How to Buy an Affordable House in Bernal Heights


Suhl Chin and Bobbi Levenson are longtime Bernal residents, and both are realtors with Zephyr Real Estate. Neighbors Suhl and Bobbi recently approached Bernalwood to see if there was anything they could write for us, so we asked for some practical tips aimed at wannabe homebuyers searching for affordable properties in Bernal Heights.

Here’s what they suggest:

Frustrated by the “white hot market” in Bernal?  Here are 10 ways to find more affordable houses in Bernal Heights– even if you’re not a tech millionaire.

1. Look for houses that have been sitting on the market for a while.  These may be few and far between, but if you find one that appeals to you then it’s possible to come in at a lower price than listed.  Many of the houses that sit are overpriced and that is why they are sitting.  Be bold and come in under asking instead of waiting for the price reduction.
2. Find properties with tenants.  The costs associated with an owner move-in deters many Buyers from offering on these properties.
3. Search for properties that have “fallen out of escrow.” Sometimes, these “back on the market” properties don’t have a set offer date and take offers as they come because owners want to get back in contract as quickly as possible.
4. Be flexible about the neighborhood.  Consider properties not in the center of the neighborhood. Look for properties on the outskirts.
5. Be willing to be in Back-Up position at a lower price than the accepted offer price.
6. Bank-owned properties (REOs) and short sales are good alternatives to avoid the multiple-offer scenario.  Although not as prevalent as during the recession, there are still a few out there.
7. Write a personal letter to submit with the offer and attach photos of your cute child, dog, sweetie, and yourself.   Hokey as it sounds, the personal touch has been known to work.
8. Get full approval from a lender or mortgage broker.  This makes for a stronger offer and possibly a quicker close of escrow.
9. Do your inspections prior to writing the offer so that you can write an offer without an inspection contingency.
10. Don’t pay too much attention to the list price.  Some agents price properties absurdly low in order to get people in the door.  You need to figure out the fair market value of the property, regardless of list price.

Most importantly, don’t get discouraged!  It’s a tough market, but be patient, try to make it fun and stay the course.  And remember, what goes up must come down.  It’s not going to be a white hot market forever!

Great suggestions, all. I’d add two more tips, based entirely on my own Bernal home-buying experience:

11. Tell everyone you know that you want to buy in Bernal. Someone you know may know someone who has a friend who has a cousin whose uncle just died, and the family wants to liquidate the uncle’s Bernal estate ASAP. (My former landlord tipped me off to the house I now own; he was friends with the seller, who needed to sell quickly to cover some medical expenses. I was able to make an offer on my house before it came on the market.)
12. Look for the fixer-uppers. The more fixy-uppy, the better. Techies may have money, but few have time — and it takes time and attention to upgrade a crapbox house. My house, for example, was positively squalid inside. It included a Bathroom of Horror, but photos really can’t capture how bad it smelled. Renovations are costly and stressful, but so is the commute from Pleasanton.

37 thoughts on “How to Buy an Affordable House in Bernal Heights

  1. Very nice of you to quote realtors who encourage people to buy buildings with renters and figure in the cost of evicting them as a way to buy a home. You are a creep. And you’ve no understanding of what made Bernal a diverse neighborhood before the ongoing yuppie invasion.

    • And your “renting somebody else’s property but deserve to live here forever and never pay market rent” attitude is the reason that yuppies are the only ones who can afford to move into SF now – congrats on kicking the cost you should’ve been paying to the next generation of SF residents. Reap what you sow.

    • If you’re renting and don’t want to get kicked out of our place, sign a long-term lease with the owner. The downside is that you’ll have to commit to staying in that house for the term of your lease. The upside is a buyer will have to abide by the terms of the lease.

      • You don’t just “sign a lease,” you have to negotiate a lease with the landlord — and I would be VERY surprised to find a landlord in SF willing to sign a lease with a longer term than one year.

  2. #2 seems pretty dodgy. When we were looking to buy, we went to an open house, and when we got there we discovered there was a resident tenant family. We spoke to them, and quickly resolved not buy that house, or any other with resident tenants – it’s not a good situation for at all. Seems like a strange recommendation.

  3. Wow. Things got ugly quickly.

    Anyway… I hope you kept that sweet institutional TP holder with the sliding door. Awesome. Sauce.

  4. Nothing says “welcome to the community” like encouraging prospective homebuyers to kick out tenants. For a better community, uproot the residents!

    • I don’t get this sentiment. You are renting from someone who is selling their home. Why on earth is the renter entitled to stay with the next owner? The new owner has zero obligation to make a rental agreement with the previous tenants.
      This isn’t a charity.

      • “This isn’t a charity.”

        That about sums it up, yes. But I think you and I have different interpretations of that statement.

      • It’s not “charity,” it’s a little thing some of us like to call “personal values.” I choose not to be a person who kicks existing tenants out of an established home so that I can save a few bucks on real estate. Your values may be different. But what’s galling about this “tip” is that it’s written as if this were a value-neutral decision.

      • If the selling of a property voided a rent-controlled lease, then subverting the city rent control laws would be easy, and they would be moot. Which is probably what you would like.

        Come out and say it folks, you either want only rich people to be able to afford to live in SF, or you support some kind of rent control, there’s really no middle ground. Rent control is the only thing keeping anyone with an income of less than $75k in San Francisco. No more “free market” fuzzy-logic!

      • I just looked up “false dichotomy” in the dictionary, and I found this post. Opposition to rent control is not tantamount to a desire to drive the middle class and poor out of the city. You can bang your head against the market and people’s tendency to act in their self-interest, or you can work those to further your interests. The only way to stabilize rent and sale prices is to create more supply to meet the demand. Yet every time a developer tries to increase housing supply with a multi-unit building, NIMBYs bellyache about parking and yuppies and Google and Twitter and whatever else it’s currently fashionable to hate. You can’t constrain supply and expect the price to remain the same.

      • This article wasn’t for the speculative investor looking to buy all cash and kick out tenets. This article was for someone trying to buy their first/primary residence. It was for someone who can barely afford to pull that off. You don’t have to be rich to buy a home, you just need 20% down. Mortgages are cheaper than rents now. And with a mortgage your “rent” doesn’t go up for 30 years. This doesn’t even take into account the tax benefits.
        Why would someone who is looking to barely get into a home in Bernal Heights be willing to keep the tenants? Where is this first/primary home buyer supposed to live?
        I’ve been following listing in Bernal for the past year and there are plenty of $750k starter homes that have come up. If you have your 20% down, then your mortgage is $2850’ish at 4% interest. Is $2850 a month for a family really considered rich people displacing? That family is probably going to get something near $9,000 as a mortgage tax write off at the end of the year as well. (three months “rent”)

  5. #13: Stalk Your Neighbors.
    I noticed my neighbors slowly moving out and approached them about why. We bought their house off market with no silly shenanigans.

    Todd – your before-after house reno pics are AWESOME.

  6. Hi All,
    This was not meant to “kick people out of their houses”. There have been many instances where the tenants have been more than willing to work with the new buyers and have come to an arrangement. It can actually be a win/win situation. I am actually a tenant here in Bernal too. (I have property elsewhere) Believe me, I am not trying to get people to kick others out of their homes. Most people will see what the situation is and do what works best for them and the tenants. These are only ideas for people wanting to buy in Bernal to think outside the box. I apologize if this came across as offensive to Bernal neighbors.

    • Conditioning an apology with an “if this came across as offensive” is always a bad idea. Unless you’re a professional athlete that tweets a lot and makes poor decisions. Then, apparently, it’s fine.

      I don’t think what you said was offensive, it just failed to take account of the values that underlie it. If you’re going to reduce the emotional and spiritual attachment that people have to their homes to a set amount of OMI payout money, then be open about that. Your neighbors may thoughtfully disagree with you about whether such attachments – usually made by people who can ill afford to move elsewhere within Bernal – can be quantified in dollars.

      • The “values” of someone buying a house with a tenant and then paying the tenant to leave (as the law requires) are EXACTLY the same values as those of a tenant wishing to stay in a rent controlled apartment.

        Both parties want an affordable place to live in SF.

        However, the buyer is in the “power position” because the house NEVER belonged to the tenant. The tenant was renting from the previous owner and has NO claim to the residence or the rent-controlled cost. Economics guide the situation, not morality.

  7. I think what they are trying to say is that the home is already for sale and the property has renters. I don’t think he is saying go door to door looking for renters with the intent of uprooting them. Also look at it from the property owners perspective. They most likely have owned the home for at least two decades and the renter maybe in there for as long. Let’s assume they are paying $1500/month. Would you as the property owner rather continue to make a revenue $1500/month with the expense and liability of owning a rental or sell it for several hundred thousand and move on with your life. I don’t begrudge anyone for doing what they want with their private property. BTW as a recent purchaser of a home in Bernal all the neighbors have been super warm and welcoming we could not be happier to have moved to the neighborhood. If Steven met me I am curious if he would be as caustic. All I want to do is put down deep roots here, start and raise a family, and be an outstanding member of this tightly knit community.

  8. nice photo. I think that’s the old Same place, if memory serves me. Always weird noises coming out of there at all hours. People used to always say “what’re they DOING in there?” Of course, you couldn’t tell the kids to NOT go there, because that’s the first thing they’d do. The old legend is that’s where the Bernal Tunnel started, originally.

  9. Just a side-note about “fixer uppers.” Know that banks don’t loan on these, so you’ll need to make a cash offer. Most people in the position to acquire these properties are pretty well-versed in the market already.

    Now, “needs remolding” is a whole different story. Outdated fixtures and cabinets and vinyl flooring is something you can take care of with some hard work and not all that much money.

    • It’s always amazing what new cabinets, fixtures and paint and carpet can do for a place. Doors and windows too (not to mention window coverings) are a not super expensive upgrade that can make a sad house look a lot fancier.

  10. Move to the Excelsior. We left Bernal after 20 years (no rent control on SFH and priced out to rent OR buy) and our new nabe feels like Bernal used to: diverse, low-key, friendly and affordable.

    • Congratulations. Excellent move and choice. All the whiners and complainers who vocalize about not being able to afford Noe or Bernal or Glen Park, yet they refuse to become “pioneers” and search out more southern nabes and make them better.

      Good for you!

  11. There’s this argument I’ve been seeing from the anti-rent control crowd that rent control is the reason apartments are so expensive but I just can’t work out the logic. I see the first point, rent control = low supply. Ok, got it. But if you get abolish rent control, then basically, everyone under rent control will get evicted and you will still have the same supply, but the demand will be even higher since you’ll still have people who want to move to SF but now you’ll also have all the people who were just displaced that are trying to stay. It doesn’t actually increase supply at all, well it increases supply for the rich folk who can outbid the poorer folk, maybe that’s the point? So how does this argument work? It seems like a smoke-screen to me.

    • Try to understand the frustration of young new residents paying huge percentages of their income towards rent. Given the stagnation of median family incomes in the US, we aren’t going to grow into a position where what we pay eventually become an okay deal like earlier generations were able to do.

      We just bite our tongues while listening to same-building neighbors paying 10% of what we’re paying complain about how all the newcomers (“you’re not like the rest of them though”) are ruining the city. Between the steadfast refusal to fight all new construction and the rent control thing, it’s hard not to be frustrated with the olds.

      I know it’s a super complicated issue and there’s prop 13 on the property ownership side and we need kind of safety net for the infirm and I’m far from a free-market zealot. But this is the thing – it isn’t just the people who need it that are getting a sweet deal thanks to rent control, it’s everyone who moved here before the first boom, and that’s a lot of units that could otherwise be on the market.

  12. Rent control does nothing but keep properties in disrepair. It does nothing to help a neighborhood improve. Home ownership is the best way to make a neighborhood full of activity, desirability a a good place to invest.

    • The other day I was perusing the 1940 census forms that Todd linked to last year for some historic information on Bernal. That data helpfully lists which Bernal homes at that time were rented vs. owned. I was surprised how many were rented – not sure of the % since that would take forever to calculate, but I’m guessing a third or so.

      Anyway, I guess given all the rentals in Bernal active since 1940 (at least), it must be an inactive, undesirable neighborhood that is not a good place to invest?

      • The rentals are one of the weaknesses of the neighborhood as well as a strength. They are a weakness because the tenants have nothing invested in the neighborhood, so they treat it with less respect, in general, than owners treat it. Also rental properties tend to have maintenance issues.

        The strength of rentals is in providing diversity, but coupled with the weakness that’s a bit of a mixed blessing. The fact is the nicest SF neighborhoods have few rentals, and vice versa.

      • Characterizing renters as a transient population which drags down property values is more than a bit offensive. You can find numerous examples of poorly maintained, owner-occupied houses on the hill, too. We have neighbors who rent and take as much pride in their home and the neighborhood as anyone we know.

Comments are closed.