We all know the drill: The San Francisco housing market is a tough nut to crack. It’s competitive. There is limited inventory. There is a lot of competition. And San Franciscans love to complain about real estate.

As a long time San Francisco real estate agent, I sympathize. I’ve lived and worked through both buyer’s and seller’s markets, and I know how stressful it can be. Here are a couple of examples:

Tales From the Bid

A house on Dolores Park goes up for sale. It is dramatically under-priced. 56 offers are received. Our client comes in 3rd place BUT is the only one to supply a personal letter of introduction. Everyone assumed because it was a trust sale that the seller’s representative was an anonymous lawyer, but we had asked the listing agent for more detail. As it turns out, the deceased seller’s trustee was his neighbor and dear friend. The proceeds were going to charity and they cared VERY much who bought the home. Our buyer was given the private opportunity to match the highest offer and got the house!

Or how ‘bout the time we had to put together an offer in three hours and our home buyer clients beat the competition because the wife’s hair stylist, who she happened to see for a cut & color the same day offers were due, was friends with the owner?

Having helped both buyers and sellers through so many nuances and unusual situations in the San Francisco housing market, I can tell you there are ways to get ahead of the game, find a home you love, and write a winning offer.

How to Buy a House in San Francisco — Even in a Seller’s Market

Here are my top tips:

Get Pre-approved

Start shopping for loans, and a mortgage broker, early, early, early and, when you hit the market for real, have a pre-approval in hand from a respected, local lender. This is rule number one and it’s very important.

Also, ask your mortgage lender about their turnaround time. If your mortgage lender can offer you a faster loan (see Think Like a Seller, below) that can put you ahead of the competition.

Know the San Francisco Housing Market — and Yourself

Even before you’re ready to buy, start going to open houses and setting aside time to figure out the types of houses, condos, and neighborhoods you like. Then, as you get your finances together (see Rule #1, above), talk to your real estate agent about what’s realistic for you. For example, we begin with an in-office initial consultation to go over your goals in more detail, answer questions and concerns, elaborate on accurate market conditions and so forth.

Buying a house in San Francisco can be very emotional. Nip that emotion in the bud by knowing what you can afford and adjusting your expectations.

Then, get out and get out often. See a bunch of homes. Follow the trajectory of the sale, so you can see what often happens with sales of homes that are similar to what you like in the neighborhoods you desire. In other words, pay attention to the final sales price vs the list price. Most listings in SF tend to sell for significantly over the listing price which is, after all, a marketing number, not fair market value.

And don’t be afraid to be flexible. San Francisco is a beautiful city with a lot of hidden gems. If you stay open-minded, chances are you’ll find the home that’s right for you faster, and with less stress.

Get an Experienced San Francisco Real Estate Agent

While some people think that, in a seller’s market, houses sell themselves, this simply isn’t true. In a seller’s market, especially for buyers, it is critical to get a great agent who has deep knowledge of the San Francisco housing market and connections within the industry.

Not only does an experienced agent understand all of the laws, rules, and regulations particular to our market, she or he will also have a gut sense, or intuition, about specific situations and will know how to guide you during tricky negotiations.

Let the agent know you’ve done your homework, and what you’re looking for. Make sure you are in contact with your agent regularly. And, if something looks good, or if you find something unexpected, communicate with your agent right away. Things move quickly in a seller’s market, so frequent communication with your agent is key.

Think Like The Seller

It’s easy to get caught up in your own world when you are trying to buy real estate in San Francisco. However, many a successful offer results when you investigate the seller’s needs. Say, for example, the seller is living in the home and is looking for a new place to buy themselves. Well, they are in the same predicament as you, wondering how to buy a house in a seller’s market. An offer to let them rent back for a few extra days, weeks, or even months can make you an attractive buyer. We sold our first house this way over 13 years ago!

On the other hand, many sellers want a quick sale. If you are willing to waive some contingencies or close faster, you could get the edge, even over someone with a little more cash in the game.

Speaking of cash, sellers like cash. The more you can offer up front, the better, but don’t let this make you nervous. Sure, San Francisco has a lot of all cash sales compared to other markets, but they are still the exception.

Get Personal with the Seller

Even in the San Francisco real estate market, when things can sometimes seem a little cut throat, sellers are human like everyone else. When you’re finding out what kind of business details matter to the seller, take the time to find out what matters on the personal side.

For example, what if your seller raised children in the home you’re buying? Your letter can detail how perfect you think the home will be for your own family. Or, if the seller is a single working woman, and so are you, why not lean on that angle to make a connection?

Think Outside the Internet

In an age of internet searches, people forget how important it can be, in a business situation as complex as real estate, to think outside the internet and make a personal connection.

Here are some examples:

If you see a house you love, why not have your real estate agent look up its history? Perhaps you have a connection to the sellers and can have a friend make a pitch on your behalf. Certainly, you’ll want to proactively introduce yourself to the owners in your home buyer letter of introduction and tell them how much you admire the home and that you’ll take great care of it.

Have your agent cultivate several Realtors and check in with them regularly. As I said, things change fast in the San Francisco housing market. If a deal has just fallen through, you may be able to save the day for a panicked seller. Insider tip: Let your agent do the talking. It’s proper real estate etiquette to have your buyer agent reach out to the listing agent or seller vs. you contacting them directly.

Let your friends & coworkers know you are in the market. Let them know more than once. They may know someone who is getting ready to put a house on the market. Let your agent know right away as there might be an opportunity to see the listing before it is staged and goes on the MLS.

Let your real estate agent know that you are willing to get creative. She can find houses that have been taken off the market and other “pocket” listings — listings that are not listed on the multiple listing service (MLS).


Armed with these tips, patience, and some intestinal fortitude (that’s “guts” to you and me), you will find the perfect house for you — even in San Francisco’s notoriously tough seller’s market.

If you have questions about this post or want to learn more about how I help buyers in a seller’s market, I’d love to talk soon.


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