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in the City come in the form of: structural deterioration from termites, dry rot, fungus or inadequate engineering; outdated systems like electrical (knob and tube, Federal Pacific boxes) and plumbing (galvanized pipes and sewer lateral connections); patchwork past renovations;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.
FINAL DELIVERABLE: Site Permit
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.