The Square Footage Game

by Michele Lerner

The Square Footage Game: Figure 1

This article was originally published in early 2010.

Aside from location, square footage is perhaps the most talked-about criteria when it comes to buying a new home. When the listing information doesn’t include it, eyebrows are raised, and when it is included, people are skeptical of its accuracy. Whether you are looking at a condo or a single-family home, square footage can be a central and controversial issue.

In short, the square footage for a property in DC consists of the above-grade finished living area. According to the DC Property Tax Division, that is “comprised of the finished areas of the main floor (kitchen, living room, dining room, etc.) and any finished areas above the main floor.” The basement is not usually included in the calculation.

While that might seem straightforward enough, the square footage you find in tax records for a property could be quite different from what you arrive at if you use the traditional method of multiplying the length and width of each room in a property and adding them up.

“Tax records in DC typically give you a general idea of the size of a home, but they aren’t perfect,” says Long & Foster’s Ron Sitrin. “Things like closets, stairs or a foyer may or may not be included, so that’s why seeing a layout is so important.”

It is also important to remember that square footage on its own does not determine a home’s value. Sitrin points out that in DC, a large one-bedroom may measure out to 900 square feet, but a moderate sized two-bedroom unit may also be that same size, and because one offers an additional bedroom, it may be priced higher. Therefore, he recommends comparing floorplans and building amenities to determine value, rather than focusing solely on square feet.

“When you are looking at condo units, usually those in the same tier are the same size,” says Sitrin. “But you still cannot just do a straight price-per-square-foot calculation, because the layout could be different inside each unit. And of course, things like whether a parking space is included, whether or not there is an extra bath or a fireplace need to be factored in.”

In some instances, real estate agents do not include square footage on their listing information because, over the years, some have been sued for inaccurately representing a property. The multiple listings service for the DC area, Metropolitan Regional Information Systems (MRIS), has a disclaimer for its listings that notes that the accuracy of the square footage for its listings is not guaranteed.

All in all, while square footage is important when figuring out what home to buy, there are many other things that should be used to compare properties.

See other articles related to: home buying, dclofts, condo buying

This article originally published at http://dc.urbanturf.com/articles/blog/the_square_footage_game/1526


  1. benji said at 4:20 pm on Wednesday November 18, 2009:
    Very helpful. Does anyone know of a third party that comes in and measures square footage for you before you put in an offer? Obviously you can do this yourself, but I wonder if there is a company that can do it relatively cheaply.
  1. Georgetowner said at 5:40 pm on Wednesday November 18, 2009:
    to Benji... well when I bought my place the bank asked for an appraisal. And the appraiser measured the square footage. I have an anecdote about this. On one listing I was looking at, the flyer listed the square footage on a 2BR Adams Morgan condo as 1000SF, the MRIS listing stated it was 850SF, and the DC property tax database stated it was 670SF. I personally thought that the square footage was closer to 670SF. Obviously it made a huge difference we're talking a range in $/SF or $425-634. When I had my realtor ask the listing agent about it, the listing agent talked to the owner who swore up and down that the 800SF number is the most accurate. and that he obtained it from an old appraisal (of which he no longer had a copy of). I still didn't believe it, so in my offer, I stated "seller guarantees square footage of 800SF, as stated in the listing"... needless to say, he wanted that wording removed. And finally I said, well just send someone over there to make a rough estimate. They did, and it turned out to be closer to 670SF. To this day, I believe that the seller knew exactly how big the place was and was being fraudulent. You have to be careful.
  1. roots said at 5:41 pm on Wednesday November 18, 2009:
    This issue came up when we bought our condo. The seller "estimated" 1100 feet, it was listed major real estate websites at 1050, and then measured at 945. It ended up the "total" square footage was 1050, and the "interior" (liveable) square footage was closer to the 945 number. I don't understand why realtors can't go and measure the living space and provide a "liveable" square footage but also the "total" square footage. But yes, you can do it and it takes about 15 minutes. Can save you thousands...not bad.
  1. Stephanie said at 3:07 pm on Thursday November 19, 2009:
    Most tax offices are going to be basing square footage of single family properties on measurements of exterior walls and only including above grade living area. They don't have access to the interior of the property 90% of the time, so they use exterior measurements. To determine the SF of condos, they'll generally take the square footage listed in the condo documents filed when a condo is declared. At least in Virginia, this is legally required.
  1. Finn McCool said at 7:00 pm on Thursday November 19, 2009:
    Sq. footage is the most over-rated aspect metric today. The fact that your article includes the line, "the basement is not usually included in the calculation" is why it is useless. If there is not a standard in the industry AND there is no accountability to those realtors/sellers who submit inaccurate info, then this discuss is mute. Cheers.
  1. Tim said at 4:37 pm on Thursday November 19, 2009:
    BOMA (building and managers association) has standards for measuring commercial real estate square footages... the GSA has a standard for offices as well... is there any sort of "industry standard" out there for multi-family residential? Are there any associations or professional groups out there that could take this on? I bet it would solve a lot of headaches...
  1. jackson said at 9:32 pm on Thursday November 19, 2009:
    our agent said to only look at sq footage if you believe the seller's estimate is way off - 100 or so sq foot more or less. for a condo owner, you want the sq footage to be smaller for tax and condo fee reasons, but larger in reality for resale. my identical unit next door is measured by the builder and tax office at 25 sq foot smaller. i said identical, and has a lower condo and tax fee. and to confuse matters more, my appraisal includes both balcony, terrace, view, exposure and side of building.
  1. C said at 7:13 pm on Wednesday June 26, 2013:
    I've always been curious about basements not being included in price/square foot calculations. If a home has a basement apartment, they do or do not include price/sq.ft.? Does it make a difference if the basement could be rented out legally versus illegally? How does this work when developers convert row houses into condos and turn the basement into a single unit? Does that mean someone just purchased a non-existent home for $0/750 square feet? According to tax records, the basement unit should not/does not even exist? I'd love clarification on this point. As for varying numbers in price/square foot calculations, if the numbers are reasonably close, the difference could be simply the difference between including the exterior versus the interior in the square foot calculation. From what I remember, balconies/terraces/outdoor space is supposed to be included (at least in some cities). Not sure if it is a standardized practice and if/how they do that in DC. Any clarification on this subject would be helpful and greatly appreciated. Thanks
  1. DCRes said at 8:51 pm on Wednesday June 26, 2013:
    This discussion is somewhat ridiculous. You should look at a property and if the space itself and layout meet your wants and needs that should be enough to make your buying decision. Is someone really going to base a buying decision on a number for square footage? One 700sf layout can feel small, and a 625sf layout can seem larger than the 700sf layout. Quit focusing on sf and focus on how you can live in the space.
  1. jj said at 9:46 pm on Wednesday June 26, 2013:
    Agree with the comment on basement square feet not being included being ridiculous--there are basement condos in Georgetown that sell for over a half million--are they zero square feet? There should be one standard, Gross Square fee: determined by survey of the outside measurement of the exterior walls, or the footprint x the number of floors--after that, the buyer should be on their own. The way it is now brokers use guesstimates of interior square footage that is often off or misleading. I've seen some ridiculous over estimates based on floorplans that include deck space, garages, etc.
  1. me said at 10:16 pm on Wednesday June 26, 2013:
    to DCRes It's not ridiculous. And yes you make a good point that you should focus on how well the space works for you. However, square footage is still an important metric that is used by appraisers and should be used by buyers. So consider a 1000 SF house and a 1200 SF. Say their livability is the same due to layout. The 1000 SF place should still presumably cost less than the 1200 SF assuming the quality is equal because you are using fewer material. And either way - a person shouldn't LIE about the square footage of a place. (Which I've encountered quite frequently)
  1. C said at 3:58 pm on Thursday June 27, 2013:
    Urban Turf Editors, I was looking for some answers/clarifications. Can you please help out in elucidating the questions I raised about including or not including basement in price/square foot calculations. If you don't know the answers, then I'd like to know that, too. Thanks for your help.
  1. Shilpi said at 4:04 pm on Thursday June 27, 2013:
    C, We apologize for the delay. We've reached out to people for answers, and will let you know when we receive them. Shilpi
  1. ee said at 12:50 am on Friday June 28, 2013:
    I just bought a rowhouse with the garage & family room/den on street level. The kitchen and LR/DR are on the second floor. I guess that makes the second floor the "main floor" and the den downstairs doesn't count toward square footage. That's great for me because I pay less in taxes, and when I resell, everyone will clearly see the "free" room. Now that's what I call a "bonus" room!
  1. connr said at 3:41 pm on Monday July 1, 2013:
    I think each source of sf measurement may have slightly different rules, probably wise to understand standards of different professionals appraiser, architect-if you are having a CAD drawing done,marketing company -yes I have seen real estate photo marketing company's provide sqft -What standard are the using ?? and an understanding of what type of professional is submitting original plans to the state public record. For example Ive heard if 2 finished areas are separated by unfinished space then 1 of the spaces can't be used in the equation. The finished spaces have to be contiguous I forgot what group applied that standard. Who knew? Further complicating things I'm guessing 2 appraisers may each apply rules differently. If sqft is truly very important to you I suggest having the property measured by your standards. Its a large long term investment why not get a good look at it while under contract. I suggest an "as built" CAD drawing.

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