Elizabeth Feather, Esquire
A recent caller to the PAR Legal Hotline indicated that some agents are unsure how to quote the interior square footage of a residential property.
It seems that each agent has her own understanding as to what is included in the interior square footage of a house. What is the correct procedure for referencing square footage? Is there a uniform system to measure? Is a finished basement or attic included? (Generally speaking, for appraisal purposes square footage is the above-grade livable space of a house and does not include the basement or attic.)
Real estate agents should be cautious in measuring square footage. While agents usually gather square-footage information from tax records, there are instances when an agent believes a particular record is not a good reflection of the living space and he may alter the square footage figure to make the house more attractive to potential buyers. Agents often want to add the finished basement or attic to the recorded square footage to reflect the "actual" size of the house.
When talking about the square footage with buyers and when writing about it in an MLS listing or a property ad, you want to make sure your calculations do not mislead. State your source of information and use language such as "per tax records" or "public record." Always use the word "approximately" before the number. After the number, use the term "including" or "excluding," followed by the areas of the house that you either included or excluded in this figure.
Even though sellers and buyers are given notice on the back of page 2 of the residential PAR Standard Agreement for the Sale of Real Estate that numerical square footage representations are only "approximations and may be inaccurate," it's still extremely important that you accurately portray your understanding of the house's square footage and how you arrived at the number you list on the MLS. Limit your liability by adding a few extra words to your square footage quote. Otherwise, you may find yourself with some unhappy buyers accusing you of misrepresentation, which will inevitably lead to legal woes for you and your broker.
Remember, it is not your job to measure the square footage of a house. Appraisers have standards they go by to obtain correct uniform square-footage measurements. An appraisal by a certified appraiser is a good way to obtain an accurate number for the square footage of a house; after all, appraisers are trained and far more experienced in measuring and making the calculations.
Your job is to quote a house's approximate square footage based on information available to you. There will always be discrepancies among brokers, agents, sellers and buyers as to what is included in the square footage quote of a house. Don't assume every agent or buyer is thinking like you. Eliminate assumptions and misrepresentations by stating the source of your square footage number, qualify the number as "approximate" and specifically state what is included or excluded in this number. Adding a few extra words can make all the difference!