Deciding what you want in your house is one of the most exciting things about shopping for your first home. You get to think about all aspects of the house; the kind of kitchen, the number of bedrooms, and the colors you can paint on the walls. Most home listings will describe the square footage of a house, but how can you get a sense for what's too small, too big, and just right if you're not familiar with square footage?
When thinking about square footage, it’s helpful to imagine a home that you are already familiar with. Take the White House, for instance, a building with 55,000 square feet. Most homes sold in the United States are obviously much smaller than the White House, with 2,466 square feet as the median size of a new single-family sold in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. On the other hand, you may also want to consider the square footage of your current apartment or townhome. For example, measuring the master bedroom that’s just big enough for your king size bed, or the wall space necessary for your 65” TV.
As a first time home buyer, you may want a house you can grow into but it’s important to buy one that also fits into your budget. So, how do you begin to make sense of square footage? Let's start with a tape measure.
Computing Square Footage is Simple
With your tape measure and a pencil and paper in hand, start by measuring the rooms where you currently live. As a point of comparison, the room dimensions for homes you can purchase will also be on the home listings. The square footage calculator is simple. All you do is you measure the length and width of a room. Then, multiply the two numbers.
To make a fair comparison with the houses you are looking at, only measure “finished spaces,” or those that are heated and cooled. In other words, even if you spend a lot of time in an enclosed porch that contains nothing more than a space heater, it shouldn’t count toward your house’s square footage. It won’t count on the listings, either.
Then put the numbers in a column and add them up, for the overall approximate square footage.
Pro Tip: While you have the tape measure out, measure your larger furniture pieces, and even the size of your car. These numbers will come in handy when you visit a home in person and wonder how well your table will fit in the dining room or whether your car will fit in the garage.
Understanding the Abbreviations on the Home Listings
Listings get easier to read with practice, especially once you get used to seeing the many abbreviations they contain. (Helpful hint: Create a sheet of the common abbreviations you see, and what they mean. Until you know the abbreviations off the top of your head, a coding sheet can help you make sense of the important information a listing sheet contains.)
Square footage is abbreviated “SF” and, just as often, “APX SF,” for “approximate square footage.” This is an important distinction, and real estate agents are supposed to strive for accuracy here because square footage is one factor used to determine market value.
Generally, the bigger the house, the more the house costs — as long as you’re looking in the same general area. Location can also affect cost. Home prices tend to be higher in some desirable neighborhoods, in some suburbs, or on lots that are near ponds, streams, or parks.
Looking Beyond the Numbers
If your present home is about 1,000 square feet, then the 1,500 square-foot houses on the house listings might seem substantially larger, at least on paper. But remember, that while numbers tell a story, they don’t tell the full story about a home’s spaciousness. For example, a 1,300 square-foot house with an open floor plan may look and feel larger than a 1,500 square-foot house that's rooms are all divided by walls.
While this blog may help you make sense of the square footage number you see on paper when comparing home listings, there is no substitute for visiting a house in-person. This way, you can see with your own eyes how the space is laid out, test which way the doors open and close, and decide whether the home will be comfortable.