Real Estate Today

It’s only going to get tougher to own a car in San Francisco

Restriction parking spaces for car share use is the latest pressure on city drivers. photo: carol isaacs

To own a car or not to own a car in San Francisco, that is the question! Maybe it sounds a bit far-fetched to get Shakespearean about to owning a car in San Francisco, but it works for me.

Automobile owners are ferociously protective of their right to drive and park their cars where and when they choose. However, this is not a guaranteed right, and anyone who has lived here for more than a few years will agree that traffic is getting worse daily and it is more difficult to park a car today than only six months or one year ago. One might say the city is experiencing growing pains that we all hope someday will pass, but times are changing and owning a car will involve new challenges.

Going back in time, many areas in San Francisco were built before the advent of the car and certainly well before the concept that every home would have a garage with a car parked inside. In fact, they were built so San Franciscans would have access on foot to public transportation and neighborhood shops. Cars were not part of the plan. By the 1960s, San Francisco city planning policy had evolved to the point where there were residential parking requirements for at least one parking space for every new dwelling.

Fast forward to today. In an effort to be objective, I reviewed the Planning Department’s Citywide Action Plan (CAP). The CAP program is based on the idea that alternatives to driving are so abundant on core transit streets that dedicated off-street parking for housing is hardly necessary. The city’s current goal is for the proximity of transit and services to make it possible to live with fewer cars. In some neighborhoods, the CAP program is proposing revisions to density and parking. The goal is to take advantage of transit corridors and neighborhood commercial districts. Planners have gone back to the roots of San Francisco’s city planning in an effort to make the city more livable. No doubt reading this some of you are thinking, “This is absolutely crazy,” while others are thinking, “It’s about time.”

My recent observations on parking and owning a car:

  • In Cow Hollow recently there were signs on light poles announcing a public meeting to discuss the city’s plan to convert public parking spaces on residential blocks to “car share spaces.” This means car share spaces only.
  • A small sampling of three new buildings currently under construction makes it clear that the city is serious about the new density and parking rules; 269 parking spaces for 348 units, 238 parking spaces for 452 units, and 265 parking spaces for 320 units. The deficit is 348 parking spaces fewer than new units.
  • Recently I sold two downtown condos that did not have parking. This did not stop buyers who had cars from looking at the condos. They asked where they could park their cars in the neighborhood. All were happy to hear there was a public garage a few blocks away with monthly parking.
  • Around town, 23 car service businesses (gas stations, garages, car washes) have gone out of business and new condo buildings are being built on the lots.
  • Many buyers living in apartments who currently do not own cars are looking to buy homes with garages and plan to buy a car once they own a home with a garage.
  • There is an explosion of new taxicab companies with Lyft (think pink mustache), Uber and Panda jumping into the fray with the traditional taxi companies. People may live in buildings without parking, but that does not stop them from riding in cars.
  • Average home buyers live in their home about five to seven years. Buyers need to take a serious look at their choices and decide whether they need to own a car to function in their day-to-day life before setting out to buy a home.

Things to consider if you own a car:

  • With the city removing parking spaces to make room for bike lanes and car-share vehicles, dependence on a car in many neighborhoods will not work as well as it has for the past 50 years.
  • If you decide to own a car, you must be realistic about looking for a home in a neighborhood where homes have garages or where street parking is available.
  • Depending on the location of a home, a garage will add a minimum of $35,000 to the price and as much as $100,000.
  • Adding a garage in some locations is possible. Before jumping on this option, be sure to speak to an architect or a company that installs garages. If you want to consider adding a garage as a possibility to the home you are purchasing, it would be wise to speak to an expert immediately upon finding the home. The market moves quickly. You may not have the time you would like to consult an expert at the last minute when there is a deadline to make an offer.

Things to consider if you don’t own a car:

  • Newcomers need to keep in mind that California is experiencing a drought. Normal winters in San Francisco are cool and rainy from November through April.
  • The city’s policy to develop better public transportation will not change life overnight. It is more realistic to imagine life in your dream neighborhood for the next five to ten years in the future until public transportation is equal to the demand created by new construction and parking shortages.
  • Expect that there will be inconveniences getting around town. Being flexible and patient is an important part of enjoying the benefits of life without a car in San Francisco.
  • It is easy to call car owners “Nimbys” when you don’t own a car. A simple fact of life is that in order to get to work and make a living, many people must own cars. Not everyone can take public transportation or has the luxury of a corporate shuttle.

To own a car or to not own a car is a question that must be answered at the outset of your search for a home. There will be more homes and condos and more neighborhoods to choose from if you can live without a car. More choices do not mean life without a car is the right choice. Everyone has different needs. Figuring out what is a necessity and what is optional will make your search go faster, be less work and all around a more satisfying experience.


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