BuyingReal Estate TipsSelling May 10, 2024

Square Footage

Decades ago when I was tending bar, we always knew to avoid any discussion of politics or religion because it was a powder keg. In real estate, that would also include any discussion involving Zillow, dual agency, and square footage.

Ah…square footage.

Where do I start? Broadly stated, residential square footage typically includes finished living space. If we want to get more specific, it is finished  living space at or above grade. A finished basement can be included in square footage if it has a certificate of occupancy, but it is easier to justify including basement area that is above grade, for example a walkout basement with a slope to the rear yard that doesn’t require stairs as part of the egress. Appraisers have a harder line on this than agents, but in general if there is a CO for the finished living area, we include it in the square footage.

Measuring the SF can also result in variations. For example, a builder will measure the area from corner to corner of the structure, whereas some people will measure the interior dimensions of the rooms, which will exclude the area inhabited by walls, closets, stairways, and so forth.

Raised ranches always include the lower level or basement, and because they are so commonplace they are all an apples to apples comparison.

This is important, and I want it to be the final takeaway: the final authority on verifying square footage is always the municipality building department. In other words, when I am doing my due diligence as either a listing agent or buyer agent on a property, I will go the the building department in Ossining, White Plains, Scarsdale, or wherever else the property is and get the property card. Whatever the building department has on record is the official square footage of the home.

Appraisers and agents can field measure a home. Tax assessors often have square footage on record for taxing purposes, but they are NOT where you go to verify square footage, and there are two huge reasons why that is so.

  1. The assessors office may not have the exact same information as the building department. That may be because they didn’t confirm that finished area was legalized, but they tax on it anyway, or
  2. Some assessors only tax on the above ground living area for assessment purposes and exclude legalized, finished area in the basement.

Simply put, you verify the true property tax with the assessor and the correct legal square footage with the building department. It is analogous to going to a dentist for your teeth and a proctologist for your caboose. They will both tell you not to put things in there that don’t belong, but beyond that they have different roles.

The building department will also be where you verify bedroom and bathroom count, the legality of improvements like decks, pools, and finished basement, and all other physical characteristics of the home, even violations filed.

Why am I so fired up about square footage? Well, aside from the aforementioned passions it inspires in industry discussions as it is, I have recently discovered that agents don’t understand this basic underpinning of due diligence. Recently, a transaction died an untimely death because an agent advised her client to verify the square footage themselves with the assessor. Let’s put aside the fact that the agent should be doing this, not their client. The assessor only quoted the person the square footage they assess on, excluding the finished, legal walkout basement that made up more than  600 square feet. Not realizing the rationale for the exclusion, the prospective buyer flipped out and walked from the deal.

The seller was disappointed, but it was really that buyer who lost out, all because their agent didn’t do their job. Just remember this: for all things taxes, it’s the assessor. For square footage, get thee to the building department.