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The numbers can lie, and here's why

Don't rely on that square-footage figure. Calculation is far from an exact science.

August 08, 2004|Marcie Geffner | Special to The Times

Buyer beware: Don't put too much faith in the advertised size of homes for sale. Sellers, realty agents and builders sometimes put a little marketing spin on the square footage to make a home seem larger than it actually is.

But this is less commonplace than it used to be. Uncertainty over accuracy and the risk of lawsuits have forced real estate brokers and home builders to exercise more caution when they represent size to prospective buyers.

Realty agents today generally quote the square footage they obtain from the seller, the tax assessor's database or a property information service that packages public-records data. And agents typically include warnings and disclaimers that they haven't independently verified the data.

As a general rule of thumb, houses are measured using the exterior walls, while condominiums are calculated by the space inside the walls. But that's where the simplicity ends.

Individual builders and various entities employ differing standards, so the safest bet for reliable square footage usually comes from the county assessor's parcel information. During a sale, an assessment of home size frequently occurs during the lender's appraisal.

One egregious example of misrepresentation of square footage would be a two-story home calculated at twice the dimensions of the foundation, even though the second story is smaller than the first story or some rooms on the first story have cathedral ceilings that extend to two stories.

Other questionable calculations count a screened patio, an unfinished garage or an attic crawl space as part of a home's square footage. The size of a fireplace or bay window might be added to beef up the figure.

New-home models can be deceptive if they include upgrades that aren't part of the base-priced home. Such options as a bonus room, enclosed patio, sunroom or breakfast area might increase the square footage of the model but not be part of the plan a buyer is purchasing.

On resale homes, the reliability of data sources depends on whether the original information was accurate and whether it was updated if the house was remodeled.

In one attempt to standardize the measuring of square footage, the National Assn. of Home Builders Research Center in Upper Marlboro, Md., published "Square Footage -- Method for Calculating: ANSI Z765-2003" in 1986, according to Thomas Kenney, the center's director of engineering sciences. The standard is approved by the American National Standards Institute, a private nonprofit organization that promotes, administers and coordinates voluntary standardization systems.

The standard can be used to determine the square footage of any proposed, new or existing single-family house of any style or type of construction and relies on measurements taken outside the structure. It doesn't consider room dimensions, nor does it address whether measured space is habitable or whether any additions were constructed with the required permits or in compliance with the required building codes. The standard isn't meant to be applied to condominium or apartment units, although Kenney said there has been some discussion about development of a similar standard for that purpose.

Appraisers, real estate agents, builders and government zoning officials have asked about the standard since it was published, but the center hasn't kept records of who is using the standard or how widespread its usage is throughout the country. Standards typically don't contain a notification process, Kenney said.

The Los Angeles County assessor's office doesn't use the standard in compiling its data. Bonnie Oliver, an assistant assessor at the agency, said she wasn't familiar with it. She attributed this to the fact that a trade group developed the standard.

"We're not governed by the builders association," she said.

County assessors measure the perimeter of a house to calculate the square footage, Oliver said. "We draw every nook and cranny. The appraiser starts at one corner and goes all the way around."

The method is at least superficially similar to the ANSI-approved standard for measuring houses.

"The easiest ones are rectangular, but a lot of them have recesses or they jig and jog," she said. "Sometimes they have to eyeball it."

To keep their records up-to-date, assessors could re-measure a house at any time, but re-measurement typically is triggered when the office receives notification of a building permit or other evidence that the home has been enlarged.

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