One of the most time-consuming (and often aggravating) parts of the design process is permitting. This is especially true in San Francisco, where it can be hard to please every city officer that has a say in the project.
Don’t get us wrong; permits are necessary to protect the homeowner, the builder, and the community. They’re an important part of remodeling an old home or building a new one. It’s just that the system can be very hard to navigate.
We recently had a project on with an unpermitted ground floor accessory dwelling (ADU) in a historic home in San Francisco that took nearly two years to complete the permitting process.
We know permits can take a while to get, but two years is an exceptionally long time. Here’s a look at what “normal” is in San Francisco and why this particular project was so far from it.
What’s “normal” for San Francisco permitting?
It can be hard to predict how long the entire permitting process will take. (New Avenue designer Matt Waitkus calls it a “moving target”). That’s because there are so many variables in every project.
In San Francisco, there’s a “fast track” for accessory dwelling units (ADUs). This tends to include six weeks for initial comments from the city and four weeks for the designer to follow up. There’s always the potential for snags, though.
Special considerations require more time. For example, Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) legalization projects (bringing the estimated 30,000 pre-existing and unpermitted dwellings up to code) can take around six months, and historic projects can take years.
So in short, there is no “normal.” We can make an estimate based on past projects, but we always advise our clients that permitting might take longer than we expect. If you’re doing an ADU or legalization project, altering your façade, or changing the footprint of your home, you should be prepared to wait anywhere between two months and three years for your permits.
What happened with the ADU project at the historic home?
Even with the understanding that permitting times vary, the two years it took to permit the historic legalization project isn’t anywhere near typical.
This was a legalization project, the kind our experts say usually takes six to eight months to permit.
First, the planning department required a significant design change, resulting in a five-month delay. The plans had to be redrawn, and the owner and title company had to review the options. The owner also had to get a rent control deed restriction recorded with the county and obtain the right documents to take back to the planning department.
There was another four-month delay when the building department’s plan checker went on leave but the department didn’t reassign her projects. Our designer had to contact the department head several times before the problem was addressed.
Then there was another waiting period while the Bureau of Urban Forestry approved a street tree permit.
One of the most frustrating delays came when the building department and the planning department disagreed, with planning signing off on drawings while building said they needed changes.
Is there a way to make it go faster?
Some homeowners hire an expediter to move the process along. Expediters know the process inside and out, and they often have good relationships with the city’s plan checkers. Keep in mind that an expediter can only do so much, though. They can research the permitting process and tell you which forms to fill out. They can guide your project towards an “over the counter” or “OTC” approval, which is a same day permit. But if your plans have to go in for additional review, they can’t make the city offices move any faster.
A less expensive option is to use an expediter as a third-party quality control reviewer. This involves doing the footwork yourself and using the professional as an advisor as you navigate the system.
New Avenue’s designers can help you prevent problems with the city. They can also recommend or select a proven expediter for you, which will speed the process along even more effectively.
Matt advises clients to “just be ready for a long process.” Compared to other cities in the Bay Area, he says, San Francisco can be extremely challenging to work with. Matt also advises clients to double their time expectations if they’re working on a historic home. (Homes the city designates as historic have special protections, and the city needs to ensure that facades, among other things, will be preserved correctly.)
The designer of the historic ADU project recommends talking to specialized city staff if they’re available. Many cities have counters that deal with specific types of projects.
Over the counter permits can take no time at all. With several of our San Francisco projects, we’ve been able to start construction within a month of starting design. Projects like bathroom remodels, kitchen remodels, and even million-dollar-plus gut jobs can receive permits quickly if there will be no exterior work.
While he didn’t have the option to talk to someone face to face and get a permit over the counter for the unpermitted ADU in a historic home project, the architect recommends taking that option if it’s available. However, he cautions that “even over the counter permits can take up to a month to get if any plan checker has comments that require revisions.”
Probably the most valuable piece of advice regarding permits is this:
Don’t go it alone.
New Avenue’s experts know the right questions to ask at the city. They know the laws and the processes—things homeowners don’t know (and can’t be expected to know).
Yes, even for the experts, the process can take years (like it did with the ADU project at the historic home). But with true professionals on your side, you can avoid missteps that can cost you a lot of time and money.
Is it worth the wait? For a home that will change your life, it absolutely is.