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The Floor-Space Fallacy

In a transaction rife with truth-stretching, real square footage is an elusive number.

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Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster  

When Halstead broker Amelia Gewirtz took clients this summer to the Ariel, a glassy condo project in the West Nineties, she was relieved to see the floor plans. Not because they were particularly gorgeous or generous, but because the salesperson presented them with a specific clarification. “She said the plan showed 2,526 square feet,” Gewirtz remembers, “but then she said the net is about 2,300. It was a breath of fresh air.”

Square-footage confusion is rampant. Recently, a couple filed a lawsuit against Dumbo developer Two Trees saying that it had misrepresented the dimensions of their apartment. The couple is crying fraud, alleging it’s 109 square feet smaller than they were told. The court has yet to decide (and Two Trees had no comment). But experts say discrepancies are common, which makes pricing apartments challenging.

There’s no standardized way to measure properties; the numbers can include everything from outside walls, elevator vestibules, stairwells, terraces, a portion of the common space, to storage that’s in the basement but technically assigned to the apartment. “Sometimes 50 percent of the wall you share with the next unit is included!” says Gewirtz. These days, brokers, buyers, and sellers usually start with the square footage to calculate how much they’d ask or “be willing to pay.” “People are desperate to quantify their decisions, and [square footage] is one of the few things in real estate with numbers attached to it,” says Bellmarc’s Stacey Max. “How do you quantify view? Or light?”

No wonder more firms are opting not to use square footage to describe apartments, or are using workarounds. Corcoran, for instance, only gives approximates on its Website (“for exact dimensions, you must hire your own architect or engineer,” says Corcoran.com’s fine print). Halstead and Brown Harris Stevens rely on floor plans with measurements arrived at by architects or engineers, not brokers or homeowners, says Gerald Makowski, director of marketing for Terra Holdings, which owns both companies.

So what are buyers to do? Measure the space yourself, or forget the feet and focus on whether the space actually meets your criteria. In the end, says Max, “the numbers may not be all that useful.”


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