Real Estate Today

Attic = living space: Yes or no or maybe

It looks like an attic, it smells like an attic, but is it living space, too? In San Francisco this is the great unknown. During the past month, I had two clients seriously considering upper condos that included the attics.

Here are two statements that were part of the listing information provided for these two condos on the market in February. Both were top condos in two unit buildings.

“Roof rights.” Further investigation and a close reading of the disclosure package revealed one complication. The owner of the upper unit did have roof rights, but expansion or changes needed to be approved by the downstairs owner. The downstairs owner’s concerns had to be reasonable.

What is reasonable to one person may be quite unreasonable to another. This looked like it had the potential to be costly if there were a disagreement. My client decided this was too much uncertainty for her, but it didn’t stop others from making offers. At the time, this property did not seem especially under-priced, but it ultimately sold for more than 15 percent over the asking price. Clearly the approval of the downstairs owner to develop the roof rights was not an issue for the buyer.

“A full attic with access off the upper deck is deeded to the unit and may have development potential.” Now this is interesting. The listing agent wisely said: “may have development potential.”

The second client was quite excited by this condo and especially the attic, because the closet space was practically not existent, as in many Victorian buildings. Fortunately this client had a daughter who is a San Francisco architect. When she viewed the attic, she pointed out that in its current state there was no real floor. Once a floor was added, the head room would no longer be legal height for living space. Of course, as with so many things involving construction, this could be handled; all it would take was money. A special light-weight thin floor that was quite costly would solve the problem. In the end, after further investigation, the cost of making the attic legal living space was prohibitively expensive to my client. The cost or uncertainty of developing the attic did not stop other buyers, and the condo is currently in contract.

Just when I was day dreaming about how to turn an attic into legal living space, an online real estate website called “SFCurbed” had posted an invitation in Curbed University to ask well-known San Francisco architect Joel Karr questions online. You guessed it! The first question concerned developing attic space, and the writer asked if additional deck space or interior living space would increase the value of his home.

Here is Joel Karr’s answer (every word is valuable information):

“For anyone who is thinking about doing a building project on their home, here are a few of the big potential trip-ups that many people don’t know about.

“1. 311 Noticing. If you have a desire or plan to add on anything to your existing home (and I do mean anything, even a 1/4” shift) you are required by the Planning Department to notice everyone within a 300′ radius of your property. In 29 years of practice, I have never experienced the level of push-back being exerted on homeowners to limit their projects as I am seeing now. The NIMBY’s are now given extraordinary powers to stop projects, and in virtually every case now, one or both of the two immediate neighbors, usually piled on by many others, will successfully stop additions.

“2. Historic preservation. If your home is more than 50 years old (a moving target year by year), it is automatically considered a “Potential Historic Resource” and must go through additional reviews by the Planning Department.

“3. Building Depart-ment approvals. There is an over-the-counter review process available for certain types of projects, but if you don’t qualify, you have to go through the normal tortured process that takes several months for finalization of a permit.”

There are lessons to learn about converting an attic into legal livable space.

First, any renovation takes time and money. If you think this may be your cup of tea, before you ever make an offer, find an architect who knows the ins and outs of renovation in San Francisco. Bring your architect with you to view a home before you make the offer, and you will be best prepared for the adventure to come.

Second, today there is so little inventory and buyers barely have time to have a coherent thought about a property before they make an offer. Even if you dread doing it: YOU MUST READ THE DISCLOSURE PACKAGE.

Real estate is never boring. Happy house hunting!

For more from Joel Karr, see

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Carole Isaacs is a Realtor with McGuire Real Estate. Visit her online at or call 415-608-1267.