What's with all the un-permitted additions on houses in San Francisco?
June 1, 2009 9:42 AM   Subscribe

I'm shopping for a single-family home in San Francisco, and nearly every house I've looked at has "unwarranted" addition in the basement or rear -- either a bonus room or an entire "in-law" unit with bathroom and kitchen. My question is fourfold:

1. Why does nobody get permits for their additions? Is it particularly difficult or expensive in San Francisco to get a permit?

2. This is so prevalent, and talked about openly in real estate listings -- why doesn't the city crack down and issue fines?

3. Has anyone heard of someone in SF having to remove an un-permitted addition?

4. If I were to make an offer on one of these houses, what would I need to know? What should I do differently from bidding and signing a contract on a normal house?

One real estate site I saw online said that you should only pay what the house would be worth without the unwarranted area, because you could be forced by the city to rip out the addition at any time. But that doesn't seem to be realistic here -- in San Francisco, sellers definitely don't seem to be giving a discount based on the lack of permit for their "bonus" rooms.
posted by jillsy_sloper to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
This isn't specific to SF, but the reason that people do additions, reroute waterways, do grading, etc. without a permit is because they think, correctly or not, that (Hassle of getting permit, measured in time and money) < (Likelihood of getting caught * Magnitude of fine).
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:45 AM on June 1, 2009

1. Because it's a hassle and doing it without permits means you don't have to do it up to code (=cheaper).
2. I guess they have other priorities.
3. Yes
$. Be aware that the unwarranted addition probably isn't up to code and I don't think it's legal to rent it out but lots of people do.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:47 AM on June 1, 2009

"Why does nobody get permits for their additions? "

Under Prop 13 pulling a permit can be cause for reassement which, if you've had your property for a long time, can mean significant increase in property taxes. Over a 150% increase in extreme cases.
posted by Mitheral at 9:55 AM on June 1, 2009

I was told that a large number of these illegal in-law units were built after the San Francisco Earthquake. Due to the large number of displaced families, authorities tended to turn a blind eye to the legality of the additions.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:59 AM on June 1, 2009

On the opposite coast, my brother was forced to remove an un-permitted addition on his home. This came about because of a modest dispute with a neighbor. This is the most common exposure. If someone gets pissed off at you, they can sic the city on you. You can also have problems if you want to do your own permitted work.
It's simply part of the minefield associated with owning a house.
I'd feel a little more secure about it if the house you buy is typical of the houses in the neighborhood. If a "bonus room" creates an unusual volume or atypical massing that's easily noticeable by and different from the neighbors, I wouldn't pay for it.
The discount for un-permitted space should be a part of your initial offer. The seller might just say yes. You never know. The advice is sound.
You're probably not going to get your taxes reduced if you are forced into removing a non-conforming addition.
posted by Carmody'sPrize at 10:04 AM on June 1, 2009

The permitting process is often lengthy and intrusive. Meaning, the city will tell you that things have to be done a certain way, your own taste and aesthetics be damned. For example, doing things "to code" might mean requiring flourescent lights in the kitchen, and maybe you don't want that. Or getting a permit might mean a seven month wait and another $10,000 in the budget.

Just because something is done without a permit doesn't necessarily mean it's not up to code. A thorough home inspection will alert you to any issues. I've never heard of anyone having to rip out an unpermitted addition. I've just seen lots of disclaimers "Sellers make no representations or warranties as to the addition." And that disclaimer just gets passed along by the next Seller when the house is sold later.
posted by ambrosia at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2009

I marked Mitheral as best because I think that answer got at why this is so prevalent in SF specifically (and I guess the rest of California, I haven't looked very much elsewhere).

But I'm very much enjoying everyone's anecdotes and advice. Thanks to all. Keep 'em coming!
posted by jillsy_sloper at 10:18 AM on June 1, 2009

The units are there for extra income, or to house extended family members.

The main reason I always understood that they were done without permits was because of the parking clause. Older Chronicle piece.
posted by pianomover at 10:33 AM on June 1, 2009

The previous owner of my Bay Area home bought it in 1964. I bought it in 2008 - a mere 44 years. The property tax increase was 10x - 900%. A 150% property tax increase is peanuts for long-time homeowners around here.
posted by GuyZero at 10:35 AM on June 1, 2009

Wow, pianomover, thanks for the article. That explains a lot, considering the neighborhood I'm looking in:

"In Noe Valley, however, which has among the highest percentage of illegal in-laws of any neighborhood, complaints are relatively low. Mazook, for two decades a columnist for the Noe Valley Voice, observes that ``people in Noe Valley are very conscious about getting along with their neighbors. One of the attractions of Noe Valley is its sense of community, and attacking in-law units would undermine this.''
posted by jillsy_sloper at 10:44 AM on June 1, 2009

This 2001 report from SPUR, an urban planning group in SF, has a section on the history of in-law units in they city.
posted by yarrow at 10:49 AM on June 1, 2009

The requirement to bring things up to code can be very, very expensive if you live in an old house with, say, knob and tube wiring, and original windows that don't meet egress requirements, and only one electric outlet per room. Fluorescent lights in the kitchen are easy compared to some of the changes that modern codes would demand.
posted by gingerbeer at 10:53 AM on June 1, 2009

I live in one such house (the couple who lived there before us turned the downstairs into an apartment for an elderly mother-in-law, apparently), and it's my understanding that if the in-law or conversion or whatever it was is there when you buy it, it's grandfathered in (i.e. you don't need to worry about the lack of permits at the time the construction happened).

Our in-law came with a tenant -- we inherited her with the house. There was no problem in continuing her tenancy, so I'm guessing the city does indeed turn a blind eye to such rentals.

You might want to get the wiring, plumbing, etc. in the unwarranted area checked out, though. We found that the downstairs sink unit wasn't connected correctly to the outflow pipe, so our newly installed washing machine flooded the downstairs living area until we figured out why.

Have a look at houses in the Sunset just for fun. I've seen so many of them with fully appointed tiki bars (thatched roofs and all) in their downstairs rooms!
posted by vickyverky at 11:03 AM on June 1, 2009

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