Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Measuring the Square Footage of a House

Clients often tell me they have seen discrepancies in the square footage in two ads for the same house. For example, the county land records will say a house has 3,000 square feet, but the sales brochure will say the same house has 3,500 square feet. The difference in measurements can seem confusing at least and maybe even seem misleading.

While I sincerely doubt anyone is purposely trying to mislead the public, it's true that not everyone in the real estate business calculates square footage the same way. Many builders include all finished "walkable" areas when totaling the square feet of a house. Prospective homebuyers want to know the total living area. It’s  important to Builders to show all the square footage they are offering—so the cost per square foot of the homes are competitive relative to other builder’s homes.

Realtors like to see the larger square footage measurements, as this makes the homes offer seem like more house for the dollar.

Buyers believe bigger really is better—until they become homeowners and get their tax bill.  Owners find their taxes are determined by square footage, and that’s when they want to sharpen the pencil to subtract the extra space out of the computation.

The square footage for condominium units is typically not questioned. These numbers are taken from the original approved condominium documents and are generally accurate. But for attached and detached single-family homes, there are different ways to calculate square footage.

Most county (tax) appraisers first measure the exterior of the home to determine the gross enclosed area. For example, a single story home that measures 25 feet by 100 feet contains 2500 square feet. Since they are measuring the exterior, that calculation includes everything under the roof that’s inside, hallways, stairwells, thickness of the walls, closets and garage—and they don’t have to get inside to come up with that gross number.

There will be times when an appraiser wants to see the inside of your house, and it’s worth letting him in—even though some folks refuse, citing a privacy issue.  If you refuse you open the door to him, you risk him being creative, which can be costly. He may imagine you have recently tiled the bathrooms, added hardwood to the family room, and installed a whiz-bang kitchen, meaning your appraisal could well be over the top in size and value. Then you will have to apply for a corrective adjustment or abatement and request he come back—which could take a year or more. Meantime your taxes will be inflated. On the other hand, if you have just done all that work—and especially without the benefit of a permit—maybe you don’t want him to come in a find out.

We have seen buyers who agreed to buy a home after seeing it two or three times, but then backed out of the deal when they learned the square footage was not what they expected. Go figure.

If you subtract out the lanai, garage, porches and ancillary areas from the gross living area under the roof, you will get “gross square feet under air”. This is the number that most Realtors will choose to use as the measurement that will be used in a listing.

You don’t have a basement, right? But a home on stilts that has a lower level used as a garage and laundry or storage room, might be considered a basement. On the other hand, what if you have a two-story house? Usually the 2nd floor is smaller than the first due to roof lines, or possibly a vaulted ceiling in the living or family room, so accurate measuring is important and remeasuring your home and correcting county data could actually save you property tax money.

Calculating the square footage of a home is often more of opinion than exact science. If you're interested in buying a particular house and want to know the size expressed in square feet, my advice would be to make an appointment to visit the home and bring your tape measure, pen, paper and calculator.

Dane Hahn is a real estate professional affiliated with Sarasota Realty Associates in Venice, FL.  You can reach him at dane.hahn@gmail.com or at 941-681-0312. See him on the net at www.danesellsflorida.com