R5Realty News and Notes

Market Snapshots and Commentary on Value and Quality of life along the former Main Line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road, up until recently called the R5 Line, and now officially known as the Paoli /Thorndale line. R5Realty runs from Center City Philadelphia through the walkable, Westward outlying Towns & Townships.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tequila, Square Footage, and Mainline-area Homes

Public Records count this Int. Sq Footage; Appraisers Don't.
When buying and selling MainLine-area/Philadelphia family homes, Interior Square footage data is frequently unreliable, ungrounded and unworthy criteria for determining final value. Much of our region's housing stock was built before the age of rock'n roll, so there's been decades of opportunity for homeowners to modify livable space. Sometimes these changes are reported and applied to the county Public Records, and frequently the changes are not recorded.

Since there is no Interior Square Footage Czar, conducting mandatory, door-door, interior examinations of each county home, what's  left is a muddy hodgepodge of frequently inaccurate Public Records or unreliable seller-reported Interior Square Footage data.

Appraisers - who provide estimates of property value for buyer,sellers and refinancers, can add more confusion to the mix, as their Gross Living Area estimates do not include below grade living spaces such as refinished basements.

For any home, Buyers & Sellers may have to juggle 3 different Interior Square Footage figures, and each bit of data has its own relevance, legitimacy and potential for inaccuracy. Take the fictional but typical property at 100 Mainline Street, considered below, which has Buyers, Sellers, Realtors, Appraisers all invoking different square footage estimates to determine value.

1- The Public Records indicate 100 Mainline St. has an interior square footage total of  1500 sq. feet., which is the same as what the builder indicated back in 1946.
This Public Records figure is that which informs realtors and autopopulates almost all internet home listings. The extensive publication of this data, as well its ostensible governmental objectivity make it a part of nearly every home sale valuation. But public records are often never updated to reflect conversions of non-living areas to finished living spaces.

A previous owner of 100 Mainline Street may have finished a 20 x 30 foot basement and never reported the additional 600 sf of living space to the county. Perhaps another previous owner quietly converted a 10x20 section of the attic to living space. There's another 200 sq of interior living space and value off the books. Unless manually over-ridden, the erroneous 1500 sq ft. number is what will broadcast to the world and posterity when this home is listed for sale.

2- A Sellers Statement - which includes 100 Mainline Street's combined 800 sq ft. of combined  finished basement and attic - now properly indicates the home has "2300 sf" of interior living space. Huge difference!

Sellers can state their own Interior Square Footage number when listing a home for sale. The public records don't change, but the Realtors' MLS database - and most internet sites showing the listing - will present this over-ride of the public records. Sometimes sellers and their agent will over-ride the public records  and sometimes they either space out (pardon pun), or just see no need when the home sells at a good price anyhows.

And it is also possible that Sellers will incorrectly estimate or mis-guesstimate interior square footage. Again, there is nobody on payroll to police these numbers.

3- An Appraisal indicates 100 Mainline St. is 1700 sf...  Appraisers, who are generally summoned to establish value for financing purposes, employ the term Gross Living Area in place of  interior square footage.. GLA can include the 200 sf of finished attic space, but does not include include below grade spaces like basements, regardless of how spectacularly they have been finished. .

In this case of 100 Mainline St., let's say the Buyer and Seller agree to ignore the official public record and agree home price should be based on 2300 sf of interior living square feet.  The sale goes through and is published at 400k. Since there is no mechanism to affect change in the Public Records, it appears to posterity that a 1500sf house - not a 2300 sf house sold for $400,000.

When the home, next door, at 102 Mainline hits the market 8 months later, sellers list it for the same 400k that 100 Mainline recently fetched. But 102 Mainline. had no basement/attic conversions and is the same 1500 sq. ft when built in 1946. You see where this is going...

Bottom line is that in our history-laden region with it mostly mature housing stock, official interior square footage records are frequently inaccurate. Couple that with the various ways folks can assess, address, or massage interior square footage totals, and it's clear that square footage in itself is sketchy criteria for establishing price and value.

If a property isn't an unchangeable condo space or freshly documented new construction, I say use square footage as an initial point of reference and then take it like tequila (with at least a grain or more of salt).

- Ted Gross, Keller Williams Main Line Realty, January 2014