- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

Q: With all of the advertising to sell homes, square footage is always being quoted.

Could you please explain what is used to calculate a home’s square footage? Are finished basements allowed in a calculation? What about hallways? I’ve seen homes in my area that claim a square-footage amount that I know isn’t true.

A: You have asked a very good question. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer. Not everyone in the real estate business calculates square footage the same way. Let me try to provide a general overview.

The square footage listed in the city and county records for condominium units is typically not questioned. These numbers are taken from the original condominium documents and are generally accurate. Unlike detached homes, square footage is less likely to change on a condominium as a result of additions and improvements.

For attached and detached single-family homes, there are different ways to calculate square footage.

Most real estate appraisers will simply measure the exterior of the home to calculate the area. For example, a two-story, boxlike home that measures 30 feet by 30 feet would have 900 square feet on each floor, so the appraiser would say the house contains 1,800 square feet. Because he is measuring from the exterior, the calculation includes hallways, stairwells, closets and wall space.

The appraiser will also consider the size of the basement, and he will calculate the square footage of the portion that is finished as a living area. However, in determining the market value of the home, he will give less value to any finished area that’s either below grade or partially below grade.

It gets more complicated. What if the house in our example has a vaulted ceiling in the family room with a second-story balcony? This would clearly result in the second floor having less than 900 square feet of floor area.

Most appraisers won’t subtract the space left out of the second floor to make room for the vaulted ceilings. Why? Because such a floor plan often enhances the market value of the home because it’s a popular feature to have.

Remember that an appraiser’s job is to determine the market value of the home. The total size of the living area is only part of the equation. Imagine a 3,000-square-foot house that contains 20 small rooms, each consisting of 150 square feet. Such a floor plan would not be very popular for a typical family.

Builders will usually calculate square footage by adding only the finished area that can be walked on. Included in this number could very well be a finished basement that’s below grade.

Some real estate agents will simply use the square footage that’s listed in the county tax records in their marketing materials. Unfortunately, this information is often incorrect, especially with older homes.

Over time, basements get finished and additions are constructed, increasing the chances that tax records will be outdated and inaccurate. It’s for this reason that some agents choose to omit the square footage in the listing report.

The bottom line? Calculating the square footage of a home is more 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 and bring your tape measure, pen, paper and calculator.

Henry Savage is president of PMC Mortgage in Alexandria. Contact him by e-mail ([email protected]pmcmortgage.com).

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