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Navigating the Treacherous and Tumultuous San Francisco Permitting Process

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Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to our inbox.

Curbed University delivers insider tips and non-boring advice on how to buy, sell, or rent a home or apartment. Additional questions welcomed to our inbox.

You own property in San Francisco and want to make changes to your building. Ha, good luck! We're kidding?but only kind of. The permitting process in San Francisco is notorious for being confusing, expensive, and impossible to predict. Many strong folks have emerged on the other side a fragile shell of what they once were. Have we sufficiently scared you? Good, but if you're up for the challenge, we're here to hold your hand as you navigate these treacherous waters.

Permits are required in San Francisco to operate businesses and to perform construction activity. Before you start anything, and we mean anything, go to the Planning Department and talk to a planner from your district. Seriously, do not even meet with your architect or designer until you have a solid lay of the planning permitting land. It may turn out the scope of work you're considering is minor and you don't need permits, but chances are you will. Call Planning staff or walk-in at the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street.

The Planning Department knows it operates in a permits labyrinth, so they've added a bunch of handy guides to their website – including a process flow chart, a Find My Zoning page, and summaries of SF zoning district controls. But most helpful is their expansive list of Permit How-To Guides, which range from building expansion to fences to in-laws and window/door replacement.

What doesn't need a permit
Basically, a Building Permit is required for any work unless it is specifically exempted by the Building Code. Things that don't typically require permits include:
· detached accessory buildings like sheds and playhouses under 100 sq.ft.
· fences under 6ft in height at rear or side of the property
· fences under 3 ft in height at the front of the lot
· retaining walls under 4ft
· existing walkways and driveways
· painting or wallpapering
· minor repairs to interior plaster
· prefab swimming pools under 5000 gallons
· reroofing without changing the roof sheathing
· floor coverings not requiring removal of existing flooring
· repair and replacement of window glazing
· replacement of doors
· six or less sprinkler head systems.
But don't assume your project is exempt from permits - definitely double check. You don't want to get slammed with a permit violation, which can end up costing you thousands.

How much will this cost?
Permit fees are based on the construction cost of your project. The Planning Department uses a fee schedule to break it all down. For the building permit alone, if your work cost is under $10,000, you pay a $333 permit fee. As your project gets more expensive, you pay a flat fee plus a percentage. For example, if your work cost is $150,000, you pay a $3,730 flat fee and 2.553% for everything over $100,000, making your total fees $5,006.50 (ouch). There are always loopholes for additional fees though – like environmental review fees, commission hearing application fees, project impact fees, Assessor-Recorder fees, and compliance monitoring fees. Yeah, it gets real expensive real quick.

Now what?
Once you have all your application forms and construction plans and drawings and your first born child ready to hand over, bring it all to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to begin the permitting intake process. After they give you the OK, you take it all to the Planning Department for them to review. If the project doesn't require neighborhood notification and meets all the city codes, you pay your fee and get your approval right then and there. But if you need to notify your neighbors (triggered by new construction of a building, expansion of existing buildings, or certain changes of use), you set up a meeting with a planner to initiate project review and get the ball rolling.

Depending on the scope of work, your project may need a hearing at the Planning Commission or Historic Preservation Commission, a variance, conditional use, discretionary review, or environmental review. Discretionary review can especially stall the process as you fight with your neighbors, raising the fees through the roof. These are each their own can of worms that we'll tackle in future Curbed University posts.
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