What You Need to Know Before Renovating in the San Francisco Bay Area, Part 1

When it comes to renovations, the Bay Area is a unique place. Between historical preservation, city planning commissions, and keeping the peace with your not-so-distant neighbors, building in the city and surrounding areas isn’t a stroll through Golden Gate Park!

Before you're in the midst of your project and wishing the nightmare would end (believe us, this happens more often than not), check out our advice on what you can proactively do to set yourself up for success. Here's Part 1 of this two part series. 

Tip #1: Stay cohesive with the neighborhood

If you’re doing any kind of exterior renovation in the Bay Area, you may be required to keep your new exterior design cohesive with the neighborhood. For example, if you’re on a street where every house has a bay window, your home’s exterior may need to incorporate some sort of bay window. Keeping the character of the neighborhood can also be subjective, and you’ll be at the mercy of whatever planner the city has assigned you.

For any renovation affecting the exterior, it’s best to have an architect on your team. Architects are great for thinking about the exterior and spatial volumes of a building. Tip: Choose an architect who has done many projects in your city or town so they know the planning department well and have their ear. Also, learn in advance from the city's planning department or the architect what the standards are, if any, for keeping the neighborhood character. That sleek, modern addition of your dreams may not be 100% attainable!

  Due diligence is required for changes to exterior walls

Due diligence is required for changes to exterior walls

Tip #2: Play nice with your neighbors

On the subject of neighborhoods, the Bay Area, and especially San Francisco, is unique in that just because you own your property, it doesn't mean you have complete control over what you do with it. However, it's not just the planning department that has a say, but also your neighbors. In the case of exterior changes, consider your neighbor your best ally, or potentially your worst nightmare.

The planning department doesn't want a neighbor's complaint to go into official review, so you're incentivized to resolve differences with your neighbors early without getting the planning department involved. Meet your neighbors face-to-face and get to know them before you start your renovation process. Listen to their concerns about your plans, and work together on creative solutions. Sometimes you won't be able to placate your neighbors 100%, but it helps to show that you tried. If you haven't tried, the penalties can be severe, and a big red pen might be taken to your design.

Tip #3: Hire a structural engineer for an open concept

Open floor plans are one of the most popular renovation requests right now — but not all of those walls can be simply knocked down! Sometimes there’s plumbing behind the drywall or it's a load bearing wall. Pipes may or may not be worth relocating, and to remove a load bearing wall, you may need a new steel or reinforced beam to carry the weight of the floor above.

If you’re determined to make an open concept plan happen, hire a structural engineer. They’ll come up with a construction design that will give you the space you want while adhering to building code and safety. Even if you have an architect on your team, the architect will likely still recommend hiring a structural engineer if there’s significant work needed. On the other hand, if it’s simply removing a few walls and not an addition, you might be able to get away with only a structural engineer and interior designer on your team, and no architect.

  The structural details behind creating an open floor plan

The structural details behind creating an open floor plan

We'll be concluding our two-part series of renovation tips for the San Francisco Bay Area next week! Stay tuned.

Have additional tips to share for renovation projects? Add them to the comments below!