Making sense of San Francisco’s MLS district map
If you’ve been considering buying or selling a home, you’ve probably heard about MLS (Multiple Listing Service). MLS is the central database of all property listings in a particular city or region. Wine Country/Marin has one called BAREIS and San Francisco has a different one called SFARMLS. The listings that you see on portals like Zillow all originate on the local MLS.
San Francisco is a small densely-packed city with lots of houses, condos, multi-unit buildings, and TICs spread over a small 7 mile x 7 mile area. To organize all of those properties geographically, the local MLS has 10 districts and 89 sub-districts. Here’s a link to the official SFAR MLS district map. You may want to refer to the map while you search for homes.
I recommend searching MLS through Compass.com which allows you to see every listing available with every real estate company in the city. In addition, if you are not already working with an agent, my team and I will create a Collection for you which is a dynamic online board of all properties that meet your specific criteria. It allows you to message us in real time about properties, no need for extra text messages or emails. We often have some off-market properties as well. Call me to check if we have anything that may fit what you’re looking for. We are ready to help you with your home purchase or sale in San Francisco, Alameda, Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties.
(Updated March 2023)
From SF to Wine Country (and everything in between)
For more than a decade, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to represent many home buyers and sellers throughout San Francisco. My real estate business has grown exponentially since that time as clients have called upon us to represent them in nearby counties. As a result, my team and I are excited to now include Marin & Wine Country in the areas that we serve.
In addition to San Francisco, we represent real estate clients in Healdsburg, Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Guerneville, Petaluma, Windsor, Occidental, Sebastopol, Napa, St Helena, Calistoga, Yountville, Novato, Mill Valley, San Rafael and surrounding towns. If you are considering buying or selling a home in Wine Country, Marin, or San Francisco, my team and I are here and ready to help!
Rainy days are good days for home buyers
It’s been so rainy lately! This is obviously good news since California is in a major drought. We simply need the rain. If you are in the market to buy a new home or condo though, there’s another benefit to the wet stuff falling from the sky. Touring your dream home on a rainy day can tell you a lot about your prospective home before you submit an offer.
Probably one of the last things you want to do is go out and look at homes in the rain. If you’re like most people, you want to see houses on a sunny spring day, where flowers are in bloom and birds are singing. Visiting a house on a rainy day however can sometimes be much more informative, here’s why:
Ideally when rain falls, it runs off the roof in to the gutters and eventually flows away from the house through a drain or pipe to the street or sewer. Given the hilly terrain in San Francisco, older housing stock, and densely packed neighborhoods, heavy rain in San Francisco sometimes leads to “ponding” or standing water with no place to go. Standing water tends to seep in to places it should not be (like walls, foundations, garages, or basements). Keeping water away from your home is important to help prevent issues like dry rot, wood boring beetles, foundation deterioration, termites, and mold. So while checking out your new prospective house, always keep your eyes open for standing water around the outside of the home or in the garage or basement.
If the roof or skylight needs repair, there will probably be some visible signs of a leak. Be sure to look up at the ceiling occasionally as you are walking around. If you see signs of a previous ceiling repair or variations in the ceiling paint, it may be worth asking about. There is another bonus of visiting open houses on a rainy day…it’s likely that there will be fewer buyers milling around. That gives you a chance to take your time and look around without the crowds. The seller’s agent may also be more available to speak with you and answer questions since there will be fewer people around.
(Pro tip: Remember to be courteous and not track in mud or rain when you enter an open house on a rainy day. The seller’s agent likely will provide a spot to wipe your feet or have shoe covers handy).
I’m not a home inspector, but I’ve been at hundreds of home inspections with clients and have picked up a few tips along the way. I have many more home buying tips to share. Feel free to get in touch!
What is a disclosure package?
If you have spent more than a day searching for a place in San Francisco, you have probably heard the term “disclosure package”. When a seller prepares their home for sale, they are guided by their listing agent through an important but rather lengthy disclosure process. As the name implies, disclosures are documents that give prospective buyers more information about a particular property. If the seller knows of a material fact about a home, they are obligated to tell the prospective buyer about it.
The contents of a disclosure package usually include a variety of statements and mandated reports. Often these include: home inspection report, termite inspection report, preliminary title report, history of permits, natural hazard report, condo rules & restrictions, underground tank inspection, seller’s transfer disclosure statement, and many more. Most residential sales in SF are “AS IS”, meaning that the buyer is taking the property in it’s current condition and accepts the disclosures as they are, including the imperfections. It is therefore very important for buyers to read and understand the entire disclosure package before submitting any offer. Sellers are wise to disclose everything to buyers in advance to avoid any re-negotiation resulting from undisclosed issues during the inspection and sale process.
If you have found a property you love, your agent can get the disclosure package for you, just ask. Keep in mind that packages can be 100-300 pages in length, so you may want to be careful how many you request. Interestingly (at least to me), SF is one of the few cities where sellers and agents prepare a disclosure package up front before a home hits the market. Real estate custom in most other cities is that agents and sellers wait until a buyer is in contract before they prepare the reports and disclosures.
A sample disclosure package cover sheet:
What is a contingency when buying a home in San Francisco?
If you’ve been looking for real estate in San Francisco, you have probably heard the term “contingency”; it means “dependence on the fulfillment of a condition”. In the world of SF real estate, a contingency is simply a period of time in which the buyer can investigate a property or mortgage loan while still protecting their deposit.
Contingencies are sometimes used for property inspections like a termite inspection. Other contingencies are for mortgage loan approval, appraisal, or the sale of another property. Sellers can have have contingencies too, like finding a replacement property, but buyer contingencies are more common.
In this very frenzied seller’s market, any buyer contingency can give the seller some pause when they are considering whether to accept an offer.
It can be challenging for buyers to protect their interests while still getting their offer accepted. As I’ve written about before, disclosures are important. Seller disclosure packages (complete with inspection reports) allow the buyer to be reasonably informed about the property at the outset before submitting an offer.
Regardless of disclosures, some buyers opt to roll the dice and waive all contingencies as a strategy to make their offer more attractive to the seller. Buyers should be aware that waiving contingencies is risky. As usual, it boils down to risk tolerance and of course every buyer (and every property) is unique. If you are considering buying or selling, let’s talk about how contingencies might impact you.
Price Per Square Foot: It May Not Be As Reliable as You Think
If you are a routine grocery shopper, then you already know that comparing ‘per-unit’ pricing is a smart way to shop. If something costs .48 cents per ounce then you can easily compare different brands and sizes and quickly determine that .51 cents per ounce is likely more than you need to spend. It is logical then that the same process would apply to home prices.
Continuing with the grocery analogy, the concept works well when comparing apples to apples. Price per square foot is a good barometer to consider when looking at houses and condos that are almost identical or at least very similar to each other. This works well on a new construction cul de sac in the suburbs and in high rise buildings in the city. The challenge in SF however is that the housing inventory is very old and uniquely diverse. This means that one home is usually very different than the one next door, including the details of the interior, the exterior, the parking, the view, you get the picture.
The other challenge with price per square foot in the city is that we are often relying on inaccurate square footage figures from tax records. This means that the fundamentals are not accurate, so any comparison based on square footage would be incorrect. So while price per sq foot might seem perfectly logical, it may not really be as solid a data point as you think. Each situation is different, so let me know what you are looking for and we will take a closer look.
(Updated: June 8, 2021)
How much are property taxes in San Francisco?
I am often asked about SF property taxes, how they are calculated and when they are due. Property taxes (also known as real estate taxes, real property taxes, or secured property taxes) are calculated by taking the assessed value of the property and multiplying it by the current tax rate, as of today, the current rate is approximately 1.18%. For newly purchased properties, the assessed value is typically the purchase price. The tax bill is mailed by the tax collector once a year in the fall. You should receive the bill before November 1st. Fun fact: even if you do not receive the bill in the mail, you are still responsible to pay it.
The bill is broken into two payments, the first payment is due before December 10th and the second is due before April 10th. A penalty of 10% applies if the payment arrives late, so be sure to pay early or on time.
It is important to remember that the regular tax bill is completely separate from the supplemental tax bill that is triggered following the purchase of a property. Supplemental property tax is essentially a catch-up tax on the difference between the last assessed value and the new one (aka the recent purchase price). So if you purchased a condo for 700,000 and the most recent assessed value per the assessor’s office was 550,000 then you should expect a supplemental tax bill on the 150,000 difference. So that would look like this: 150,000 x 1.18%. There is also a variable factored in for what month your closing occurs. It often takes about 3-12 months to receive the supplemental tax bill following the purchase.
To estimate your property taxes, here is a nifty calculator.
For more details on property taxes in San Francisco, visit: https://sftreasurer.org/secured
Condo, TIC, Co-op. What are the differences?
What’s the difference between a condo, a TIC, and a co-op? No doubt you’ve heard of each of them but if you are like most people, you’re not sure about the specifics.
Generally speaking, if you are looking to buy a place to live in San Francisco (and it’s not a single family house) then you are probably talking about one of these three forms of ownership. Since these are forms of ownership and not styles of construction, you can’t tell these buildings apart by physically looking at them. Here are the primary differences in how they each work:
A condo is the most common form of ownership. When you buy a condo, you own one particular unit in a building. You’ll have title to the unit plus you have rights to a use the common areas. In a condo, you’ll pay a monthly homeowners association fee, and you’ll need to abide by rules & regulations (called CC&Rs). Condos can be financed with conventional mortgages (think 30 year fixed rate loans issued by major banks). Most banks that issue mortgages will loan on a condo as long as it meets their underwriting criteria.
A tenancy-in-common (aka. TIC) is a hybrid form of ownership where you own a percentage of a multi-unit building. TICs came about as a way for people to be able to band together to buy property relatively affordably in otherwise expensive cities. As a TIC buyer, you’ll have rights to live in one unit in the building. Just like a condo, you pay a monthly fee and can use the common areas. In a TIC, the rules and regulations of ownership are spelled out in a TIC agreement. Major banks do not loan on TICs (because there is no secondary market where they can sell the loans to other banks). Financing is therefore more expensive and less attractive than condos. There are a few smaller banks around the Bay Area that offer TIC loans. They often charge a fee to complete the loan, the interest rate is often much higher than a conventional condo loan, and the rate is often locked for a shorter period than conventional financing. Down payment requirements are often higher than for condos. Although TIC owners each have their own mortgage, this form of ownership does come with some additional risk, primarily surrounding payment of property taxes and potential default by a co-owner. The TIC agreement does address the risk to some degree however buyers should be fully aware of the details before buying a TIC. The upside is that the purchase price for a TIC is almost always considerably less expensive than a comparable condo.
A co-op (aka. cooperative) is a building owned by a private corporation. It is basically an elite gated community. When you buy in to a co-op, you are purchasing shares in the corporation. You’ll pay a rather hefty monthly fee for rights to live in one unit. Buyers must first be interviewed by the board of directors (ie. other owners) for approval. The interview process generally requires buyers to provide personal financial details for review. The board may accept or reject buyers for any reason. Like TIC financing, terms for co-op financing are less attractive than conventional condo financing and the number of banks that will issue loans are limited. Co-op buildings tend to be well maintained (because they usually have substantial amounts of cash in the bank). Co-ops do not allow rentals, so purchasing one as an investment property is not an option. Like condos and TICs, co-ops may have shared common areas as well as rules and regulations governing what owners can and cannot do.
This is just a quick summary of the differences in these forms of ownership. I’ve sold all of these types of properties and am happy to discuss the specifics with you. You can find me anytime at 415-971-5651.
When is the best time of year to buy or sell a home in San Francisco?
I am often asked about the seasonality of real estate in San Francisco. As it has been for a long time, we are in a seller’s market in SF however there are definitely some fluctuations throughout the year.
Sellers: The majority of the year is still very good for sellers, especially for single family homes, however the best time for sellers is in September/October when the weather is usually sunny and dry and fog is nowhere to be seen. This time of year is known as “San Francisco’s summer” even though it is really autumn everywhere else. Throngs of buyers are visiting lots of open houses on these sunny weekends, multiple offers are the norm, and sale prices that far exceed list prices are very common.
Buyers: If you are buying and want to have a shot at getting a (relative) bargain, you’ll want to do that in July/August or wait until November/December (but the number of available listings will be limited). The number of buyers that you’ll compete with are usually relatively low at this time, and the resulting number of offers and sale prices will also likely be in your favor. Of course, as with most things in San Francisco, each neighborhood and price range has it’s own unique nuances, so please let me know if you need advice on your particular situation.
How to look up permits for any San Francisco property
Did you know that there is a site that allows you to view permits and complaints for all properties in the city? This comes in very handy if you are thinking of purchasing a home (or if you are a nosy neighbor).
Just head to Department of Building Inspection’s website and enter the property address. There you’ll see all permits relating to electrical, plumbing and building as well as the complaints that may be on file for that location.
Bank or mortgage broker: Where should you get your mortgage?
If you are considering buying a home, the best first step is to get pre-approved for a mortgage so you can see exactly what you can afford before you fall in love with a new home. There are many banks and mortgage lenders that can help with your home purchase but buyers often wonder how to find the best one. Low rates and fees are definitely important but so is the satisfaction of past customers. JD Power recently published a ranking of customer satisfaction of mortgage lenders. San Francisco is a city of mostly older homes and some rather unique real estate market idiosyncrasies so it is very important to work with a lender that knows the area. I have had clients who’ve worked with some of the lenders on the list below, contact me directly and I can tell you which one may be a good fit for your particular situation. The lender you chose might actually impact whether your offer is accepted or declined so it is important to do your mortgage lender homework. I am here to help.
Tuesday Broker Tour is another opportunity to see homes in SF
It’s no secret that most open houses in San Francisco occur on weekends, especially on Sunday afternoons. That can be a real challenge for buyers who happen to be out of town for the weekend but still want to check out a property. Tuesday Tour is an open house for brokers and agents; basically it is an opportunity for industry professionals to tour available homes during the week. What many buyers don’t know however is that the public is almost always welcome to these open house events. You can check to see if a particular property is open on Tuesday by asking your agent or broker. Tuesday open house times vary depending on the MLS district where the property is located. Here is a map of the districts. Here is a list of the Tuesday open house times for each district. The subdistricts can get confusing, here is a list of those. The open house times are broken down to “new tour” and “repeat tour”. New tour is for new listings and repeat tour is for properties that have already been open at least once before. A few neighborhoods have broker tour on Wednesdays instead of Tuesdays since it was tough to see all the properties in one day. Those are: Mission Bay, South of Market, Yerba Buena, South Beach. Want to know if a property will be open on Tuesday or Wednesday? Just ask me!
How do I get a good deal when buying San Francisco real estate?
Buying a home or condo in San Francisco can be intimidating for buyers. The prospect of competing with dozens of frenzied buyers for that one special place can take the wind out of your sails pretty quickly. But here is some good news…
Time of year matters
The SF real estate market tends to be slowest in November and December, that can mean better deals for buyers. Less competition and lower prices are more likely during these two months than during the rest of the year. Although inventory is very limited during this notoriously quiet period, some of the listings that are available will be relatively good bargains.
Back on market, high number of days on market, price drops
Beyond time of year, there are some other ways to find potentially good deals. Watch for properties that have recently come back on the market after being in contract. Although it’s important to understand why the contract was cancelled, these situations sometimes indicate that a seller may be frustrated and more flexible on price and terms. Properties that have been on the market a while (with a high number of days on market, over 60 days) often will signal that the seller is open to some negotiating. Keep an eye out for listings with recent price reductions. All of theses are indicators that there may be a window of opportunity for the savvy buyer.
I’m happy to send you my picks of the best deals in the neighborhoods you’re interested in, just let me know.
How to buy a home in San Francisco if you are an expat
If you are considering a move to the U.S. from another country, you will quickly learn that the process of buying a home here is unique and probably even a little baffling at first. Here is what you need to know:
- Step one is to find the right real estate broker to guide you. In San Francisco, like much of the U.S., buyers and sellers each have their own dedicated broker to help them. Your broker is your primary advocate throughout the real estate purchase process and can help you to buy any available home on the market regardless of which broker is representing the seller. He or she has a fiduciary duty to represent your best interests. Sellers pay the commission which is the compensation for both brokers. Buyers rarely pay any commission at all.
- Get pre-approved for a loan. Without a U.S. credit report and social security number it can sometimes be challenging to get a mortgage loan. Here is how the system typically works: after a potential home buyer applies for a loan, the mortgage lender uses their social security number to check credit history which is pulled from three credit bureaus: Trans Union, Equifax, and Experian. Each of these bureaus collects data from various creditors like banks and credit card companies regarding an individual’s payment history, amounts owed, etc. That data is used to formulate a score called FICO which gauges an individual’s perceived credit-worthiness. The score can range from 300-850. Anything over 700 is generally considered very good. The credit bureaus and resulting FICO score only considers credit history earned in the U.S., not overseas. If you are new to the U.S., this is clearly a bit problematic. There are some alternatives for expats who are new to the U.S., so finding the right mortgage lender is key. Your real estate broker can refer you to a few lenders that can help.
- Start looking at neighborhoods and homes with your broker. This step may take a while as you learn the areas and nuances of the city along with the various property types that fit into your budget. San Francisco is geographically small but it has 89 distinct neighborhoods, so there is a lot to learn. Your broker can give you access to MLS, the database of all available homes in the city.
- Once you find the right home for you, then it’s time to make an offer. Offers are comprised of price and various terms that your broker will discuss in detail with you. Offers can be contingent upon certain events like a professional home inspection or even full mortgage loan approval. Your broker will discuss the pros and cons of various offer terms to make it attractive to the seller while still protecting your interests. The timeframe of offering on a home to actually getting keys in your hand is generally about 35 days or less.
I have represented many buyers from other countries. I’d be glad to sit down and talk with you about the process to see if buying a home in San Francisco is the right move for you. Just let me know when you’d like to meet. I can be reached at (415) 971-5651.
What are the most common methods of holding title to property in California?
There are plenty of big decisions that need to be made during the process of buying a home or condo. One decision that buyers often don’t consider in advance is how they’d like to hold title to the property. The method of holding title, often referred to as “vesting”, can have significant legal and tax implications so it should always be discussed with an attorney or tax pro. Before the sale can be completed, the title insurance company will need to know how the property is to be vested. Thinking about the options in advance may help to make the process smoother for you. The chart below from Fidelity National Title summarizes the more common methods of holding title. Click on the chart to enlarge it. If you are considering buying a home in SF (or anywhere else for that matter) just let me know, I’ll be happy to help.
How do I buy a home in San Francisco?
If you’re beginning to think about buying a place in SF, there is one sure-fire thing that you should do before you spend too much time visiting open houses. Get pre-approved for a mortgage. Until you know how much home you can comfortably afford, it really doesn’t make much sense to fall in love with the place of your dreams. Unless you are just browsing with no intent to buy soon, looking at homes before getting pre-approved for a mortgage is a bit of a cart-before-the-horse kind of thing. It is easy to fall in love with the perfect place when you see it. Unfortunately it is also that much more disappointing to learn that it is financially out of reach.
I suggest that buyers get pre-approved for a loan with two different sources. One direct lender (for example, Wells Fargo) and one local mortgage broker. As I have mentioned before, the big banks are notoriously quite slow and bureaucratic when it comes to issuing mortgages. The reason is simple, they are huge organizations that make money by selling off bundles of mortgage loans. They can only do that if certain loan underwriting criteria is adhered to from the outset with every buyer. Careful mortgage underwriting is certainly good (hello 2008, I’m looking at you) however the slow-moving process can sometimes present problems for buyers who are trying to purchase a home in this very fast-paced seller’s market. Bottom line here is that sellers are really not interested in waiting around to see if you happen to get your loan or not.
A mortgage broker has access to many loan sources, from small banks to local portfolio lenders, all of which tend to move much faster than big brick & mortar banks. Mortgage brokers also know that properties in San Francisco often come with some local idiosyncrasies that do not exist in other areas. When underwriting with one lender is not working out for a buyer, a mortgage broker can move the loan to another lender to get approval. I can suggest a number of reliable San Francisco mortgage brokers that have helped my clients over the years. Guaranteed Rate, Opes Advisors, Guarantee Mortgage are three examples. Let me know if you’d like any specifics about who to contact at each company.
By the way, some lenders and mortgage brokers offer the ability for buyers to get fully approved in advance (not just the customary pre-approval). If your lender offers it, do it. You will be ahead of the many buyers who don’t take this extra step in advance. Buyers are increasingly competing to get properties. It makes sense to be as prepared as possible.
Where are the open houses in San Francisco this weekend?
This is going to be a very busy weekend. There are hundreds of condos and single family homes having open houses throughout the city. I’m particularly intrigued by 11 of them. Here are my favorites. If you’d like to see a list of all of all houses and condos having open house events, here’s a full list of what will be open this weekend. Want to search by neighborhood? Check out my neighborhood search. Let me know if any catch your eye. Have a great weekend!
6 Tips for Buyers: How to get an offer accepted in San Francisco
If you are like most buyers today in San Francisco, you have already submitted offers (and were outbid) on more than one property. In this fiercely competitive market, buyers are routinely competing for the best properties. Only the most creative and aggressive buyers are able to get their offer accepted. Since the market is so competitive, it is important to make your offer ultra compelling to a seller. Below are some tips that will help:
1. Assuming there is serious competition for the property you want, submit your highest and best offer right out of the gate. While counter-offers are certainly possible, they are less common in highly competitive situations. After your initial offer, you will most likely not be given a second chance on a popular property.
2. Conduct property inspections before you submit an offer or rely on the inspections provided by the seller. Putting an inspection contingency clause in your contract is possible however it reduces the overall attractiveness of your offer.
3. Know the sellers’ situation. Do they need a rent back period because they’re looking for another home? Are they doing a 1031 exchange? Is the home being sold by a family following the death of the owner? Knowing the circumstances of the seller may help you to structure your offer in a way that is more likely to be accepted.
4. Make sure you are being represented by an experienced local San Francisco real estate broker who knows the market. The nuances of the real estate market in SF are significant and very unique to our city. The idiosyncrasies surrounding topics like offer dates, mortgage underwriting, disclosure packages, termite inspection reports, rent control, local professional inspectors, energy & water conservation rules, and condo conversion can all make or break your transaction. Be sure you are being represented by a local San Francisco real estate broker who knows what they’re doing.
5. Like it or not, you will probably be competing with all-cash buyers. Cash offers are of course very appealing to a seller. If you are like most people however, you’ll need to get a mortgage; get fully underwritten in advance by a local mortgage broker. I do not recommend going through a big bank for your mortgage. The underwriting process at the giant brick & mortar banks is typically extremely time-consuming. It moves much slower than the brief timelines that are customary in our brisk purchase process in SF. That can push you in to a stress spiral at the 11th hour when the bank is dragging their feet on issuing your final loan approval while the seller is demanding that you remove your loan contingency (that contingency is what protects your deposit). Mortgage brokers generally are able to communicate with loan processors and underwriters so that they can get things moving along should any approval issues arise. Mortgage brokers coordinate loans through many sources, so if one lender will not loan at terms that work for your situation, it’s likely that he or she can find another one that will. Your real estate broker can recommend solid mortgage brokers, just ask.
6. Include a personal letter to the seller with your offer. Tell the seller about you and why you love the home. Connect on an honest and personal level. I have seen buyers prevail because of a letter, even when their offer was not the highest one received.