Garages Add Value, Stress for S.F. Homeowners

By Lili Weigert
Special to The Chronicle

Title insurance: A couple thousand dollars.

Property taxes: A few thousand more.

Having your own garage in San Francisco: Priceless.

Well, maybe not priceless – and not easy either, considering the drawn-out, stressful design review and permit process – but a place to keep the car is worth plenty. Jennifer Kauffman of Zephyr Real Estate says a garage can tack $100,000 onto the price of a home.

“Ever tried to get a parking space in the city?” is Jay Hemphill’s response to why garage additions are so popular in San Francisco. Hemphill and his construction crew are in the process of adding a two-car garage under a home in Bernal Heights. The owner bought the home years ago but just recently was able to justify the cost of the addition.

“When she bought this house, this was an inexpensive neighborhood,” Hemphill said. “Adding a garage would cost more than her house.” Now that Bernal Heights is hot, Hemphill estimates that the garage, which he said will end up costing about $180,000, will add at least $100,000 to the home’s value. “When money comes into a neighborhood, then it’s ‘affordable’ to put in a garage,” he said.

And Bernal Heights, like just about everywhere else in San Francisco, has become a difficult place to park.

Vandalism and personal safety also rank high on the list of why San Franciscans want garages. According to John Pollard, owner of San Francisco Garage Co., not having to worry about finding broken glass and your stereo ripped out is a definite perk.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi was recently quoted in The Chronicle as saying car break-ins are the “lost casualties in the war on crime,” with 43 reported break-ins per day.

Then there’s personal safety. One woman reported that her physician husband was mugged and shot while walking home after performing a late-night surgery. When he recovered, the couple added a garage to their Marina neighborhood home.

Kauffman says that more of her clients include a garage in their “must have” list, estimating that half won’t even look at a house that doesn’t have one. With higher-priced homes, she says, a garage is “just assumed.”

Fred Pavlow, whose 20-year-old company Add-a-Garage has built more than 350 garages throughout the city, agrees that garages have become critical. “Nowadays, people won’t even consider a house without one,” he says.

Depending on the project, adding a garage can cost $25,000 to $1 million.

But money tends to be the least of problems for San Franciscans who want to add a garage.

Until recently, the process was fairly straightforward. “After meeting with a prospective client,” Pavlow said, “we came back with a firm price that included the design, permits and construction.” In the past few years, though, things have changed.

“Planning decided to change their interpretation of what was allowed,” Pollard said. “Now it’s much more difficult and much more expensive to get anything approved.” Pavlow was even more direct: “They’ve made it hard, if not impossible, to get a permit.”

According to city planner Mark Luellen, garage additions came under heavy scrutiny in 2006 as part of a citywide initiative to heighten awareness of historic preservation. He attributes a lot of it to the election of Aaron Peskin, a preservation advocate, to head the Board of Supervisors. “There’s a very strong pro-preservation voice on board, which hasn’t happened in a long time,” Luellen said.

The Planning Department now has 13 planners devoted to historic preservation, many of whom have advanced degrees and professional expertise in preservation.

“We have more qualified people now,” says Luellen, “So our sensitivity and level of scrutiny has increased.”

In 2006, the department formalized the application process for adding garages, especially for buildings with historic significance. The process is outlined in the Zoning Administrator Bulletin, “Procedures and Criteria for Adding Garages to Existing Residential Structures.”

The Bulletin lists the criteria a garage proposal must meet. It also includes a separate list of criteria for residences considered historic resources, those more than 50 years old. In other words, practically any San Francisco home that was built without a garage.

The year after the Bulletin, Pollard’s company received only five approvals out of 100 permit applications. The year before, 45 were approved.

Bay windows are the biggest stumbling block. “If you have a projecting bay window that goes to the ground floor, it can be a problem,” Luellen said. “Often people try to get around this by raising the building, but the proportions for each level are usually carefully designed. Anytime you start to elongate a floor it can really throw off the composition and balance of the building.” Pollard estimates that 60 percent of the remaining San Francisco residences without garages have this problem.

Not surprisingly, most contractors aren’t happy. It isn’t that contractors are anti-preservation, but more that they see the Planning Department making decisions that encroach on homeowners’ rights to decide how they want to live.

“They take a long time with the application,” Hemphill said. “But I’m not sure they always understand. They may have gone to school and they have the degrees, but they’ve never done the work. When you’re in the field doing it, you see it in a different light.”

By the time he started the excavation in Bernal Heights, he’d secured five or six permits and done thousands of dollars’ worth of work – at which point digging out 500 square feet of packed dirt was the easy part of the job.

“If it were up to the Planning Department,” Pavlow said, “we’d all be riding bicycles.”
Adding a garage?

Some things to consider if your San Francisco home is more than 50 years old:

— “Design new garage door openings to be as unobtrusive as possible. The size of the door must be no larger than absolutely necessary, and the door design must be compatible with the existing building, but not be finished in a way that imitates the historic building.

— Detail the doors to minimize the effect on character-defining features.

— Design new garages so they are not projecting out from the front facade, nor are they recessed so deep as to appear to undermine the base of the building.”

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