When A Foot is Only A Couple Of Toes

Buyers often look to the approximate price per square foot as a measurement of value, comparing the square foot price for the unit on which they’re bidding with that of other units in the building or neighborhood. After all, (but, alas, only at first blush)  it makes sense to use square footage as a common denominator among all recent sales because comparing one apartment or townhouse to another is so often like comparing apples to oranges.  Using the common element of size seems to be one way to try to equalize the differences between and among properties so that you can estimate the relative value of your deal.

However, approximate square footage of an apartment is no more than that- an approximation. It is often a very rough approximation indeed and may not provide as accurate of a guide as you might expect.

First, many measurements are taken today by laser measuring devices the accuracy of which is only as good as the person wielding the device.  Second, different professionals use disparate measuring standards to derive their approximations.  Some will measure between the interior walls and include bathrooms, kitchens, closets, foyers, shafts, ducts, risers and columns in their calculations. Others may use the same interior perimeter measurements but present the calculation based on only what they consider to be usable space, excluding all or perhaps some of these elements.   Yet others may measure between the exterior rather than the interior walls of a unit, and, again, either include or exclude some of the very same elements. Third, and for many pre-war units, hard-to-measure areas attributable to oddly shaped rooms, reconfigurations, turrets or alcoves can further confuse the measurement. Fourth, when comparing the price per square foot for the unit being evaluated against the average or median price per square foot for comparables in the building or neighborhood, there will inevitably be inconsistencies among the measurements for the units comprising the average/median calculation as well as inconsistencies between that measurement and yours.

Simply put, there is no legal standard which defines a square foot in New York real estate to which professionals need subscribe.   While condo developments and conversions are required to disclose how they calculate square footage in their offering documents, they are free to adopt any standard so long as it is disclosed. Co-ops are not required to make any disclosure at all because when you purchase a co-op you are purchasing shares in a corporation, not real estate.  So in co-op offering plans which contain floor plans with measurements, you may not even be able to ascertain the criteria used for their calculations.

As a purchaser, if you want a reliable calculation of footage ask the seller to provide the criteria used to arrive at his or her figures.  Ultimately, you may need to have your own professional measure the space and explain to you the criteria on which his or her measurements are taken.  Most sellers will not do this for you and the cost will be yours. So you might not want to engage in this exercise unless you are seriously considering making a bid and that bid is to be contingent on a price per square foot calculation.  You might instead want to focus your bid not on square footage but on what similar units have sold for in the same building or neighborhood and simply accept the fact that buying a home is more art than science.