Decks & Stairs - Residential
A Building Permit is not required for decks, stairs or landings where no part of the walking surface is more than 30 inches above grade. Any other decks and/or stairs project will require the submittal of a Building Permit Application. Depending on the scope of work and zoning district of your property your project may be approvable over-the-counter (OTC), or it may require Neighborhood Notification and several accompanying Pre-Application steps.
Read the FAQ.
It is recommended to visit or call Planning staff at the Planning Information Center (PIC) early in the planning of your project. The PIC is at 1660 Mission Street, 1st floor and may also be reached by phone at (415) 558-6377 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We also recommend you contact the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) to confirm their requirements before submitting your Building Permit Application. They can be reached at (415) 558-6088, or at 1660 Mission Street 1st floor Public Information Counter.
Understanding What's Allowed
New decks and stairs are regulated by the San Francisco Planning Code. To maintain the character and purpose of distinct areas in San Francisco, the City's geography has been divided into distinct zoning use districts (view these zoning use districts on the San Francisco Zoning Map and Section 201 of the Planning Code). For each activity or use of land in any given zoning district, the Code states if that activity or use is either: Permitted; Conditional; or Not Permitted. Therefore knowing the zoning district of your property will help you identify what specific limits may apply to your project and which application materials you will need to submit.
You can find the zoning use district and height limits of your property on the Find My Zoning page, or directly from our San Francisco Property Information Map by entering your address or Assessor's Lot and Block number and click the "Zoning" tab. Once you know the zoning use district of your property, you can reference our useful handout, "Summarizing San Francisco's Residential Zoning District Controls," which summarizes regulations and Code controls for projects in residential districts.
Other Things To Consider
In addition to the zoning district and land use regulations in the San Francisco Planning Code, your application will also be reviewed under provisions in all of San Francisco's Municipal Codes, the San Francisco General Plan, and Department policies based on a number of criteria (e.g. the historical significance of your property, the environmental impact of your project, or other regulations).
Here are the most common regulations you will need to consider:
Pre-Application Process & Neighborhood Notification requirements
If your deck or stairs is allowed to extend into the yard as an exception under the Code, it will likely need Neighborhood Notification (see "Yard & setback requirements" below). Also cantilevered decks in the buildable area—decks supported only by the walls to which they are attached without any additional posts or other external support—do not require Neighborhood Notification (see "Buildable Area of the Lot" below). If your project requires Neighborhood Notification, the Planning Department mails a notice alerting neighbors and neighborhood groups in the vicinity of your proposed project and they are given a period of 30 days to respond with concerns or to request a Discretionary Review (DR). Depending on the scope of your project, you may also need to provide a "Pre-Application Notice" to nearby neighbors, and/or you may need to hold a "Pre-Application Meeting." The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet.
"Buildable area of the lot"
Generally decks that are less than or equal to 10 feet above grade and entirely within the buildable area of the lot may be approved over-the-counter. (See Decks on Roofs if your deck/stairs project is on a roof.) "Buildable area of the lot" means the area that is not part of the required yards or set backs under the Planning Code and within the applicable height limit. (Zoning Administrator Bulletin 5 explains buildable area for Residential Districts.) For residences in commercial zoning districts, the rear yard requirement is typically 25 percent of lot depth. You can apply the rules of a 25 percent rear yard requirement shown in Zoning Administrator Bulletin 5 to determine yard requirements for residences in commercial districts.)
Yard & setback requirements
The San Francisco Planning Code allows limited projections into yards and setbacks for certain specified extensions of buildings, including certain decks and stairs. If your deck is allowed to extend into the yard as an exception under the Code, it will likely need neighborhood notification. If the deck encroaches into a required yard or setback and is not allowed as a specific exception under the Code, you will need to apply for a Variance at a public Variance Hearing. Replacement of front entry stairs will normally be approvable over-the-counter by Planning unless the property is historic. In that case materials and location of the stairs may be unique and we recommend you may contact the PIC for further information.
"Necessary form of egress"
Please note that if you are replacing your deck and it is in the required rear yard, a Variance Application is required. There is an exception for stairs that are considered a "necessary form of egress" (i.e. exit) as determined by the San Francisco Building Code (view the code online). Because these stairs and associated landings are required for safety, they may be replaced, but cannot be enlarged beyond the minimum requirement set forth in the Building Code.
Compliance with Residential Design Guidelines
In addition to the specific requirements of the Planning Code, buildings in Residential districts must conform to the Residential Design Guidelines which insure that the building's scale and architectural character are consistent with the surrounding neighborhood.
If your project involves alteration to structure that has been identified (through a Historic Resources Survey or other means) as a historic resource or if the structure is 50 years old or greater then there will most likely be additional materials and process involved in order to determine if the proposed work is appropriate. See our Historic Preservation section to read more about evaluating historic character and the additional procedures that might be required if a historic structure is impacted. Preservation Technical Specialists (planners with specialized training in evaluating impacts on historic resources) at the Planning Information Center (PIC) can help you understand what's allowed on your building. There are regularly scheduled hours where Preservation Technical Specialists are available to help you at the PIC, click here for more info.
Removal of a street tree
If a tree needs to be removed due to construction, a tree removal permit will be required from the Department of Public Works (DPW) and a new tree would need to be installed. (Follow this link to apply for a tree removal permit on DPW's site.)
Through an effort to protect the City's most valuable, relevant and historic trees, the City has adopted tree protection legislation regarding certain trees. Be sure to check that a protected or landmarked tree won't be impacted by your project.
Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees
The following information must be submitted when applying for a permit to construct or replace decks and/or stairs:
- Construction plans and/or drawings. See our Plan Submittal Guidelines.
- Neighborhood Notification materials (if required).
- Forms provided in the Pre-Application Packet (if a Pre-Application Meeting is required)
Since every project is unique, we have a useful matrix handout, the Building Application Completeness Matrix which explains submittal requirements based on the proposed work as described under "How to Use This Matrix." A checklist of required materials to be submitted with the Building Permit is also included in the Building Permit Application Packet which also describes the Neighborhood Notification process.
To submit a permit, prepare the Building Permit Application and bring it along with all necessary plans and materials as described in the Building Application Completeness Matrix and/or Building Application Packet to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street. If you are a new user, we recommend you come to the Planning Information Center (PIC) also at 1660 Mission Street before proceeding to DBI.
Permit fees are based on the construction cost of your project. To estimate permit fees, the Planning Department's fee schedule is available online. We also have a fee calculator for Building Permits reviewed by the Planning Department. If you have any questions, please stop by or call the Planning Information Center (PIC) staff at (415) 558-6377. Depending on your location and project type, impact fees may be required for new construction. Contact the PIC to see if these requirements apply to your property. Please note this is for the Planning Department's review fees only. Fees for review by the Building Department are available here. You may also call DBI at 558-6088.
Don't forget: Should the cost of staff time exceed the initial fee you paid, it is possible an additional fee for time and materials may be billed upon completion of the permit review process. Additional fees may also be collected for preparation and recordation of any documents with the San Francisco Assessor-Recorder’s office and for monitoring compliance with any conditions of approval.
Permit Review Process
If you have already visited the Planning Information Center (PIC) at 1660 Mission Street and you are confident you have all the correct materials for your Building Permit Application, your next step is to submit your application materials & fees listed in Applying for My Permit & Paying Fees to the Department of Building Inspection (DBI) at 1660 Mission Street.
After initial screening of your application by DBI, the Planning Department will review the application to confirm it is complete for Planning Department requirements. If information is missing, or if corrections are needed, you will be asked to return with that information. If Neighborhood Notification is not required, planners at the Planning Information Center (PIC) will review the application to determine if it complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. If so, it may be approved over-the-counter. If Neighborhood Notification is required, the application will be taken in and routed to an assigned planner at the Planning Department.
3. Plan Review
Similar to Screening in Step 2, when the Planning Department reviews your application, an assigned planner will determine if the application complies with the San Francisco Planning Code (view the code online) and is consistent with our Residential Design Guidelines and the additional regulations detailed above in Understanding What's Allowed. In addition, according to Planning Code Sections 311/312 Neighborhood Notification procedures, prior to filing any Entitlement Application (this includes but is not limited to Building Permits, Variances, and Conditional Use Authorizations) the project sponsor must conduct a minimum of one Pre-Application Meeting if the proposed scope of work triggers such a meeting. The triggers for the Pre-Application Process are explained in the Pre-Application Information Packet. Once the planner determines that your project is approvable, he or she will initiate the Neighborhood Notification process.
Neighborhood Notification entails mailing an announcement of your project to neighbors and neighborhood groups so that they, or any person, may voice concerns they have over the proposal or so that they may request a Discretionary Review (a hearing seeking denial of the project or changes to the proposal before the San Francisco Planning Commission). The permit is held by Planning for a 30-day period from the date of mailed notification to allow adequate time for public review of the proposal. During the notification period, any person may ask the San Francisco Planning Commission to exercise its power of Discretionary Review over the Building Permit Application.
You will meet with review staff from different departments as directed by DBI, who will check your construction documents to verify the proposed construction will meet the various City Municipal Codes (view all codes online). Staff from the following departments will check a typical Building Permit for deck or stairs:
- Department of Building Inspection (DBI)
- Department of Public Works (DPW)/Bureau of Streets Management (BSM) (if use of streetspace/sidewalk is needed)
- San Francisco Fire Department
Other agencies may be involved depending on the scope of your project.
When all the reviews are complete, the permit will be issued, and you can begin work. Note, there is a 15-day period after Building Permit issuance in which any party may appeal the permit to the Board of Appeals.
Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.