The San Francisco Market for Buildings of 2-4 Residential Units

July 17, 2015

2-4 unit residential buildings contain about 80,000 or 21% of the housing units in San Francisco. This report will assess only such smaller apartment buildings that have not been converted to condos or exclusive-use TIC units: Condos and TICs are considered different property types than unconverted 2-4 unit buildings and are valued differently. The variety in units in these buildings is enormous and includes some of the most appealing and gracious apartments ever built.

In San Francisco, 2-4 unit buildings exist at the overlapping intersection of 2 different market segments: tenant-occupied, income property and owner-occupied,residential real estate. Values of such buildings are affected not only by the usual factors – location, condition, parking, views and so on – but also by issues such as income and expense, and rental upside potential; tenant profile, “protected” tenants and eviction history; vacant units, owner-occupancy suitability and the feasibility to convert to TICs and/or condos; and by the city’s ever-changing rent and eviction control regulations. With real estate, the devil is always in the details, and this property type in particular involves a lot of details to consider.


Sales by Era of Construction

San Francisco’s market for smaller apartment buildings is dominated by Victorian and Edwardian architecture, followed by the subsequent Spanish-Mediterranean/ Art Deco/ Marina Style era. The 3-flat Edwardian and the 2-flat Marina-Style buildings are classics of these periods. After WWII, builders generally shifted to single family home construction, and once condominiums started being built in the 1970’s, construction of multi-unit, income buildings in the city virtually ceased, because condos sell for higher prices. (It’s only recently, with the boom in rents, that larger – often very large – rental apartment buildings are being constructed once again.)

Residential buildings constructed before 1979 are almost universally subject to San Francisco’s ordinance strictly regulating rent increases and tenant evictions.

Sales & Values by Neighborhood

Pursuant to the previous chart, sales are concentrated in those districts of the city mostly built out prior to 1940. Many of these areas were considered “working class” neighborhoods at the time of construction, such as the Richmond district, the Noe Valley area and the Inner Mission, however these buildings were also constructed in areas that have always been highly affluent, such as Pacific Heights. (A 6081 square foot, 2-unit Edwardian in Cow Hollow recently sold for $6m.)


Median Sales Prices by Number of Units

This chart tracks the trend in median sales price appreciation since the current recovery began, breaking out buildings of 2, 3 and 4 units. Two-unit buildings typically sell at a premium (on a dollar per square foot basis) in San Francisco due to condo-conversion rules. Dramatic short-term fluctuations in prices, such as what occurred for 3-unit buildings in Q1 2015, should not be taken too seriously until substantiated over the longer term. Since there aren’t that many sales of any one type of building in any one quarter, median prices can jump up or down simply because of the particular basket of unique properties that sold in the time period.

Longer-term trends are always the most meaningful. The recent upward trend in values is clearly illustrated below.


Sales Volume since 1994

The quantity of 2-4 unit building sales fluctuates due to the booms and recessions that affect all types of real estate. But it is also affected by distinctive factors. Over the past 40 years, many of these buildings have been converted into condos or, more recently, exclusive-use TICs, both of which are considered different (and more valuable) property types: With hardly any new 2-4’s being built, inventory declines. Also, properties that in the past would have been sold as a single 2-4 unit building are sometimes now being sold as separate TIC units to multiple buyers.

It is also true that there are few political issues more furious in San Francisco now than tenant evictions, housing affordability, TIC conversions and condo conversions, and how it plays out – in public opinion, changes to city regulations, legislative efforts and ballot proposals – significantly affects this market.

The net result is that, even with the huge market recovery of the past 3 years, sales are down over 40% from 15 years ago.


Sales Prices to List Prices, Days on Market, Price Reductions

83% of the sales of these buildings in Q1 2015 sold without going through price reductions. They sold quickly and averaged a sales price 7% over asking price – all of which indicates a strong market of high buyer demand and inadequate supply of inventory to purchase. In April, as Q2 began, the market got hotter still (not shown on chart).

Note that overpricing not only means that the property takes much longer to sell subsequent to price reductions (if it does sell), but typically means it will sell at a lower price than if it had been priced correctly to begin with.


Sales by Price Range

As in the type, size and quality of buildings, the range in sales prices for 2-4 unit buildings in San Francisco is enormous: In the past year, it has run from under $500,000 to over $6,000,000. As mentioned before, factors include location, condition, parking, views, era of construction, vacant units, tenant profile, protected tenants, rents, past evictions, owner-occupancy and condo conversion potential, and possible future changes to tenant eviction laws.


New Listings, Properties for Sale, Listings Accepting Offers

Market activity to a large degree ebbs and flows with the seasons: The spring selling season is typically the most active, followed by the autumn. Activity usually drops off during the summer, and, especially, the winter holidays.


Days on Market


Neighborhood Snapshots

A look at trends in average dollar per square foot values in different city districts: The greater Richmond district area; the greater Noe, Eureka and Cole Valleys district; and the prestige, northern neighborhoods running from Pacific Heights and Marina to Russian, Nob & Telegraph Hills.




Note that every time the time period or the exact neighborhoods being analyzed are changed, even by a little bit, very general statistical values such as median price and average dollar per square foot may also change, sometimes significantly.

How the values in this report apply to any particular property is unknown without a custom comparative market analysis. Please call or email with any questions or if you’d like information on properties currently on the market.

All information is from sources deemed reliable, but may contain errors, is not warranted and is subject to revision. Numbers should be considered approximate.

© 2015 Paragon Commercial Brokerage & Paragon Real Estate Group