Why You'll See Conflicting Square Footage on Your Property
Anybody who looks at a house, townhome, or condo inevitably starts with a few basic pieces of information: the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and square feet. Simple, right?
Not exactly. When it comes to measuring the square footage of a property it's as much an art as a science. You can get 3 different appraisers to measure the exact same space and get 3 different results. (The definition of a bedroom can get a little loose sometimes too, but I'll save that for another day.)
On the surface, this doesn't seem logical, since a square foot is a square foot. The reason is that there are multiple methods for measuring space, and a variety of tools for the job. Appraisers can use anything from old-fashion measuring tape to high-tech laser devices. Once I watched an appraiser measure a room by walking the perimeter heel-to-toe. Small nooks might be eyeballed, or even skipped altogether. There is no universal standard.
There are also various sources to find square footage for a property. Previous appraisals or county tax records are commonly used, but often exclude expansions, renovations, or other improvements. New construction can be particularly tricky as the numbers often come from architectural drawings, which don't take wall thickness into account ("walls-out.") When appraisers come to measure they will get very different dimensions.
What does this mean to you as a buyer or seller?
The most common lawsuits in real estate are claims of lack of disclosure or misrepresentation, and square footage disputes rank high in this category.
Sellers: Always state the source of your square footage measurement in a listing, or if possible omit it altogether. Buyers do look at square footage but they start with the pictures and description. And once they step into a house they are focused on whether the space, layout, location and features work for them, not the number of square feet.
Years ago I had a seller, against my advice, insist on listing their property's square footage from an old appraisal. We went under contract and a couple of weeks later the buyer's appraisal reported almost 100 sq. ft. less. The buyer immediately demanded a $50,000 price reduction. After lengthy negotiations, I reduced that number to $20,000, but all the stress, rancor, and financial loss to the seller could have been avoided.
This scenario, and accompanying lawsuits, became so common that today a good Realtor will always research every possible source of square footage information on a property and provide a disclosure upfront detailing the information and any discrepancies. This puts the onus on the buyer to do their own research rather than relying on your representation.
Buyers: take any square footage stated in a listing as an approximation. It's a starting point to get a rough sense if the house if big enough (or small enough) for you, but don't get hung up on it. Layout or "flow" often has a bigger impact than raw square footage on how well you could live in a home. A smaller home with a great flow might work much better than a larger home with a poor layout.
Work with your Realtor to do your own research. You'll want to understand the price per square foot as it compares to comparable homes and trends in the market. But in real estate this just a benchmark, so take the denominator with a grain of salt.
The size of the property is important, but ultimately the decision to buy, and how much to pay, comes down to how well the home fits your current lifestyle or the lifestyle you aspire to. Use the square footage as a benchmark, but don't get hung up on nominal variations in measurement.