Many people engage in business activities out of their homes or would like to in the future. Depending on the scope of your project and the type of business activities you intend to perform, operating your business out of your home may be allowable under the San Francisco Planning Code. In Planning terminology this would be considered an "accessory use" of your home. For more information, download our helpful handout, General Planning Information Bulletin: Accessory Uses for Dwellings.
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 for help in determining if your proposed home office activity would be an allowable home office use. 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 applications. They can be reached at (415) 558-6088, or at 1660 Mission Street 1st floor Public Information Counter.
Understanding What's Allowed
Home/Office projects 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.
According to Section 204.1 of the San Francisco Planning Code, the principal use of a residence must remain as a dwelling unit in Residential and Neighborhood Commercial districts. The general rule of thumb for home office use is that the business function is minor and incidental to the primary use of the house or apartment as a residence. One cannot have clients coming to the home, nor display advertising or any other physical alteration that is non-residential in character. A typical allowable home office consists of utilization of a computer, desk, file cabinet(s) and phone to interact with customers or other persons off-site related to some commercial activity.
An exception to the general rule is provided for the "office of a professional person" residing in the residence (Planning Code Section 204.1.h). This exception recognizes that specific occupations have been traditionally practiced in San Francisco homes before the introduction of zoning regulations, and therefore gained legal merit for continuing in this manner. In the past, the Code defined a "professional person" as, "a person legally qualified to practice dentistry, medicine, psychiatry, chiropractic, law, architecture or engineering." Over time, additional professions have been interpreted to warrant inclusion among the excepted activities as they were thought to have been traditionally practiced in the dwelling of the practitioner or are very similar in function to those occupations.
The Planning Code Interpretations of Section 204.1(h) state the following:
Subject: Residential accessory uses, "professional person"
Effective Date: 1/96
This Section disallows a business as an accessory use in a dwelling unit in an R or NC District which would be open to the public except for the maintenance within a dwelling unit of the office of a professional person who resides therein. Before 1978, the Code defined a "professional person" as, "a person legally qualified to practice dentistry, medicine, psychiatry, chiropractic, law, architecture or engineering." The 1978 Code dropped this definition, the definition, "any person engaged in an occupation that requires licensing by the State" was considered. However, over time, more occupations had licenses or certificates associated with them. It became difficult to ascertain for which ones a license was required to be practiced legally or for which ones a license or certificate constituted simply a trade endorsement. It was noted that the purpose of the Planning Code professional exemption was not to afford some occupations greater respect but to recognize that specific occupations had been traditionally practiced in San Francisco homes before zoning and had gained some legal merit for continuing in this manner. Therefore, the exemption shall be applied to those occupations which were thought to have been traditionally practiced in the dwelling of the practitioner because that is what the law traditionally allowed.
The following determinations have been made on this basis:
1995:The practice of acupuncture is allowed as one discipline within medicine.
1/96:The practice of electrolysis is NOT allowed. No evidence was submitted to indicate that this activity would clearly fall within the practice of medicine or whether it has traditionally required a license for legal practice.
Applying for Your Permit & Paying Fees
This page describes the controls on Home Office use mandated in the San Francisco Planning Code. If your construction project will involve other changes of use or construction, you should visit the how-to pages for those types of projects. Here are a few relevant how-to pages: Building Expansion/Change of Use – Residential, Limited/Non-Conforming Use – Residential (ex. Corner Stores), Removing Dwelling Units, New Building Construction/Demolition – Residential, Rooms Development (Downstairs/Ground Floor)
Inspections of permitted work is the responsibility of the Department of Building Inspection. DBI's Inspection Services page explains their inspection function.