(Best) Luxury Remodel: $600-$1,000+/sqft (this is when properties are truly transformed and you’ll be amazed; when asking, clarify is this is based on the ‘before’ square footage or the completed square footage)

On A Per Trade Basis

If you’re planning on a major remodel, figure that each trade — or subcontractor — will cost roughly the same. Keep in mind overhead and materials markup will range from 10% to 30%.

Overhead. A general contractor will add-in overhead for getting the bids from each of the trades/subs. If you have someone you know and you’re working with a general contractor, you have to see if your GC will allow a sub you hire onto the job because of insurance, coordinating and management reasons.

Markups. If you get your own materials and/or have them delivered to the project site, you may be able to cut back on the markups or sidemarkups. Keep in mind that the materials markup paid to a contractor covers the time a contractor has to devote to shopping and/or getting the dang thing rather than doing what they're good at, but this also means that if something breaks while they're transporting it for you, there's a good chance they'll have to cover it).

Cosmetic Remodel: $5,000/trade (fewer trades involved)

Significant Remodel: $6,000 – $15,000 (anything from preparing a listing for market to just short of major demo/reno)

Full and Complete Remodel: $30,000 per trade

Who Are Those Trades...

Here are the trades we’re talking about : 

HVAC people
Floor people
Finish Carpenters

More specialty trades/services
Steel People
Concrete People
Wallpaper Hangers
AV People
Lighting Designers
Solar Installers

Products that usually have installers
Certain light fixtures
Glass Installers
Specialty finishes
Security/Smart home systems


Licensed or Unlicensed? Permitted or Unpermitted? 

Rightly or wrongly, California consumer protection laws say that for almost everything you do to a property (with the exception of painting, wallpapering, reflooring, a limited amount of plumbing, among other items), you’re meant to get a permit from the powers that be. In San Francisco that means it’s either a site permit Planning if you’re doing something major but most folks will usually just need permits from the Department of Building and Inspection. Usually a contractor or architect can do this for you but an individual homeowner can pull and file for building permits subject to acknowledging all that this means. (See sfdbi.org for details).

Licensed Contractor or not?
Warranted or Unwarranted?


Hi, we’re Kevin Ho and Jonathan McNarry of Vanguard Properties in San Francisco, California. We’re partners in life and in business. Together with our big black Labrador retriever, Raffi, we are top producing Realtors in San Francisco’s competitive and valuable residential real estate market.

We truly love what we do and are passionately committed to our clients, their needs and advancing their interests. We represent both buyers and sellers with many repeat clients but we are always expanding our client base. Our belief is that by working with you you will make better informed decisions in this most important of areas of life.

We invite you to contact us to learn more and to start your success story now.


To that extent possible, the information here is copyright protected. But other information such as links, articles and the like are only reproduced here for market education purposes. Remember to research all matters discussed here to your own satisfaction.

Terms & Conditions

Real estate is always changing and evolving. It's complex and can be as fickle as it is surprising. And while the information and knowledge on this site is considered to be accurate and correct, it cannot be warranted. Market conditions in San Francisco, California, and the world can change with a tweet or a sneeze and is beyond anyone's control.

In San Francisco, things like local, state and federal tax regulations can change with big implications. Other things like rent control rules, eviction control, lending practices and standards, building and zoning regulations are just a few of the other things that can change with little or no notice. All of these things and other intangible factors can and will impact market values and performance. 

Kevin is a licensed California attorney but focuses on real estate about 99.9 percent of the time. It's important to note that while you can’t take the attorney out of him he will not be acting as your attorney here. This speaks to the larger point that you should also seek out qualified folks who work in their respective sectors if you have further questions. 

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©  2011-2020, Kevin Ho, Jonathan McNarry, RTI, Inc.

All rights reserved.

Kevin K. Ho, DRE 01875957/SBN 233408

Jonathan B. McNarry, DRE 01747295

Vanguard Properties
2501 Mission Street, San Francisco, CA 94110
555 Castro Street, San Francisco, CA 94114

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