Real Estate Today

San Francisco meets the tiny house movement

Here we are beginning September, and the race to buy a home in the fall is off and running. Now is the time to give serious thought to your list of must-haves when you go out searching for a home. The months of September and October will fly by, and then the holiday season begins, when the number of homes coming on the market drops dramatically.

If you are a first-time home buyer or a homeowner thinking seriously of expanding your choices by downsizing, now is the time to get started.

Enter the tiny-house movement.

My interest in the Tiny House Movement began when my daughter, who lives in Boulder, Colo., told me that she and her soon-to-be engineer husband were looking at land and talking about building a small, possibly tiny house. This sounded like a great idea to me, because homes are quite expensive in Boulder, and like most buyers in San Francisco, a first home purchase was likely to involve family financial gifts. As a parent, I was on board for anything that would keep the price down.

When I fly I try to resist picking up the Skymall catalog, but on my last flight after an hour or so in the air, I told myself: “It’s OK, no one will ever know.” As I leafed through the pages, I found myself thinking: People obviously buy this weird stuff or the magazine wouldn’t be here.

Then the 1965 VW bus tent with a built-in floor jumped out at me. The designer had to be thinking baby boomers won’t be able to resist this. Yes, I am a baby boomer, and the VW Bus Tent captured me. What a curious idea! Just think: For the cost of dinner for two with a bottle of wine in one of San Francisco’s pricier restaurants, it would be possible to have a play house or guest room in your back yard. No one wants guests to overstay their welcome. A VW bus tent may be just the ticket to guarantee your visitors are short term. In the Mission, I have heard creative owners and tenants are renting or subletting tent space in their yards to desperate would-be renters. For a bonus they could offer a tent that looked like a ’65 VW Bus. What a concept!

Why am I even thinking, let alone sharing, what must sound like crazy thoughts? The answer is not so strange. Rarely do I meet a buyer who says, “This house is the perfect size.” What buyers more often say, is “Can I add a room? How can I make this house bigger”? Many first-time buyers hope to find a home with a third bedroom, a second bath, office space, or a guest room as well as a back yard. Unwarranted bonus rooms that once caused concern are now looked on as an asset.

In 1950, houses averaged 983 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In San Francisco, the majority of single-family homes and condos built over the years ranged from 800 to 1,200 square feet, often with little or no yard. This is especially true in neighborhoods such as Bernal Heights (very small homes on small hilly lots), Glen Park (many small homes under 1,000 square feet, on hilly small lots), and Noe Valley (900 to 1,200-plus square-foot homes on lots 25 by 125 feet deep). In neighborhoods such as Nob Hill, North Beach, Russian Hill, and Telegraph Hill, small homes on postage-stamp lots are a given. None of these areas match the suburbs, where homes range upward from 2,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet or more situated on quarter-to-half acre or even one-acre lots.

As San Francisco’s population grows, micro-condos and apartments are getting a foothold. Everyone agrees that with soaring rents and home prices going up, the city needs to think outside of the box to provide its newcomers with homes. Cubix, a new building at 766 Harrison, featured sub-300-square-foot condos, and for the most part they were snapped up as quickly as they came onto the market. Five-hundred-square-foot condos are not truly “micro,” but they are finding a place in the hearts of developers, architects and buyers in San Francisco.

In May I sold a tiny house on a one-block street between Powell and Mason on Nob Hill. The happy buyers measured the TIC/house at 383 square feet plus the deeded yard; the total was a whopping 607 square feet. The sale price was $470,000. All of you price-per-square-foot fanatics are screaming, “OMG, that is ridiculous!” Everyone needs to keep in mind: The smaller the property the higher the price per square foot. This tiny house is detached on all sides and even has a deeded garage space in the associated TIC building.

Tiny-house advocates have ideas that can benefit San Francisco buyers. By tiny house standards, San Francisco city living is opulent and has prices to match. Admittedly it is difficult to think small while living in a city where tech start-ups boast newly minted millionaires, as if they are as common as fleas on a dog. Obviously the bulk of buyers do not fall into this category. It is possible, maybe even a necessity, for many buyers to think small as prices continue to rise.

There are things to consider when thinking about living small:

  • Paying off a mortgage in seven years or less; lower interest rates also is a bonus with short-term loans.
  • Experience peace of mind. Accept the size of your home and stop agonizing over how to make your house bigger while meeting zoning regulations.
  • If you are not working to support a bigger home or home expansion, you may have more time for friends and family or hobbies.
  • Learn to optimize the use of space. Is it possible that you don’t need as much space as you think?
  • Give yourself more choices once you expand your search to include homes less than three bedrooms/two baths with a large (by San Francisco standards) backyard and parking.

Here are some places to go where you can find out more about Tiny Houses and living small:

  • Tiny House Designer: Jay Shafer Architect, designing Tiny Houses since 1999. Jay has two websites: and
  • Living in a Nutshell: Janice Lee’s book is an excellent resource for living in smaller spaces. Janice has perfected posh, portable and affordable decorating ideas to help you live big when you live ina shoebox.
  • and
  • Facebook has tiny house pages, plus of course there is plenty of information on the Internet.
  • Google “tiny house San Francisco” for fun. I came up with a tiny house looking for temporary parking here. What a way to travel!

These ideas will give you a place to begin your research. When you have a plan, it will be much easier to quickly make an offer when the home of your dreams comes on the market and is taking offers in what feels like an impossibly short time from a few days to a week or so.

It is important to remember what you lose in square feet will be made up for with city adventures. Living in San Francisco, you can call the whole city your backyard if not part of your home too.

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