Why It’s Hard to Get a Home’s Exact Square Footage—And Why It May Not Matter

by Alanna Schubach | Mansion Global

There’s no standardized way to measure it, so buyers must do their due diligence

Size matters in real estate, and square footage is naturally one of the first pieces of information buyers look for when browsing properties. It may seem surprising, then, that it can be so challenging to get a handle on the exact measurements of a home, and that some buyers find their own calculations don’t match up to those of the listing.

The confusion, in most cases, arises not from fraud on the part of unscrupulous brokers, but from the fact that there is no real estate industry standard for determining the square footage of a home. Furthermore, different people will measure space differently: some include spaces like hallways, for instance, while others only count the livable spaces of interiors.

And this issue is not limited to the U.S.: an analysis of 200 London properties found that estate agents measured the same properties differently, leading to discrepancies of up to 300 square feet—again, due to a lack of standardized systems of measurement.

When there is a sizable discrepancy, "sometimes it’s an honest mistake," said Kathy Murray, a broker with Douglas Elliman in New York. "But I always recommend to my buyers before they go to contract to measure the square footage."

Some argue that there are plenty of other criteria that should take precedence when determining a home’s value.

"The truth is, it’s really not that important," said Lisa Chajet, a broker with Warburg Realty in New York. "How the space feels matters more. I’ve sold many apartments that are quoted at being, for example, 1,200 square feet, but they feel like more because they have large windows and high ceilings."

But the larger the space, the more significant the deviations in measurements can become. Buyers of single-family houses as well as of apartments, then, should still do their due diligence to avoid surprises—and potentially, legal battles.

"It becomes complicated if someone buys under the impression that the house is one size, moves in, measures the house, and finds out it’s something different," said Santiago Arana, a broker with The Agency in Los Angeles. "The person gets upset, and that’s when the lawsuits start."

Why Square Footage Measurements Can Vary

It can be surprisingly difficult to get exact information about square footage from listings, and sometimes the number isn’t included at all.

In New York City, for instance, buyers will likely find it much easier to get square footage measurements for the condos they’re considering, but not co-ops. The reason for this discrepancy is that condo developers are required to provide square footage of apartments in their offering plans.

In co-ops, on the other hand, buyers are purchasing shares in the corporation, rather than the apartment itself. Therefore, New York-based Compass broker Isil Yildiz explained in a blog post, there is often no record of co-op apartments’ exact square footage.

Keep in mind, though, that there may still be variations in a condo’s square footage, depending on who measures it and how. Even professional appraisers may have different tactics: Some might use high-tech laser devices to measure spaces, while others just use measuring tape, and come up with different figures as a result.

For instance, Ms. Chajet explained, the measurements of a condo might take into account areas like hallways, closets and balconies.  "So it might say a condo is 1,100 square feet, but that’s not 1,110 square feet of livable space," she said.

It pays to find out whether the measurements a listing provides are based on gross or net square footage. Gross square footage is calculated from the exterior walls of a building and includes all the space within, while net square footage measures only the interior space.

"Developers are supposed to measure net square footage, but sometimes they will include some of the exterior space, the hallways, or measure out past the windows," Ms. Murray said.

Furthermore, she added, some developers might include non-livable space in their calculations, which can also lead to discrepancies if a buyer measures the home differently.

"A home could have 200-square foot hallways or massive foyer rooms that aren’t as usable, or have less square footage but it’s all usable, and there are no long hallways or dead space," Ms. Murray said. "You want to make sure you’re purchasing what’s being represented."

In larger homes, deviations between one person’s measurement of square footage and another’s can become even more pronounced.  

"Ten people can measure a house and come up with 10 different measurements, using different formulas," Mr. Arana said. "Some appraisers count the stairs, and some don’t. Some like to include the garage, and some don’t."

How to Do Your Due Diligence

Given the apparent subjectivity of square footage, how can buyers be certain of the size of the property they’re purchasing?

"Buyers should have the livable space measured by an architect if they really want to know," Ms. Chajet suggested.

Ms. Murray agreed that taking your own measurements, whether on your own or with an architect or appraiser, is essential before you go ahead with the purchase.

"Just be knowledgeable about the purchase, and always verify the information you’re given. I wouldn’t take anything at face value," she said.

Remember, too, that there isn’t always a direct correlation between square footage and a home’s value. Its location, the quality of its materials, and its overall feel are factors that are difficult to measure, but important to weigh along with your other criteria.

"You can have two houses of the same size on the same street, but in one, the layout is perfect and the materials are beautiful, while in the other, the appliances aren’t as nice, and the owner didn’t use a good architect," Mr. Arana pointed out. "There are a lot of things that make that house feel worth less."

The same goes for smaller spaces: Homes with equal square footage can feel very different from one another, based not only on materials and layout but also on ceiling height and windows. And depending on these details, buyers might find that slight deviations in the listed and actual square footage don’t matter much.

"People get very hooked on the price per square foot, especially in condos," Ms. Chajet said. "If somebody tells me an apartment is 1,500 square feet and it’s really 900, that’s different. But taking into consideration factors like ceiling height and windows, some 1200-square foot apartments will feel bigger, and some will feel smaller."