All buyers make choices when they set out to buy a home in San Francisco, whether it is giving up parking, living with one bathroom, fewer bedrooms, or no outdoor space. As the city becomes more expensive with every breath we take, I am regularly surprised how few buyers mention safety and lack of crime in their list of “must haves.”
Beautiful Victorians, new high-rise condos, and legions of young people out on the streets may give newcomers a sense of safety that is not necessarily true everywhere in San Francisco. It is important to keep in mind that San Francisco is a small city and looks can be deceiving. Neighborhoods can change in just a few blocks.
There is no question that neighborhoods like Dog Patch, the Mission, and Hayes Valley are very popular. Starting out their search for a home, new buyers in San Francisco will ask about these as well as other neighborhoods. Occasionally, a young couple with children will ask if they are safe. Young singles are more concerned with either the cool factor, the opportunity to make money when home prices rise a few years down the road, or living near a Caltrain station or corporate bus stop.
There is no doubt that there are some very cool neighborhoods in San Francisco, and in the past few years they have become gentrified. Still there is more crime in these neighborhoods than one might think. I don’t recall that I have ever heard a buyer ask about gangs in San Francisco, even though they are part of daily life for many long-term residents. As micro neighborhoods develop, keep in mind that within a neighborhood some areas are safer than others.
When 738 Hayes Street, a 4,500-square-foot renovated home with four bedrooms and four-and-a-half baths with an asking price of $3,795,000 came on the market, I found buyers asking, “Do I really want to spend this much money on a home in Hayes Valley? Is this a safe location?” At the time of this writing, after 61 days on the market (DOM) — an eternity in San Francisco real estate — so far no one has answered the question with “yes.”
Recently, I looked at a home on a broker’s tour in a neighborhood I knew to have more crime than the average. I met the listing agent on the sidewalk in front of the home. At that moment together we watched a police car drive up and two officers get out of their car to investigate a disturbance in the housing complex across the street. I specifically asked the agent about crime in the neighborhood. She waved off my question saying, “Oh, in a few years the housing will be gone and things will be different.” I was stunned at her comment. Not able to keep my mouth shut, I told her I thought it was a serious mistake to say something like that. The housing complex was in fact low-income, subsided city housing, and I could not imagine it ever being sold to a developer. Checking the MLS, I found the home sold for 5.84 percent over the asking price. The price was not inconsequential to begin with, and I can only assume that a freshly remodeled home trumped a location with less crime for the buyers.
All agents prepare a disclosure package as they prepare a property for sale. When reading the disclosure for a property, you will find a form completed by the seller called the “Real Estate Transaction Disclosure Statement.” Among other things, sellers have a responsibility to disclose crime in their neighborhood. There are specific questions for sellers to answer concerning criminal activity on the property and in the neighborhood, as well as noise and nuisances. Often a seller who has lived in a neighborhood many years may have come to ignore situations or disturbances that a new homeowner might find upsetting or dangerous. Still, it is the sellers’ responsibility to disclose everything they know about their neighborhood in a matter-of-fact manner that will not cover up unsavory or criminal events.
The final pieces of a property disclosure are the agent’s inspections. The majority of sales involve two agents: The selling agent representing the buyer and the listing agent representing the seller.
Here are two more opportunities for a buyer to find out about crime, noise, and neighborhood nuisances. Buyers should read all of these disclosures closely and ask questions if they find anything that may be of concern.
As prices on the Northside of town have skyrocketed, buyers are thinking about neighborhoods that are ripe for gentrification. Buyers are expanding their searches throughout the city. As an agent, I encourage my buyers to explore neighborhoods both on foot and online. There is an iPhone App called CrimeMapping to find out about crime in a neighborhood. You can also search online for the SFPD Crime Map. It may be possible to find everything you need to know about crime online. Your agent is a resource, too. Let your agent know that living in a safe neighborhood is a high priority for you. If you feel an agent is glossing over your safety concerns, it may be time to look for another agent.
At the end of the day you will be living in your home. When you are considering making an offer, be sure to ask yourself, When escrow closes and I move into my home, will I be able to sleep at night? If the answer is not a resounding “yes,” it is time to consider a different neighborhood, even if it might mean a smaller home or a longer commute to work.