Listing Square Footage — How hard can it be?

Back in middle school, one of my favorite math classes was geometry.  Calculating the volume of cylinders, figuring out the angles of oblique triangles…now that was living!  Best of all, it seemed like math that maybe I might really use someday.

Fortunately in this business there’s lot of opportunity to practice.  Whether we’re helping a client to analyze a land development, or figuring out the volume of topsoil needed to resod a yard, or simply figuring the square footage of a house, we get to use some of that old fashioned geometry in the process.

It turns out that the square footage thing, though, just isn’t that simple.  It’s been talked about before (like here, and here), but today we were listing a new townhome, and as I evaluated the active comparables, I found that what should be a “standard,

50 thoughts on “Listing Square Footage — How hard can it be?

  1. I completely agree…I get very frustrated when a listing I am up against in a condo community that has the exact same floor plan somehow shows up on the MLS as having over 1,000 sq. ft while mine has just 960 sq ft.. If I ask the listing agent about this they have usually factored in something wrong or didn’t take the time to clarify the accuracy of their data….then they feel justified by putting “buyer to verify sq. ft.”

    If one thing good comes from it though at least more people get into the community and will likely also see my listing once they are there.

    I wish there was a better way to enforce these rules and Realtors would be more careful in ensuring that the MLS data is accurate.

  2. It’s an automatic fine if a phone number isn’t listed, and you don’t have a letter. Shouldn’t it be an automatic fine if you have a square footage listed that doesn’t comport with Realist, and you can’t cite to an alternative source, such as an appraisal.

  3. Absolutely, Kary. Just police yourselves, will ya? You’re all members of the NWMLS, right? Just get it done. Every time you screw simple things like this up, honestly or nefariously, is makes you all look like moronic chumps. Maybe make it like a hockey face-off: screw-up a SF calculation more than twice, and the MLS ref will insist on a new player taking the face-off/listing. I guarantee you’ll get people to double-check the math then.

    And while you are at it, add a category SFNB – for non-basement. I don’t count rabbit-holes and livable space, no matter how shaggy the carpet or how nice a home theater was once there.

  4. I have seen listings for smaller homes where the SF is left off, presumably to keep those homes to show up in more searches.

    Also, a listing agent may leave it off to make sure their sellers property gets wider exposure because most searches ask for SF ranges. So, for example, the buyer imputs 2000 SF, for their search to look for a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home, this will exclude homes that are 1920 SF, 1972 SF, and so on. Homes that may atually be good matches for that buyer.

    Those homes will not be seen on buyers searches through most real estate company websites. Most of the sites have very broad SF ranges which may cause buyers doing self searches to miss some good properties. For example, both JLS, CB Bain have search ranges in 500 SF imcrements, and Prudential NW has increments of 1,000 SF (really broad) and Windermere leaves the SF number range for the buyer to enter.

    I believe most agents working with buyers and doing searches on the MLS will keep the SF options more flexible when they are searching for good matches for their buyers.

    While I have not left off ASF off any of my listings, I might make that choice if I did have a listing where the SF fell just under what would be a major cut off point.

    However, that being said, I hate it when the SF is left off a listing when I am doing searches, although I can easily access Realist to find out what the property tax records show, it takes more time!

  5. Hey, Deborah –

    If you use Redfin for your searches, you can just click through to Zillow, which I believe culls the SF from the property tax records. I don’t know of that’s easier than Realist, but it’s just a click away.

  6. Not just chumps, but moronic chumps! 🙂

    The point is that if agents could just get it in there correctly, there would be no need to link off to realist or Zillow, where the tax record info might be incorrect anyway.

    In talking to some agents before writing this post there seems to be an increasing awareness of the issue. Plus, when inputting the listing, it’s not a required field, so leaving it blank is an option — much better to do that than include garage or non-livable square footage in the ASF field.

  7. Just as “Cozy” in the public remarks section means “SMALL” most people assume that no square footage is also “TINY”. And yes, it adds to the the perception that RE Agents are dishonest.
    Realist is one click off the MLS. Anybody with half a brain knows they can simply go to the county assessors web site and most of the time find out the square footage of a home. If the county has it wrong, then it’s up the the owner to straighten that out with the county. OH WAIT!….you say..county is wrong? The home is actually bigger than county recoreds? Well, the owner sure didn’t have a problem paying those lower property taxes the county based it’s assessment on. Again… dishonest. I see a theme developing.
    I had a RE agent look me in the face and tell me that he did a “Market analysis” on a piece of property and it’s worth 750k. And he said it with such conviction that had I been the average consumer I would have thought the guy spend HOURS and HOURS researching the comps. Hey, a couple clicks gets you “Market Analysis”, what a jerk. He was also an agent under the impression that the asking price on other similar properties were “COMPS”. When I asked him for actual comps (as in SOLDS) he told me nothing has sold in this area (a lake community primarily used for vacations) in a year, which is why he had to use “For Sales” as comps. Uh, huh. And that is what my bank is going to say on the appraisal too, right?
    Oh and by the way, the “Worth $750k” property is now listed at $650 and been for sale over a year…
    And I love to see those who hate Zillow. Oddly enough it’s spot on with regard to the value on my current home. Guess lightning strikes once in a while.

  8. Chris, county records can be wrong for a number of reasons that don’t involve dishonesty. Between an appraisal and the county records, I’d go with the appraisal if it were available.

  9. The county only picks up additional square footage if an addition to the original structure was done under permit, and then it can take a few years to process into their system. And lots of owners buy houses that had preexisting, unpermitted additions done which of course aren’t reflected in the public record. So getting out the tape measure, or relying on an appraiser’s measurements, is really the best way to establish square footage.

  10. Thanks for the great info. I always wondered what these 3 square footage areas were for. Just never took the time to figure it out. Thanks to great people like yourself for sharing.

  11. The sqaure footage should not be allowed to be left blank. Or if it is, there should be an explanation as to why. In my NWMLS class, they said they allow it to be blank because “you don’t always know what it is”. I suppose lot size is also similarly difficult thing to find out too. Which is why you can always guarantee that no lot size on a listing means it’s a 5,000 SF lot… Nobody with a 10k lot omits this from their listings, oddly enough.

    If additions are done without permits, they leave any future owner holding the bag. I don’t know about where you live, but my town will fine me if I build without permits and can potentially make me take any addition down if it turns out I didn’t (PAY UP) obtain a permit.

    I’d have a lot more respect for those who put down the SF as per the county records and note that an addition has been done and county records are wrong, than those who leave it blank entirely. It always makes me think the LA is trying to pull a fast one.

    Of course I have a very jaded opinion of the RE industry as a whole, so maybe I’m just being irrational.

    When the conversation turns to commissions and who really pays them are written about on this blog, I want to run for my Prozac.

  12. Funny! Well, the commissions come out of the seller’s proceeds, so the seller must pay them, right?

    Just kidding, Ardell, please ignore 🙂

    I think if agents can just make a real attempt to be accurate and transparent, it will go a long way towards improving the situation. If that means “per county records” or “per appraisal” then that’s fine. Most owners have an appraisal that was done sometime by an “objective expert” who was qualified to do the measuring.

  13. Hi Biliruben,

    I use the mls for my searches for clients (one of the benefits of paying the NWMLS fees) and it has lots information I can put in for search parameters to refine searches for my clients. Unfortunately as Gordon has pointed out in this post on SF, how accurate my searches are depend on the accuracy of the listing agents. So all searches are subject to listing imput error, whether deliberate or not.

    However, most listings are accurate, with SF probably being the most error prone field for data entry.

  14. Chris wrote: “I’d have a lot more respect for those who put down the SF as per the county records and note that an addition has been done and county records are wrong, than those who leave it blank entirely. It always makes me think the LA is trying to pull a fast one.”

    I think blank makes everyone think the LA is pulling a fast one.

    The reason some agents do it (I think) is because when agents do a search there’s an option to include zero square feet properties in the result. Thus, you can search for properties between 1,200 and 1,700 square feet, and either include or exclude those that don’t say anything. I think most agents include, just so they don’t possibly miss something.

  15. Deborah – try Redfin. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It allows you to put in search parameters as well, with the exception of true combined DOM. Is there anything else NWMLS insists on keeping to themselves?

  16. Hi Biliruben,

    The mls has lots more that can be searched for, the listing sheets cover a lot of information and you can search for properties very specifically for something a buyer is intersted in. Last Sunday I did some searches for a buyer couple for view condos, and a balcony was a “must have”. So I can refine my search on the mls to include only view condos with balconies.

    I can also search by housing styles, especially good when you have a client who dislikes a style like split level, which was a request by clients last year.

    Redfin does the best job of showing properties on their mapping feature than any site I seen, the mls cannot even compare. Whenever I want to see the property in site, with property lines etc., I go to Redfin. The bonus is that I can also see neighboring properties for sale too.

    Redfin’s mapping feature for properties is wonderful and I have been referring to it since 2004 (maybe 2005?). I am not a GPS girl…I LOVE maps! So seeing properties this way is wonderful.

    Gordon, I’m with you on the geometry, I had difficulty with algebra, but geometry was fun! That is why the Redfin mapping is so cool to me, and why I love my Thomas Bros. maps….all maps!

  17. Deborah- From the MLS site: If you click on “See Map” on the listing it will launch a map. Then on the right side you can click on Map Layers (not the “?” mark, click to the left of that on Map Layers). It gives you the option to show parcels, other MLS listings and FSBO sales. VERY NIFTY. Also you can click on “Birds Eye VIew” in the told left corner to get the satellite pictures. I was told in the Locator class that its the same pix as Google Earth. Very nice and clear. Fun features. Hope this helps.

  18. Oh and another thing, if you click on a parcel it pops up the owners name and offers a link to the Realist info… which we’ve already discussed this thread could very well be incorrect…. HA!

  19. Hi Chris,

    Yes, that’s true, it has been improved and I usually do use it to see the property I am looking at, but the Redfin one I can more easily see other properties.

    Thanks for telling me about the stuff on the right hand side, I never noticed that when the new mapping debuted!

    One thing I do prefer on the mls site is the size, the field is larger, so you don’t feel as cramped….the Redfin map is too small.

  20. biliruben,

    I put an offer in today for clients and I was able to send them the listing and photos from three years ago when the current owners bought it. It was helpful for them to see the “before” and “after” shots in determining an offer price.

  21. I remember listing a townhome in Bothell a few years back where EVERY listing, both Active and Sold, had included the garage in the square footage. This created quite a dilemma as the owners did not want their home to be presented as 400 feet smaller than all of the others, when it was the same size. I put the floor plan on the mls and on the flyer so people could see where the number came from, which was the original builders notations on the floor plan.

    I couldn’t blame the sellers with three or four on market showing total square footage with the garage included.

  22. Every time I’ve taken a class from an attorney, they all say “do not measure yourself, and do not have your seller measure square footage, it is too easy to be wrong and be sued, have the buyer measure if he wants to know”. So, square footage is often left off when the square footage doesn’t match the County info, such as from a remodel.

    Sellers and agent are not encouraged to measure, due to lawsuits for inaccuracies, but if there is a source with a written sq footage, such as an appraisal or an architect plan, then that is reasonable and quite valuable to use.

    Lot sizes are not so likely to be wrong, as the square footages are from platted or survey records, written dimensional proof, unlike homes which often are remodeled and changed.

    These new construction townhomes pose a problem, since the square footage may not show yet on the County records. The MLS does need a rule that says garages cannot be included in living space square footages, that would be very helpful.

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