Ask us: Sell as Single Family Residence or Two Family Dwelling?

Where readers ask and we try to answer.

Any colleagues care to answer this one? It’s a bit of a doozy.

Hello. [We] live in a wonderful 3 bedroom house and recently started looking to buy a slightly larger house. As part of this process we started investigating the sale of our current property and ran into a surprise. We’re hoping that someone can give us some advice.

We bought the property 6 years ago and have done significant renovations to the house (all with permit). When we bought the house the structure was clearly that of a single family home and the renovations we’ve done have maintained the same general footprint (moved a couple walls, but nothing outrageous).

As we got more serious about selling the place we pull up the old disclosure packets from 6 years ago and noticed to our surprise the that property is designated as a “two family dwelling.” This completely caught us by surprise and we’re trying to determine how big an issue this is.

As we discussed this issue with friends we’ve been told two distinct things.

The first camp suggests that many San Francisco homes find themselves in this situation today and that most home buyers will have little or no trouble buying a home like this and most lenders will have no trouble handing out a loan in a situation like this. They will both focus on the fact that it is a nice house, in a desirable location with good fundamentals.

The second camp suggests that San Francisco is getting more strict about conversion of two family dwellings to one family dwellings and as a result lenders may be worried and buyers may be worried (though most buyers I’ve talked to have no real sense of this issue).

Thoughts on whether to simply put the house on the market as is or whether we should first wrestle with the planning department to reclassify this as a one family dwelling?

I should add that the footprint of the house and the neighbors (some who have lived there for 30+ years) indicate that this has always been a single family dwelling and never had two entrances…

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

Without knowing all the details, I’d have to agree with “the first camp”. This is not uncommon. Just make sure you disclose everything you just told us.

Please answer (or see answers) by following the comments (if any).

11 thoughts on “Ask us: Sell as Single Family Residence or Two Family Dwelling?

  1. 1. are there two separate addresses?

    2. when you say classified as a two family dwelling, do you just mean it’s zoned RH-2 or the property is actually listed as two separate units? (if so, i’d likely know the answer to question number one).

    my two cents (before i get the answers to my questions). leave it alone, don’t deal with the reclassification. it doesn’t add value, lenders will likely not have a problem funding a loan on this home as a SFH and you’ll experience a major headache at the DBI.

  2. I recently went in front of the Planning Commission for a unit conversion. They are not (currently) as interested in the historical nature of the house as they are concerned about permanently removing a unit from the market. Getting them to rezone a house could be tricky, even though you already have the SFH.

    Records (particularly from the early 20th century) are often wrong – the earthquake/fire injected a high degree of confusion.

    I can’t imagine the lenders will care either way, as long as the property is appraised properly and the buyers qualify. Just make sure the 3R makes it into the disclosure packet in it’s accurate form (the way it is now).


  3. One more thing: check out the water dept records for the property. How many meters and when were they (it) hooked up?


  4. I don’t know anything about the inside goings on, per se, but 1233 Shrader st. seems as if it is having a bit of difficulty closing escrow. That property is one which used to be two units plus an unwarranted in-law and is now a SFR.

    As far as your situation is concerned, as everyone else said we need more input. Namely is it merely RH-2 and do you have separate meters?

  5. Disclose everything and sell the house as-is. I wouldn’t bother going in front of the planning board as you will likely incur costs and not get your desired approval. You bear the responsibility, as do your new buyers, to fully read the disclosures and title report. I’m not sure how this could have slipped passed you and your bank when you originally closed on the property? I also wouldn’t disclose much more publicly on this matter on this forum or any forum for that matter as its all public record. Just disclose what you know about the property and make sure your disclosure package is full and complete. The “market” will take care of the rest. There really isn’t much you can do other than list the property as-is or go in front of the planning board to apply for the unit consolidation.

    Does anyone know what negative ramifications can occur by going in front of the board and disclosing the issue. It would seem that if the property was in fact a 2-unit building that someone would care that there were not 2 units in the dwelling and they could possible force the owner to take some sort of action. I doubt it but I wouldn’t rule it out? Isn’t the same issue true of unwarranted additions — that they can make you tear it down / out?

    Read your disclosures people — or get a lawyer to do it for you. Your real estate agent cannot be trusted with this critical task and do not want the burden either so most of them will just not even say anything other than force you to sign every page of the disclosure statement to cover their liability.

    I’m reminded of the story last year of the woman who purchased a BMR unit at market rate than got burned when she tried to resell the unit and couldn’t sell it at market due to its BMR status. Doh. Guess who’s taking the hit on that loss. Actually, I don’t know the outcome as I believe it was being litigated, but I’d be surprised if the agent ultimately assumes any liability — more likely the title company. Anyway….


    PS: Lot’s of inventory hitting the market in the past week — should make for some good posts!

    PPS: A follow up on the BMR story above would be interesting Alex.

    [Editor’s note: Care to hunt down and follow up on the BMR story yourself? I’d be happy to literally cut/paste (correcting typos of course) and you could get all the glory.]

  6. we live in a house that is zoned RH-2 and is also a single family residence.

    We checked with the planning board to confirm this and found out the two are not mutually exclusive.

  7. I’ve known cases where planning has made owners add back a unit even after renovations are complete with permits. If the owners of this property moved a wall “here and there” that eliminated a unit, intentionally or not, and the new buyers plan a major renovation, the buyers would likely be forced by planning to add another unit to the property.

  8. Might there have once been a cottage on the lot? Many cottages (often originally at the rear of properties) in SF have fallen down or burned over the years, leaving just one dwelling.

  9. RH-2 just means *House, Two -Family District* and is a zoning district designation.

    The occupancy classification is the relevant item and even then *Class R-3* means

    *1 or 2 family dwellings, including housekeeping rooms*. water records are good for finding out the original date that the water was turned on (and by implication, when the structure was built). buildings in the city don’t have multiple water meters (unless they were recently retrofitted). Gas and electric meters may or may not be separate for multi-unit buildings but if there are more than one of either of these then you can be sure that it was not a SFR. even though this info is easy to find out people who should know better still have no problem giving dubious advice off the top of their heads…

  10. I have actually seen instances where separate meters were installed without full PG&E signoff and city designation of multiple unit status. It’s really hard to say without looking at everything going on with one particular property.

  11. I am a real estate agent who represented buyers several years ago on the purchase of a seemingly single-family home which turned out to be classified as a two-family dwelling. My clients agreed to complete the sale, but worked with a permit expeditor to have the classification of the house changed to a single-family dwelling. Depending on your timeframe, you could either attempt to deal with the city and change the classification yourselves. This involves considerable time & effort, looking up the city records on the property, etc. The city is never happy to “lose units,” and it’s a bit of a fight all the way. Or, you could disclose everything to a future buyer in your disclosure package, and hire an agent who has experience with various permit and dwelling classification issues. It is important that details are properly communicated to buyer agents/buyers. How you proceed really depends on all the details involved. Good luck!

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