Real Estate

Is square footage important or not?

Throughout my years as a Realtor, and with even greater frequency lately, I’ve been asked the question, “What is the square footage?” I understand why you would want to know — price per square foot is a convenient way to compare one property with another. In many parts of the country it’s an easy question to answer — especially in planned communities or suburbs where there are specific floor plans and the square footage is easy to determine. However, San Francisco is not one of those communities.

To begin with, hard as it is to believe, more often than not we really don’t know the actual square footage. We can of course see what the tax record says, and we can look on an appraisal, but we can’t be sure the figures quoted are correct. For example, I recently sold a fabulous condominium in Pacific Heights. Four different sources came up with four different figures for the square footage, and they varied by over 400 square feet — a huge discrepancy. So, in this instance, when asked about the square footage, I would simply tell people what the range was, cite the sources and say “somewhere in there is the truth.”

How could square footage vary so much? In this case, one source was the condominium map, another the tax record, and two others were appraisers who did not have the same answer. Appraisers vary in their method of measuring. The condo map should be accurate, but again it is a human doing the measuring and it depends on that person’s method. Some measure from the inside of the wall and don’t count stairs, some do a gross measurement on the outside of the building and deduct for light wells. Methods vary a great deal.

What’s more, in San Francisco owners often add on to their homes. Were the additions done with permits? Are they legal dwelling spaces? Has the tax assessor added the additions to their record? All of these considerations make it more difficult to calculate true measurements.

Quoting square footage can be dicey for sellers. You might provide a number that you believe to be true, but then what happens if the buyer finds a lower number from another source during the purchase process? Even though the buyer was perfectly happy with the home at the original price, there is suddenly a perception of reduced value, and a request for a price reduction is sure to follow.

Square footage is quoted everywhere online. It’s one of the first descriptors you see on many sites. While that might be fine in many communities, in San Francisco it’s not as relevant. Square footage is a factor, but we evaluate homes on so many more aspects as well, including location, condition, remodeling, curb appeal, view, parking, outdoor space, similar sales, and more. A single square foot in one home does not equal a single square foot in another home, even if they are next door to one another. Each home has to be looked at individually for a true evaluation.

We can take two properties of similar square footage and find that their feel and usable space are dramatically different. A Victorian will have a long hallway that is large in square footage but basically unusable space. An Edwardian, in contrast, won’t have that, and will instead have larger rooms. Same square footage, different allocation of space. Even so, if you’ve always dreamed of owning a Victorian, you’re going to choose that home over the Edwardian. How the home feels to you as a buyer is really what matters most — not its square footage.

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Stephanie Saunders Ahlberg has been a real estate agent for over 30 years and joined Hill & Co. in 1983, where she has consistently been among the top 10 salespeople. She can be reached at