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Square Footage of Your Home: What’s Real and What’s Not

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From condos in Canarsie to townhouses in Tribeca and co-ops in Queens, NYC’s housing is nearly as diverse as its population. With every conceivable shape, size and configuration, it’s not surprising that calculating the square footage for some homes can be a contentious issue.

Small rooms can add big dollars

Postage size rooms can add thousands — and sometimes millions — of dollars to the price of a property in the Big Apple. When a bank’s appraiser comes to measure a home and comes up with a different number than a buyer had been led to believe they were getting, problems can arise in your mortgage approval. With so much at stake, reconciling accurate square footage is vital for all parties.

Training is the key

“One of the main issues is that agents have never actually been trained in how to evaluate square footage,” says Michael Vargas of Vanderbilt Appraisal. “If they are getting their numbers from an accurate source such as the floor plans or an architect, that’s ok. But issues arise when people try and round up numbers. And then a few years later, when the property changes hands, those numbers get rounded up even further.”

Livable square footage is, not surprisingly, considered anywhere in a residence that is habitable (kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms, living, dining rooms and the areas connecting these rooms).

Fuzzy math

However, the numbers get fuzzy when dealing with many older New York properties with odd angles and corners, making a simple calculation, more commonly associated with rectangular shaped condos, difficult.

“Because of the disparity that can occur between the numbers, agents and brokers have now been told never to be responsible for square footage,” Vargas says. “It stems from a case a few years ago when a buyer went to court and sued after they felt they’d been misled.”

New standards are needed

Broker, Heather McDonough Domi, a founding partner of the H + H Real Estate Team at Compass is also the Founding Chairperson of the New York Residential Agent Continuum (NY-RAC), an organization established in 2018 by and for residential real estate agents. It’s focus, according to NY-RAC’s website is to “enhance the consumer experience and elevate the status of the residential brokerage profession in New York City.” She concurs with Vargas that standards for agent’s need to improve.

“There does need to be something more specific,” she says, “a set standard, something mandated. Many agents might not know that elevators and stairs cannot be included as square footage and that co-ops cannot be measured in the same way as condos because the owner of the co-op doesn’t own the exterior walls. With townhouses below grade square footage cannot be included.”

Some guidelines

If you’re starting to get confused, here are some of the square footage guidelines:

A back garden does not qualify. Neither do foyers, exterior hallways, stairwells or elevator shafts. In a townhouse, a finished cellar is not considered legally habitable if it “has at least one-half of its floor-to-ceiling height above curb level or the base plane,” according to city guidelines. In simpler terms, to be legal living space, the floor-to-ceiling height must be more than 50 percent above grade. Even if the place has been turned in a luxury subterranean man-cave it won’t qualify as being habitable.

Also, living space cannot be where the building’s mechanicals are housed in a multi-unit property. A basement, conversely, is usually the garden floor of a townhouse and is considered livable. Thus, the difference between a basement and cellar may seem negligible to some but it can amount to millions of dollars.

Increasing your square footage

Yes, livable square footage can be increased in NYC. Crucially for townhouse owners or those owning a condo or co-op on the top floor of a building, roof rights can be purchased to build additions. This would add livable square footage to their property and thus increase its value. Also, if the property next door is purchased (either a townhouse or condo or co-op on either side or above or below), the square footage of a property can be increased when the two apartments are combined.

Square footage can also be increased by building additions that qualify as livable space. This is obviously easier in single-family homes where extensions, dormers, and ceiling heights can all be added or increased.

“There’s a popular notion in New York City that if ten people measure you’ll get ten different square footage numbers,” says Vargas, “and in many cases that’s true. I think we can all agree that there’s room for improvement all around.”

Disclosure: Marketproof powers the real estate listings for Brownstoner, a publication of Schneps Media, which is the parent company of amNewYork.

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