Real Estate Today

The ‘Three Ps’ of home buying: Planning, patience and pleasure

The great thing about living and working in San Francisco is there is always something new to discover. On a recent brokers’ tour, I stepped into a two-unit building and immediately thought, “Hmmm … there is something different here.” The interior stairs were extremely steep, but it didn’t hit me until I stepped outside and looked up at the front of the building. Good grief! At some point in this Queen Anne Victorian home’s history, the owner decided to split it down the middle from the top of the peaked roof, turning what at first glance looked like a single-family home into two two-unit buildings. The current unit for sale was in the half with the garage.

There are many creative solutions to subdividing homes in San Francisco, but the interesting thing here was the lot originally was 25 feet wide, so now each two-unit building (attached with the common central wall) was 12-1/2 feet wide.

This extraordinarily narrow property did not stop buyers from making offers or going into contract. In fact, the property was on the market only 13 days before the listing was changed to active-continued in the San Francisco Multiple Listing Service.

North Beach has many small lots, and in the Marina there are smaller-than-average lots as well. This has not stopped these locations from commanding premium prices.

Seeing the two-unit building on what amounted to one-half of a standard-width lot caused me to think about the increase in home prices in San Francisco and how this is affecting buyers. An immediate effect is that many buyers are faced with a major choice:

1. Buy a smaller home.
2. Move to a less desirable neighborhood.
3. Leave San Francisco.

Realtors will tell you to go for location first, but this can be a difficult choice in San Francisco. When the choice is buying a smaller home, I find that most buyers are not willing to accept “living small” for the long term (at least not yet). Before laying down their money, they want to ask questions and get answers about remodeling or the possibility of expansion. In this case, I always recommend the Three Ps: planning, patience,
and pleasure.

Today’s buyers love to read the seemingly endless answers to their remodeling questions on real estate websites. Why not go to the horse’s mouth instead? The San Francisco Planning Department is located at 1660 Mission Street and City planners are available to answer your questions. On a recent visit there with a client, I found the planner to be extremely patient as she answered questions, printed out information about the property concerned, and provided additional forms and information on the process to increase the size or change the use of a building.

I am not suggesting that buyers who speak to the planning department will have all the information they need to make a decision about whether or not to buy a smaller home with the intention of remodeling or expanding. A consultation with an architect, contractor, or even a permit consultant is another way to understand the process and costs of a home remodel or expansion.

Buyers also need to understand that the process takes time. Not days, weeks or months – a major renovation or expansion could take a year or more and there will be unexpected surprises along the road.

Yes, there are benefits from delayed gratification. Relaxing in your home with the new garage, additional rooms, or improved views will add to the pleasure of owning your home and, ultimately, its value.

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Carole Isaacs is a real estate agent with McGuire Real Estate (Lombard, Bluxome and Noe Valley offices), photographer, and lover of all things San Francisco. Visit her online at or call 415-608-1267.