- Learn the four criteria a space needs to be considered finished square footage.
- See why typical attics won’t count toward square footage, but a four-season porch or basement bedroom will.
- When in doubt, refer to MLS information, your purchase agreement or your own measurements.
When buying a home, it can be tricky to know what counts as square footage and what doesn’t. For example, two similar-style homes on the same street could vary significantly in price and square footage depending on how they’ve been updated or maintained over the years.
As you search for homes, here are insights you can use to determine what actually counts as “finished square footage.”
Square footage and the MLS
One way to find out more information about a home you’re interested in, including square footage, is through information from the Multiple Listing Service (MLS). The MLS is a service real estate agents use to publish their active property listings so that consumers and agents can search for-sale homes and view them online.
Each MLS has different rules on how to report and what constitutes finished square footage, but they all seek to standardize housing data so that you have the most accurate information and can trust the listings you find online.
What counts as finished square footage?
To count as finished square footage, the space typically must have these four attributes:
- Ability to be lived in 365 days a year (for example, it must be heated in the winter)
How do agents calculate square footage?
This is a great question and the not-so-great answer is, it depends on the listing agent.
In many cases — and this is often said to be the “right” way to measure — the agent may start by measuring around the outside base of the house. Using that foundation size, the agent can calculate the total square footage. In other words, for a symmetrical two-story home, they could double that square footage number to get the total finished square footage for both levels (deducting any space that is left unfinished).
In some cases, a listing agent may go from room to room, calculating the exact square footage of each space that meets the criteria. From there, the agent would add up the square footage to present a precise total in the home’s listing.
And sometimes, agents might rely on government records or past MLS listings for information. This can lead to inaccuracies in the reported square footage, as the homeowner may have finished a basement, attic or enclosed and heated a three-season porch to enjoy year-round in the time since the records were last updated.
When in doubt, it’s okay to ask the listing agent how the square footage was calculated. And buyers are welcome to bring their own measuring devices along if they want to be sure they agree with what has been calculated and published.
When does a basement count as finished square footage?
Does the basement have a finished floor, wall covering, ceiling and heat? If so, then its square footage might be included in the total finished square footage of the house.
NorthstarMLS (the MLS for the Twin Cities and surrounding regions) identifies both above-ground and below-ground square footage as separate numbers and as a total sum in finished square footage. Keep in mind, some MLS guidelines don’t include below-ground square footage at all, even if the space is fully functional. If you’re in doubt, ask the listing agent what rooms and floors were included in their calculation.
What about basement bedrooms?
Again, as long as the basement bedroom meets the square footage requirements (walls, flooring, ceiling and heat) it will contribute toward the total square footage of the home.
However, just because a basement bedroom is included in square footage does not necessarily indicate that it’s also represented in the number of bedrooms.
Generally speaking, the room must meet the city’s requirements for a bedroom in order to be called a “bedroom” in the property listing. For a basement bedroom, that would typically require an egress window, in addition to the square footage requirements.
When does an attic count as finished square footage?
Some people wonder if an attic can be included in the finished square footage of a home if there is a pull-down ladder or existing stairway to the space. To be included in the square footage, an attic would first need to meet the same criteria as any other space — heating, flooring, ceiling and wall covering.
But what about non-traditional floor plans, like a 1.5-story layout common in older homes? Or a four-level split floor plan? The second level of a 1.5-story home often can be included in the finished square footage count, but only if the ceilings are of sufficient height. For example, in some MLSs the ceiling must be at least seven feet at the highest point. Spaces where the ceiling is less than five feet tall must be excluded entirely from square footage.
Do “four-season” porches count?
To be counted as finished square footage, a porch must be four-season. A four-season porch is much like any other room in the house, except that it provides clear views of the outdoors all year through a variety of windows. Four-season porches must have permanent heat sources to be included in a home’s finished square footage.
If a porch isn’t heated or only has screens (with no glass windows), then it is not part of the finished square footage count.
What about stairwells and closets?
Any space that has walls, flooring, ceiling and heat would count as finished square footage. So, it’s likely that stairwells, closets, walk-in pantries and other areas you might be questioning would contribute to the square footage count of a home.
What if I think a listing’s calculation is inaccurate?
Potential buyers should be aware that in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, the purchase agreement on a home notes that square footage measurements are approximate.
If concerned about inaccuracies, the buyer and their REALTOR® should:
- Ask the listing agent for the exact way that the square footage was calculated.
- Verify the information by taking their own measurements.
Do insurance agents calculate square footage the same way?
You may also wonder how square footage is calculated or used within a homeowner’s insurance policy. We reached out to Scott Teece, managing producer at Edina Realty Insurance, to get the details.
When creating an insurance quote for a client, Edina Realty Insurance typically pulls from the MLS listing to ensure they are assessing the same square footage as indicated in the property records. But while homebuyers care mostly about finished and unfinished square footage, insurance agents take special notice of a different breakout — above ground square footage and below ground square footage.
“When offering coverage to a homeowner, we calculate the total replacement cost of the property,” explains Teece. “Both above ground and below ground square footage are factored into that calculation, but the cost to replace the above ground square footage is typically somewhat higher. That’s because, for example, if a catastrophic event like a tornado or fire should occur, you’d likely have to reframe the first floor and above, but not the basement.”
In other words, a 2,000-square foot house without a basement would likely have a higher replacement cost than a home with 1,000 square feet of above-ground living space and a basement sized at 1,000 finished square feet.
When Teece and the Edina Realty Insurance team draw up a homeowner’s insurance quote, they rely on the MLS’ breakout of above ground square footage and below ground square footage to make their assessment.
Have additional questions? Contact the team at Edina Realty Insurance for more information or a personalized quote.
Ready to purchase?
When it comes down to it, the square footage of a home is just a number. The most important things to consider when determining if the size of a house is right for you are:
- If you feel comfortable in the space.
- If the rooms can accommodate your needs.
But, if the numbers are important to you, talk to Edina Realty or your agent for additional help. We are available to connect you with an experienced agent seven days a week.
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