What a “Detached” Home Really Means In San Francisco

“Don’t let the address fool you,” the new ad for 1168 Fell Street warns prospective buyers, assuring everyone that although this three bed, three bath home is technically qualified as a condo, it’s really “fully detached and sits in the rear of the lot.”

Does the concept of a detached condo even make sense? Well, it depends on who you ask: “detached” is a term you’ll hear a lot in housing talk, and it’s one that can actually mean something radically different to different people.

In most parlance, a detached home is essentially synonymous with “single-family home” or just “house”–that is to say, any home that is not part of a larger complex, building, or structure, or to put it more succinctly, any home that doesn’t share a wall with another.

That’s seemingly simple enough. But in San Francisco, it’s a different story: Here, “detached” is actually an entirely different, entirely separate zoning classification all on its own.

(1168 Fell.)

Most SF houses are “RH1,” meaning, simply, that the lot is zoned for a single house. (In recent years, changes to the law allow for in-law units in these properties, making many of them technically two homes–but let’s not get bogged down in details.) However, there is a second, more specific designation, “RH1-D,” meaning that any homes built must include side yards that separate them from their neighbors.

So by the first definition, the rows and rows of houses in SF’s western neighborhoods would be detached homes–but by the second, only a handful of houses in some neighborhoods qualify.

According to the most recent housing inventory, 31 percent of San Francisco homes are RH1 properties, about 124,200 houses in all, but just 11 percent are RH1-D. In 2020, the city added 80 new houses to our inventory, but only 12 were detached.

This is potentially a big deal because, as we probably don’t need to tell you, detached homes are worth more–both because many buyers find them more aesthetically pleasing and also simply by virtue of the fact that there are so few of them.

That being the case, when terms like “detached” come up during talks with a realtor, a buyer, or a seller, be sure everyone is very, very specific about what they’re saying–because sometimes you can’t afford to detach yourself from the details.

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