SAN FRANCISCO PERMIT GUIDE

Your project may be simple enough that a permit can be obtained “over the counter” on the same day that you apply. Depending on the type of work and complexity, drawings may not even be required. Examples of work that can typically be permitted over the counter include:

  • Kitchen and bathroom remodel
  • Many types of interior remodeling that do not alter the structure
  • Stucco or siding repair
  • Most types of termite repair work
  • Exterior stair repair
  • Roof sheathing repair/reproofing
  • Replacement of existing windows

Permit applications for more complicated projects than the above examples will take longer due to plan review by various agencies, public notifications, and the need for certain agencies to complete their review before other agencies can begin. In a moderate residential project, the agencies that may be involved reviewing your permit application are the Planning Department, Department of Building Inspection, Department of Public Works, and (sometimes) the Fire Department.

If your project cannot be permitted over the counter, the time it will take to process the application is – unfortunately – long and difficult to predict. The Building Department review may require 3-6 weeks (most of which is spent waiting for your project to be assigned to a plan checker). Other departments require additional time. A Planning Department review that also requires neighborhood notification (discussed below) will add about 4-6 months to the timeline.

These figures are just guidelines, of course, and based on simple residential projects without variances or other complications. The plan checker's workload at the time of your application is also a variable that you cannot control. There are ways to "expedite" the permitting proces that may somewhat accelerate the building department's review. Where appropriate, we help clients organize projects into work that can be permitted over the counter, work that can be permitted without neighborhood notice, and work requiring neighborhood notice. This adds some cost for the permits, but allows work to advance.

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Permit cost is based on the project’s estimated construction cost derived from data from a national appraisal organization. Separate fees are charged for the permit application and plan review (paid when the application is filed) and for the permit itself. These will vary according to the project size, value and the number of departments that have to review the application. Additional fees are charged for other activities that may be required by your application, such as, processing of variances, mailing of neighborhood notices, review of Historical Resource Evaluations, and mandatory hearings. Attempting to predict the precise cost of a building permit for even a moderately complex project is daunting, but the Building Department does publish Permit Fee Tables (1) that you can access above.

If your project creates more than 499sf of new living space, under California law, you will also be assessed “developer fees” payable to the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Real estate Office BEFORE permit issuance. You can call (415) 241-6090 for the current fee schedule.

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The steps to obtain a building permit vary according to the building type. We’ll assume here a residential addition or remodel of an existing structure because unbuilt lots are unusual. For new construction on undeveloped lots, the process is somewhat different.

The first steps occur long before the permit application is filed. At the start of any project, we research the property’s zoning, age, preservation status, design review controls, permit history, and legal status according to tax records and to anticipate the items required for the permit application. Much of this information is consolidated on the San Francisco Property Information Map (1) website. For example, alterations to an older home may require a “Historic Resource Evaluation” which is a lengthy process that should be started as soon as possible to be complete before the application is filed. Another common example is the conversion of spaces that was never legally permitted in the first place. The Building Department considers these unwarranted spaces as an addition of conditioned area to a home and this triggers calculations for energy code compliance and possibly developer fees from the San Francisco Unified School District.

Not every project fits neatly into the code. If there are specific questions or uncertainties about how the various codes might apply to your project, a “Pre-application meeting” can be scheduled through the Building Department for a fee. Attending the conference will be plan checkers from the departments with authority over the issue(s) you want to discuss. The written decisions and interpretations made at these meetings are “official” and may be relied upon in your final permit application.

If the project will be subject to neighborhood notification, we encourage an early outreach meeting with the adjacent neighbors and the local design review boards after the design program has been set, but before going too deep into design itself. The neighbors do not determine our design, but being proactive permits us to hear their concerns, anticipate and try to avoid future obstacles if possible, and build trust and communication that will be important throughout the project.

Before filing a permit application that requires neighborhood notification, you are required to invite your adjacent neighbors (usually the 8 properties around you) to review the design and record any comments they wish to make. This can be a simple Saturday get together at your home, a meeting at the architect’s office or even one on one visits. The planning department wants to be sure that you provided your neighbors a chance to see your project before they begin their review. If you are in a district with a design review board, you may also be required to hold a pre-application with them as well.

If the project does not require a neighborhood notice or variance, the complete construction drawings, structural and Title 24 compliance calculations should be submitted with the building permit application. If a neighborhood notice or variance are required, however, the required drawing sets are separated into a “Site Permit” and an “Addendum.”

A "Site Permit" is a set of design development drawings that include architectural design, exiting and construction type information. The Site Permit set does not include structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and more detailed information required for a building permit and construction.

The Site Permit set permits the Planning Department to review and (hopefully) approve your design without having to undertake the risk and expense of developing a complete construction set. When the Planning Department has approved the design and it has passed through the neighborhood notification, variance, and any other public review processes and appeal periods, a site permit is issued. This is NOT a building permit; it is only a ticket to the next step in the process.

After site permit approval, the building department requires an “Addendum” to the previous site permit set that includes all of the additional drawings and calculations required for construction and to demonstrate building code compliance. The site permit set and the addendum set are consolidated into a single building permit set which is reviewed and (hopefully!) approved by other relevant departments and the building department.

Mechanical work for a residential project is usually permitted by through the building permit application, and plumbing and electrical permits are applied for by each trade before they begin their work. Generally, no specific drawings are required for these permits.

An important part of the review process is compliance with California’s Title 24 Building Energy Efficiency Standards (2) and San Francisco’s Green Building Requirements (3) which apply to all residential and nonresidential projects. Title 24 compliance requires specific calculations derived from approved software (DNM Architect uses EnergyPro), while the Green Building requirements include a checklist of the project’s green and energy saving features.

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Absolutely not! Well, not exactly... OK, it’s complicated… How do you define “need?”

A Neighborhood Notification or “311 Notice” - named after the San Francisco Planning Code Section 311 (1) – is required when you propose “any change in use or change in the number of dwelling units of a residential building, removal of more than 75 percent of a residential building's existing interior wall framing or the removal of more than 75 percent of the area of the existing framing, or an increase to the exterior dimensions of a residential building” (SFPC sect 311).

There are some exceptions to this rule in planning code section 136 (2), but, generally speaking, if you change the envelope of your building, the Planning Department – after approving your design for conformance with the planning code - provides the neighbors within 150 feet of your property with a 30 day period to review your proposed design and appeal the department’s approval by making a request for a “discretionary review” by the city Planning Commission. At the hearing, the commission can find in favor of the project (that’s you), overrule the department staff by finding in favor of the neighbor(s), or almost any compromise in between. The commission’s decision can be appealed to the Board of Supervisors, but the bar is set very high. For a small residential project, the commission’s decision is effectively final.


Work that does not require a licensed architect or registered engineer (from CA Architect Board “Consumer’s Guide to Hiring an Architect”)

If the amount of structure removed from a residential building exceeds certain limits described in Planning Code section 317 (3), a separate Demolition Permit must be filed. This triggers notification of the owners of properties 300 feet the property and is automatically reviewed at a public hearing before the Planning Commission. In addition to the hearing, the owner may be required to prepare and submit a Historic Resource Evaluation if the subject building is more the 50 years old. Obtaining approval to demolish a residential building in San Francisco can be contentious and expensive!


In addition to code section 311, other types of permits can trigger neighborhood notice such as a demolition permit, creation or removal of a living unit, a zoning variance of any kind, and a change of the building’s use. The radius of the notification area and the time period may vary for each of these notifications..

Although the notice period is only 30 days, more time must be budgeted before and afterwards for staff to review the design, make and respond to comments, and process the application. We have found that a successful 311 notice process (i.e. no major design changes and no appeals) consumes at least four months from the filing date and can be much longer according to the department’s workload and projects's complexity.

If the project requires a 311 Notice, the planning department also requires you to organize a pre-application meeting with your eight immediate neighbors to provide them the opportunity to review the proposed design and state an opinion. The department wants to insure that an effort has been made to reach out to the neighbors before they begin their plan review. This pre-application process requires about a month, but it can overlap with the design process, so it may not add to the overall project time.

It is important to understand that the project is already reviewed, deemed compliant with the planning code, and approved by planning staff BEFORE it is sent out to the neighbors. If the neighbors appeal the approval decision to the planning commission they must be ready to demonstrate that staff made a mistake or there are extraordinary circumstances that prevent this project from fitting neatly into the planning code. Your neighbors cannot successfully appeal your project simply because they don’t like it or it will block their view (although they may try). It is the approval decision that is appealed, not the project.

Historically, few decisions made by planning staff are overturned by the commission, however, the appeals process itself can add several months to a project and cost thousands of dollars to defend it. The real damage of a discretionary review hearing is lost time, money and goodwill with the neighbors who will still be there when the project is done. For these reasons, we produce three-dimensional computer models and renderings to help you communicate effectively with the neighbors and place your design in the best possible light.