What’s the square footage on that, and why’s it missing?

by Kenny, verbatim:

This post is to question a common practice in the SF market. That is the practice of intentionally leaving the lot and block numbers (apn) information out of the MLS listing, entering instead 9999999 or else intentionally running the numbers into one another so that the hyperlink won’t load. I understand why listing agents do it. They don’t want people to see the tax information’s recorded square footage. Often the real square footage has been increased and the tax records don’t show it. Whether it was legally done or not, whether the permits have been signed off on yet, etc., all these factors probably play into the listing agent not including the information. Nobody wants to see lawsuits fly over mistaken square footage advertisements. But is that all there is to it? I don’t think so.

I think this is something that needs to stop, immediately. Can’t people communicate what the real story is in a safe manner? Seems like people don’t give other people enough credit sometimes. Also, I find it particularly shameful when listing agents intentionally leave out the apn numbers just because the house is small. Hey, don’t list it for so much money if it’s a tiny place!

Here’s one: 23 Belmont in Parnassus/Ashbury Heights

I looked it up. The tax info actually reads 1750 square feet. That would put this property at $1485 a foot for area 5-E [Parnassus/Ashbury Heights]. That’s way more than the average 5-E property. Even the best stuff in 5-E goes for around $1000 a foot. And smaller properties usually can trend higher in dollars per square foot, but not $485 higher. So I see why they did it. But come on.

Can consumers see the apn info on the public access MLS page? Do you guys all know what I’m talking about?

28 thoughts on “What’s the square footage on that, and why’s it missing?

  1. I can definitely see the apn number and I agree with you that this is clearly an a-hole move. The sad thing is that many buyers will never be aware of this sneaky act by the realtor. Realtors know that buying a house is a very emotional act for many people and to not be honest on the square footage, and in turn, the price, I can only think less of them. It would be very entertaining to confront the realtor about this and see what he/she has to say for themselves. It’s realtors like this who make a bad name for everybody else. Keep up the good work, you seem to be one of the few on the honest side of real estate.

  2. Good comments on the square footage game played by a lot of realtors.

    Let’s do our part here in keeping and making them “more” honest.

    while we’re on the disclosure issue stuff…why don’t realtors HONESTLY say whether or NOT a house was remodeled with permits and legally? Many don’t address that point..and many just they don’t know…BS..

    Yes. doing remodeling work with permits is costly, time consuming and can be a hassle..but not always..especially when you hire a good architect and contractor.

    But..for god sakes..its the law people…The property owner is responsible for that..and I feel the realtor has a responsibility to get the honest info from the owner and note it as such.

  3. Duggo –

    I agree. When I sold my first house all the old permits were listed (on whatever form that had them) and my Realtor also had me list every change to the house, followed by ‘no permits’. I mean any smart buyer should ask these questions as well. He was very explicit in making me list every item line by line.

    The square footage game is just that. If you see 0 chances are its small or had additions with no permits. My house is a good point. Right now my square footage is listed at like 975 but it is actually closer to 1300 because of legacy additions done without permit. I am not sure what the process would be to get that corrected in tax records and not sure if there would be tax implications.

    So if I go to sell the house I am not sure what I could legally say for square footage. My old Realtor said you need to write the tax record square footage (which makes sense legally). But also I would like to convey that there is more square footage in there. Maybe you could add a current appraisal in the addendum notes or something with the appraisal square footage. I have not added to the house but do have more square footage. This is a problem with almost every house I see in the city.

    Duggo. Do you know if you can change the square footage. Or is it more of a risk of having un warranted work, even if that work is 30 years old???

    I have also seen the square footage game in reverse. I saw a condo recently listed at 1600 square feet. I went there and it was maybe pushing 1200 square feet. The Realtor played dumb and said it was a ‘mistake’ and they needed to update the fliers. Honestly I thought it was a way to get people to think they were going to get a pristine condo at a cheap per sq/foot price. That was equally shady as the ‘0’ square foot game.

  4. two points.

    * in france, there was so much abuse too that they passed a law called “loi carrez” (with a nice pun as Carrez is the name of the guy, but also means ‘square’). It’s not fool proof, but at least it’s an attemps.

    (I cant find a great page in english -will post later)

    * nodoby stops you from measuring yourself. We went house hunting on the city website (http://gispubweb.sfgov.org/website/sfparcel/index.htm). For each listing, I’d go and pull the aerial photo. Zoomed, you just use a ruler, and measure the area of the house that you multiply by the number of floors. I usually fall within 5% of the official number IF that number is accurate (say a new house, or houses that we did measure “for real”).

    From that, I just assumed my measurement was good enough for me (5% is the tolerence of the Loi Carrez) – so BEFORE even setting a foot in a house, I would have my notes with the size of the lot, the sqft of the house (regardless of the BS posted on the MLS), the usable area of the garden and such.

    For the very few properties that we could (like the one we sold, the one we bought), I even went to do the real Carrez measure – to compare apple to apple.

    In a city where it’s a nightmare to build any volume extension, we fell that the best construction you can do is build INSIDE – by reclaming lost sqft (stupid closets are my first target. A standard closet wastes up to 10 sqft of non structural wall). A project that anybody can do.

    anyway. this number is useful ONLY if you consider remodeling. If you dont, and want a ready-to-move-in house (all work done) – this number is at odd – because a bigger house can be much SMALLER than a smaller one due to poor layout. And vice versa.

    Why are agents skipping the info? I’d say because they are most likely bad agents, who assume the potential buyers are idiots with no access to internet (why do they even bother to put the property on INTERNET-BASED mls? I dont know).

    My take on internet is that if it was a debatable tool 5 years ago, the quantity of info now online makes it possible to select some excellent resources. And it SHOULD be used by a potential buyer. My best recommandation is to sign up for the letter, surf the Assessor website till your mouse can surf it on its own, and do the leg work of visiting – KNOWING IN ADVANCE what your are visiting beyond a photo on a flyer, or a 3 lines description in the Chronicle (redfin, zillow and such are kids entertainment. Use it, but dont take it for bible truth). You learn very quickly to downgrade or upgrade your first impression according to the name of the agent and other tricks to save you time (I’d still visit, but maybe let your significant in the car, the engine running, because you already know it wont fit) – thuslet you visit MORE houses.

    We bought the ~310th house we visited. I have my notes on all of them, and my own sqft, garden area and such for over 100 of them.

  5. I think the best measure of square footage is contained in prior appraisals. I know the house we recently purchased was listed at 2,800 square feet, but we had two appraisals stating actual square footage at 3,660. This was a large enough discrepancy that it was easy to see. That said, I think we got a relatively good deal b/c the house was marketed incorrectly. Whether or not work is permitted has only a subjective impact. In other words, if the buyer can get comfortable with the quality of the work, it’s a non-issue.

  6. As you know, it is pretty rare that I really chime in to the comments, but since I’m afraid to go outside for fear of being blown sideways, my deals are looking good, and my espresso has kicked in, I thought I’d chime in to this.

    The number one most common question I am ever asked, whether holding an open house, or taking buyers into them is “what is the square footage?” You need to know. It’s as simple as that. Agents (I should say the Brokerages) don’t list for fear of being sued, and some don’t list to do exactly as many of you have said…get people in the door. I can understand wanting to get people in the door, but even when they walk in, if they’re interested, they’re going to ask, and usually the answer is, “according to tax records, the square footage is….”

    Buyers want to know, and anybody that has been looking at homes can tell that many of the homes in SF have “unwarranted” space. It’s part of life here. I can’t recall any one transaction that went through without the buyer either asking the square footage, looking it up, or just accepting the home is what it is, and this is SF.

    The most annoying thing is when you try to run comps and half of them don’t have square footage listed. It totally skews the numbers and creates extra work. List the square footage and claim the source. That’s what I think.

  7. That would be the size of a European. I believe Americans run a bit bigger in average size. Thanks to our “fast food nation”. Perhaps that dimension should not be that of an ikea storage shelf, but a refrigerator. Although, come to think of it, just like our market sf appears to be anything but average, as are the people living here. i love this place!

  8. i agree on the prior appraisals since they use laser pointers and just write down the readings from room to room. this is a really tricky subject though, as we all know. the owners over at the beacon sued their developer over misleading them on actual square footage. i think they included the patio/balcony when they originally marketed them. i find that to be quite deceitful as well.

    [Editor’s note: Totally unacceptable and they should be sued.]

  9. Its pretty plain and simple why agents do not list square footage.

    1) Its a small house with appropriate square footage (tax records match reality).

    In this case the realtor does not want to advertise a small house and lose people coming in the door.

    2) The house has more square footage then the tax records.

    This case is worse for the Realtor. The person perusing the MLS might see 800 sq feet on house that is actually 1250 square feet and not even go to the open house because they see 800. This is the worst scenario because the realtor can not legally say its 1250 square feet (I think at least) so they put 0.

    Most Realtors do not want to lose potential buyers from walking through the door (nor do the sellers) want to lose people due to legacy sq foot measurements. You also have to think of this as a buyer if you resell.

  10. Here’s how to get a truly accurate square foot measurement for a property.

    Hire a competent architect like myself. I meticulously measure all of my projects, and not with a laser device, since they are not very accurate. I measure by hand, with a tape measure, record it, and then draw it up very carefully using my AutoCad software. It’s extremely accurate.

    I measure inside and outside. Inside is the net square footage, actually the area you live in. Outside is the gross square footage which includes all exterior wall thicknesses. Interior stairs are counted as 1/2 net. Attic spaces or unaccessible spaces are counted as “0” net. Any rooms or areas with headroom under 5′-0″ is counted as 1/2 net of area. Exterior decks and balconies are counted as net usable area but should be noted as NOT part of the interior space area calculations.

    This thread has been a very useful discussion on square footages of properties. It is in fact very important to a seller and buyer, and should reflect accurately the components of that property, given the high cost of buying a house or condo in San Francisco. Buyers should demand accuracy from the broker/realtor and/or the developer of a condo property.

    I hope I have offered some insight as how to correctly disclose square footage of residential properties. thank you.

  11. I believe, there is no hard rule about whether to list square footage or not. Every property/situation is unique. Anytime I see hard fast RULES of operation – not ethics mind you – these gray areas I get nervous.

    I have seen agents not list sq. ft because it bit them in the ass once and they are protecting themselves and clients from future disclosure suits. (The frivoulous lawsuit at the Beacon comes to mind).

    I have seen agents do it because the tax records were wrong, grossly in some cases. The Oriental Warehouse at 650 Delancey jumps forefront. Tax and developer square footages are off by 200 sf or so in many cases.

    I dunno I think it’s much ado about nothing, but I will admit it’s a great topic to discuss.

    Price per square foot is something to note, but personally I would rather have 1000 square feet of a good floor plan, than 1300 sf of a crappy one where you lose half of it in unusable hallways and corners.

  12. Merideth and Duggo

    You both hit the nail on the head.

    As an agent you need to protect your ass. if you like 1200 and its really 1000 the seller can just say in court ‘well that is what the agent said’. it would be nice if on a disclosure form is had something like

    sq foot:

    square foot calculation method:

    Where you could say tax records or appraisel, etc. But that would promote un documented work and would not fly.

    Overall if a house is big but sucks (bad light, floor plan, condition) it will not sell that bad. Case in point anytime you see a huge house sit on the market for a while at a good price per square foot. Obviously its not the size that is hurting it…

  13. thanks duggo. Nice explaniation.

    HOWEVER. there is a caveat in our house. We have basement storage (I think it’s 1 inch short of 5ft), and because of permit application, it’s listed as an addition for reassessment – just as if it was a real 9ft tall garden bedroom.

    Do you know if we can fight the reassessment for that?

    Also. I’m very interested by your method (close to Carrez), because from the several appraisal documents I had, They go only for the OUTSIDE footage. Shouldnt be the appraisal be the INSIDE footage? is this so price/sqft goes down and eases the approval of the mortgage?

    What is the city going for?

  14. Having recently finished construction on a ground up new single family, I had occasion to discuss how the ‘tax’ sqft (I presume this is what is listed on the MLS) is calculated by the City assessors office. Here is my question and their response:

    Q. Do you have guidelines on calculating the sqft? is it the gross area

    (i.e. to the outside extent of the envelope)? Should voids be deducted?

    A. For detached houses, measure from the exterior face of the walls.

    · For attached units (i.e. – townhouses and side-by-side duplexes), use

    the centerlines of the common walls as the outside dimension. It may be

    easier to measure from the inside surface wall and add 6 inches to account

    for the common walls on both sides.

    · For condominium units, measure from the inside surface wall since the

    airspace is what is being purchased. Remember to include the partition

    walls within the condominium unit as part of the GLA.

    · Begin measuring from any corner and work your way around the house.

    · Measure to the nearest inch.

    · Draw a separate floor plan for each level in the house. Do not assume

    that each floor is identical.

    · “Square the house” by checking whether the measurements of parallel

    sides of the structure are equivalent. The total front building measurement

    should equal the total rear measurement. The total left-side measurement

    should equal the total right-side measurement. Minor discrepancies may be

    due to the corners of the structure not being at perfect right angles.

    Exclusions from the finished area:

    · Attached garages – Use the interior wall surface of the garage next

    to the house as the outside wall of the house.

    · Openings to the floor below – Subtract the opening from that level.

    · Exclude porches and converted garages that are not finished or

    considered habitable living area.

    · Chimneys that protrude beyond the exterior surface are not included.

    > Houses are described by their total room count. For example, the

    shorthand designation 5/2/2 describes a house with 5 rooms, 2 bedrooms and 2 baths:

    · In general, a kitchen, bedroom, living room, dining room, den, or

    office study is a room. Bathrooms, laundry rooms, sunrooms, and storage

    rooms are not counted as a room.

    · A bedroom should have a door, a window that provides for an emergency

    exit, natural light and ventilation. In modern homes, a bedroom always has

    a closet. In many older homes, closets were not included.

    · A full bathroom includes a toilet, sink, a bathtub and/or shower. If

    the bathroom only has a toilet and sink, it is a ½ bath. If it only has a

    toilet, it is a ¼ bath.

    > Attics, Lofts and Low Ceilings:

    · Level ceilings must be at least 7 feet high. If a room has a sloped

    ceiling, at least one-half of the finished floor area must have a ceiling

    height of at least 7 feet. Otherwise, omit the entire room from the total


    · Lofts and finished attics must be accessible by a conventional

    stairway or other access. If you need to reach the loft by climbing a

    ladder, then it is not part of the finished area.

    > Guest Cottages, Detached Rooms:

    · Finished areas that are not connected to the main residence by a

    finished hall or stairway must be listed separately. If you have to leave

    the house to get to the room, it is not part of the finished area.

  15. that’s the point sophie. we all want as much square footage for our dollar as possible but we don’t want to be taxed on more than the true livable space we bought. i don’t see the ambiguity ending anytime soon for that very reason.

  16. FogCityBrit – Thanks for your explanation. I have a basement room, with ceilings that are about 7 feet 9 inches tall. Can this area not be considered warranted space? It has a closet, and a full bath, windows, and a door to the garden. It’s a perfect au pair and is around 250 sqft.

  17. Hi HoOwn, the explanation is really from the horses mouth (the tax/recorders office). In your case, it sounds like the distinction would be whether the au pair is reached by a finished staircase, or corridor from the main house. i.e. do you have to ‘leave’ the house to get to that space? If its connected, and its finished, seems like it would/should be included in the gross area. As somebody else mentioned, unfortunately there are plenty of grey areas, open to interpretation, both ways. What i dont know is how permitted/non permitted factors. mine was all new construction (permits, permits and some more permits), so it was a relatively straight forward.

  18. Hi FogCityBrit – the au pair room is inside the house, and can be accessed by walking down the steps from the kitchen. People have told me it’s unwarranted b/c of the ceiling height. But, the ceiling is definitely over 7 ft all. Hmmm, i guess the downside of getting it listed as official square footage is a higher tax bill right? But, 250sqft in my neighborhood = an extra $200,000 in value.

  19. Price per living square foot is the single most misleading and manipulated value indicator in residential real estate and the misplaced obsession with that single indicator at the virtual exclusion of many others (often more significant value contributors) causes far more confusion than illumination…

    The variety of original sources, accuracy of devices used, ability of the person measuring, the degree of rounding error and definition of “living area” makes even comparisions virtually impossible… but the apparent simplicity appeals to the “analyst” in all buyers, who are seduced by the magical thinking that a single indisputable number times a multiplier equals value…

    Other posters have dealt with the inside versus outside definitions, which are accurate… single family residences are defined by the exterior building envelope; condo and co-ops by interior walls since that is the area which is actually owned… garages, unfinished areas and finished areas which are accessed through unfinshed areas, decks and other unheated spaces which are significantly different in contributory value should be valued separately… architects are obviously the most skilled for this task, but skilled appraisers and other professionals can complete accurate living area dimensions… the laser devices you get from the hardware store are not accurate enough, but contrary to the architect poster who swears by his tape measure, Leica has been making a professional laser device which is accurate within 1/16 of an inch and is just as accurate as a tape measure…

    But even with an architect produced layout, the rounding error in each measurement mulitplied by the number of walls and the number of floors can produce a 2-10% difference in even the most accurate building diagrams… so which one is “accurate”? Mmm I know; the one that backs up your belief or agenda…

    But lets say you settle on the accuracy of your measurment… at last; youre all set right? Hardly… the indicators you extract from the market which you are hoping to rely on are derived from a myriad of sources, most of which are moderately to substantially inaccurate… and of course price per living square foot does not take into account the site contribution, which can be substantial in the case of many properties on large lots…

    Follow that up with the misperception that 100 sqft difference in size times the living price per sqft equals the difference in value… there can be a great difference between the contributory value of additional or lesser square footage and the raw price of a property per living square footage, for the very reasons noted above (significant site contribution etc)… if anyone has read their appraisals, you wont find the adjustments between the comparable properties and the subject being made at 1000.00 per sqft (or whatever arbitrary indicator you might choose)… they are made on a much reduced basis to reflect the actual difference in contributory value… those adjustments are commonly made at 50-250.00 per sqft depending on price range and market segment… when folks realize this difference, the big picture becomes clearer regarding the difference in price/value of a rounding error in a building diagram… its not actually 100 sqft times 1000.00, its often 100 sqft times 100.00… a world of difference… with many properties, there will be far more important value contributing aspects (location, views, site area/utility, condition, upgrading, floorplan, design/appeal etc) which will dwarf the relatively minor differences in size… these aspects are of course far more difficult to quantify and so are often left alone…

    Price per living square foot can be a useful indicator… in properties in which the entirety of the sales price resides in the square footage of the improvements and the square footage of all of the comparables have been accurately measured by one person and is of equal utility… in any other case there is no way around the old fashioned way of valuing a piece of real estate by looking at all of its aspects, not just the ones that are most easily quantified


    [Editor’s note: If I had a payroll to put you on, you’d be on it…for sure. That was great. Thanks.]

  20. Please, correct me if I’m wrong on any of my points because i would like to know – but I think you need at least 7′ 10″ of ceiling height to be legal & “warranted” — in addition, i doubt you can legalize something – at least not easily – after the fact without tearing it out – the owner must get the permits before it is built as it needs to be inspected & approved along the way.

    That said … a house we are in process of selling had been updated/added to with permits; however, the tax records still reflected the original sq. feet. Id like to know how one goes about changing that? For the original owner who made the improvements, it may be in their best interest to keep it as is as to not have it reassessed .. but once it changes hands – or is about to – the assessment is just based on purchase price anyway so it would be better to have it accurate, correct? As the seller of a house that was legal w/bad sq. footage info, I can see why agents would leave it out.

    Has anyone had their sq. footage updated w/the assessors office for this reason?

  21. I believe to be warranted, all rooms have to be at least 7′ ceiling height, and bedrooms have to be at least 7’8″ ceiling height.

  22. Kenny, I think you are correct for ‘habitable rooms’. For other rooms (such as closets, or a garage) the minimum is 7′-0″. So some areas would be included in the tax area, even though they are below 7′-6″. From section 503 (a) of the SF building code:

    “Ceiling Heights. Unless legally constructed as such, no habitable room shall have a ceiling height less than seven feet six inches. Any room, other than a habitable room, shall have a ceiling height of not less than seven feet.”

    Obviously, the garage should be excluded from the area regardless. Here is the definition of habitable room:

    “Habitable Space (Room). Any room or space in a structure for living, sleeping, eating or cooking. Bathrooms, toilet compartments, closets, halls, storage or utility space areas are not considered habitable space.”

    so conceivably, closets or a bathroom with a 7′-0″ ceiling, accessed directly from the main house (or via a finished staircase or corridor). . . . . would be included in the tax assessors area.

    That said, 7′-0″ ceilings are miserable!!

  23. Thanks for the note, Editor… I work in the valuation industry and deal with the square footage issue all the time (at least a few times a day), so I have my schpiel down pretty cold…


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