Shared walls in San Francisco
July 14, 2006 3:08 PM   Subscribe

How annoying is living with shared walls in San Francisco?

My wife, son, and I will be moving into San Francisco in several months. We'd like to buy or rent a house there, but my wife insists that said house *not* share walls/floors/ceilings/etc, because of previous bad experiences with that. Obviously, finding such a place in San Francisco would be extremely difficult. So if we had no choice but to live somewhere "housy" except it shares one or more walls, how likely is that to be a problem?
posted by crawl to Home & Garden (23 answers total)
As a former resident of SF who shared walls let me say that caution is entirely justified. Most shared walls about a hand's width thick. But there are things you can do. One, make sure the walls you share are not places that you plan to make very little noise. Find out what is on the other side of said wall. This will help you make your decision. And think about soundproofing material (my friends in SF have been known to put up a layer of carpeting on the wall if there is music being played in late hours in a room butressing a bedroom.
posted by parmanparman at 3:15 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: I would imagine, never having lived in SF, that sharing a wall/walls there would be no different than doing so anywhere else - it's kind of a crapshoot and depends more on the quality of neighbor and the quality of construction than the city in which you live.

Try to look at a prospective house in the early evening, when more people are likely to be home, and that will get you a better sense of what the place is like noise-wise than looking at 11AM when everyone's at work.
posted by pdb at 3:16 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: pdb, I was thinking that maybe the huge difference in amount of wall sharing between a place like SF and, say, Phoenix, would mean that SF residents are either more considerate of it or houses are built/remodeled differently for it.

Good suggestion on house-hunting in the evenings.
posted by crawl at 3:29 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: We can occasionally hear the neighbors TV when we're on our couch (which is right up against their wall with a big TV & stereo system) and in our garage we can hear them do karaoke in their garage party den when they have a whole bunch of people over. The most sound that drifts tend to be through the lightwell windows, if we leave 'em open a crack. It freaked me out the first month I lived there, now I don't notice a bit (but I still flinch at the thumping bass from cruising Civics up and down our busy street).

Coming from Phoenix, you may not have double pane windows there, but I was surprised how much sound leaks through the windows, even when closed, than the walls because every place out here seems to have single pane.

I've lived in detached houses that are close to one another (Daly City) and the noise doesn't seem to be all that much worse when attached.

As pdb said, it's about quality of construction, how they're attached (built like townhouses or built with a double wall) and how you're insulated.

The places with more housy houses tend to also be more isolated and more expensive.
posted by Gucky at 3:29 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: Sharing a wall in San Francisco isn't so bad. Even though most of the houses in SF are right next to each other, they're built as two separate buildings with real walls between them. Having someone live above you, however, is a whole 'nother thing. The standard in SF is wood frame houses and hardwood floors. You hear every footstep. I used to live downstairs from an 80 pound woman we nicknamed "thumper". Never again.

There is detached housing in San Francisco, but it's hard to find. The area around West Portal is your best bet for detached houses that aren't in some $3M+ swanky neighbourhood like Seacliff. I live out there near West Portal myself and like it because of the relative peace that a bit less density gets you. Kind of a boring part of town though.
posted by Nelson at 3:38 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: There are lots of flats in San Francisco where you'd only be sharing a floor or a ceiling. A top-story flat is not a bad gig at all. Look in the Mission, the Haight, Castro, Cole Valley, etc.,
posted by padraigin at 3:44 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: I've never had a problem with a shared side-wall. Its shared floors or ceilings thats the problem due to afoermentioned hardwood floors. Actually, I've only lived in top-floor flats in san francisco which doesnt sound bad - except for having to deal with neighbors pounding on my door or leaving notes because, say, a houseguest was walking around in heels....It really depends - older buildings are worse, neighbors can make all the difference.

Actual houses (like the one I live in now) are not a problem. Even though the houses are side-by-side, they are separate walls of course and with an air-gap in between them.
posted by vacapinta at 3:59 PM on July 14, 2006

Best answer: I lived for years in SF with neighbors on four of my six sides. Rarely heard a peep from below and to the sides. But whenever Stompy and Mrs. Stompy upstairs had the rugby team over for clog dancing night on the hardwood floors, I heard that. Also, the late night electonica jams. Not that I'm bitter.

I digress, but have found that, if the building is built halfway decently, side neighbors are not too big a worry. Upstairs always seems to be a whole different ball game. (Or clog dance.)

On preview, "thumper," heh. What Nelson said.
posted by beetsuits at 4:00 PM on July 14, 2006

Yeah, I don't have much of a problem with my shared wall, especially since it's lined with bookshelves - books are incredibly great sound absorbers. Any living situation has tradeoffs - it might be a bit noisy to live here, but you'll be fifteen minutes away from some of the most beautiful quiet places you've ever seen.
posted by judith at 4:24 PM on July 14, 2006

I don't get it. What would make a shared wall in SF any different from a shared wall in for example Scranton? What matters is who's on the other side of the wall. Is there some notion that a higher percentage of 'cool' people in SF are more considerate? (Hardly.) Or that buildings are made of different materials?

It depends on the specific building, who lives there and what they do at home, and when. Like any assessment of new living quarters you gotta scout it out at various times -- not just early evening, but late at night, also (after the clubs close and all those "cool people" come home). And even then, your reconnoiter might occur when the noisy guy next door is out of town. (This crap shoot is why I'll never be buying a condo again.)
posted by Rash at 4:37 PM on July 14, 2006

There are regional differences, though I'm not sure they'd apply between Phoenix and San Francisco. After living in a turn-of-the-century house in Boston, with walls and insulation built to withstand Boston winters and Noreaster winds, moving to SF was a change. The buildings here simply don't have the same level of noise insulation that they do in cold-weather climates, because they don't have the same level of heat insulation.

But again, not sure how Phoenix would be much different.
posted by occhiblu at 5:23 PM on July 14, 2006

We hear our neighbors' dogs barking, and occasionally the DJ two doors down, even. Sharing a wall is certainly something to be concerned about.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:24 PM on July 14, 2006

I live in a turn of the century apartment building with pretty thin walls and creaky floors. My apartment shares walls with 3 neighbors: actually a ceiling, a floor, and a wall, respectively. Unfortunately we've had noise problems with 2 of them. The woman above us insists on walking back and forth on the creakiest part of her bedroom floor (our bedroom ceiling) We told her about it and her response was "too bad". The next door neighbor left their dog alone all day, and it would bark and throw its body against the door for hours. We told them about it, and they first ignored us, then addressed it. My advice is that you can and should check out the place first, but a lot of this is luck. Your quiet neighbors might move out and noisy and rude people move in. Or vice-versa. You can't control that, but what you can control are: politely asking your neighbors to keep it down, using a white noise generator (I use an air purifier) to muffle things, using earplugs for sleep, and keeping your bed in the quietest area possible. All told though, I can't wait until I live in a detached house and am able to be loud when I want and have quiet when I want. SF is noisier than some other cities because a lot of the buildings are quite old.
posted by pantufla at 6:44 PM on July 14, 2006

I live in a cheaply built mid-20th-century apartment house with several shared plasterboard walls.

I haven't shot anyone yet, but I've seriously considered it. High on the list was the girl who came beating down my door at 1 AM because I had some quiet music playing to drown out her stomping around. The music was no louder than quiet conversation, but apparently she could hear it; certainly I can hear everything that's said by every person and TV show in my neighbor's place.

I really hate this, and it makes me want to move. But renting a freestanding home in San Francisco isn't for poor people like myself.
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:56 PM on July 14, 2006

I'd say it's going to be problem for your family mainly because your wife considers it a definite problem for her.

But has she told you what her specific concerns are? Everyone seems to be assuming it's about being subjected to other people's noise, but in her mind there could be something altogether different. Perhaps worries about pests coming through the walls because of lousy houskeeping of adjoining neighbors, or feeling like there's less privacy due to thin walls, or even a sense of claustrophobia from living in such close proximity. Etc.

Unless you can find out what the objection behind the objection is, and locate a home that demonstrably bypasses that particular problem, she'll just be living there in dread that her bad expectations of adjoining walls will eventually be proven correct.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 7:51 PM on July 14, 2006

I don't get it. What would make a shared wall in SF any different from a shared wall in for example Scranton?

A complete lack of insulation mostly. And old redwood buildings seem to transmit sounds particularly well. I can hear my upstairs neighbours cat running around and it's tiny, it can't weigh more than 5 pounds.

However, houses there are required not to share a wall (no row houses) so I'd think that a top floor apartment in a seperate building would be fine.
posted by fshgrl at 8:54 PM on July 14, 2006

We live in 60s construction top floor. For us, the later installed heating vents cause a lot more sound transfer than anything else. But overall, it is about finding decent neighbors whose noise doesn't bother you. Everyone will make noise of some sort, of course, so the best you can hope for is to find one that makes noise when you're not at home. :)
posted by smallerdemon at 9:08 PM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: fshgrl, what does "houses there are required not to share a wall (no row houses)" mean?
posted by crawl at 9:26 PM on July 14, 2006

But again, not sure how Phoenix would be much different.

An apartment building in Phoenix would have been built within the last couple of decades, and more likely within the last couple of years. I never heard my neighbors in Tempe.
posted by padraigin at 10:33 PM on July 14, 2006

would have been built within the last couple of decades

This is what's really key, I think. The quietest apartments I've lived in were back east and built with brick, in the 1930s or previously. If your shared walls are brick or block, sonic insulation's pretty good. But the kind of apartments I most generally wind up in were built in the 1950s or 60s and have walls made of drywall, usually with only air for insulation. Modern construction assumes that everybody has a stereo, and therefore have adequate sonic insulation, but those are the most expensive.

All of these types are available in San Francisco, so I think the question's too broad for a useful, general answer.
posted by Rash at 10:10 AM on July 15, 2006

Response by poster: Actually, I've found a lot of "answers" here that have been incredibly useful for myself and my family. Thanks to everyone for their comments.
posted by crawl at 1:32 PM on July 15, 2006

crawl, it's a fire safety thing. All the buildings in SF are required to have seperate exterior walls even if they're right next to and essentially touching each other. If you loook very closely at the the rows of houses, most of them have very small gaps inbetween them.
posted by fshgrl at 10:23 PM on July 15, 2006

My experience with a 70's era townhouse in Seattle was absolutely horrific. I could hear just about everything my neighbors on either side were up to, and vice versa.

You want a modern concrete and steel apartment building of significant scale, or an older apartment in a brick building with plaster walls.
posted by macinchik at 10:39 PM on July 15, 2006

« Older Lasik recommendations for Ottawa   |   Modern music that sounds like the eighties? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.