The Birmingham, Alabama Multiple Listing Service (now known as the Greater Alabama MLS) is unique in that it is not a requirement to list the gross living area (square footage) of listings. In 2010 I wrote about the new option they offered to provide this information, however as of the current date I still do not see widespread use of this feature. I believe the absence of this key piece of information puts real estate agents at a disadvantage when compared to other areas.
The price per square foot is a method of comparison that many people are familiar with and understand. I have written about the pitfalls of trying to come up with a rule of thumb in appraising, however when used correctly it can provide some methodology for pricing a home. Under the right circumstances this method of comparison can allow you to come up with a reliable value estimate that is based on market data. My intent is not to tell agents how to do their job in pricing a home, but rather to emphasize the importance of providing gross living area in the MLS. By using data similar to what the appraiser uses they may come up with a value more in line with what the appraiser will come up with during the mortgage appraisal. If this occurs there may be less chance of the home not appraising for the sale. I have heard a lot of stories recently of homes not appraising for the contract price and the appraiser almost always gets blamed for this, however it is not our fault since we are just providing an opinion of value that reflects what is happening in the market. In addition, by providing the square footage other agents will have this information available to them after your home sells to use in pricing their listings.
I want to provide four sources of square footage information that real estate agents can use to get the gross living area of a home they are listing. This data can be included in the MLS listing which will help other agents as well.
Previous appraisal- This is obviously the best source of information because the home was measured by an appraiser who utilizes the ANSI method, which provides specific guidelines for calculating gross living area in homes. Most people have a copy of an old appraisal and don’t mind you looking at it if you just ask them. One word of caution though, above grade living area should be kept separate from finished basement area. All of the area gets consideration, however if you combined the finished basement area with the above grade area to get a price per square foot, it would give you an inaccurate number to work with. The price per square foot figure appraisers use includes only the above grade area, which would be the main level living area and any other finished area above it.
Builder floor plans or sketches- Whenever I am doing an appraisal I sometimes get asked by the owner if I want to use the floor plans the builder used to build the home. While I appreciate the offer it is a requirement that I measure the house myself, however I always write down the gross living area shown on the plans to compare with what I measure, that is of course if nothing has been changed on the plans to increase the living area. Real estate agents can use this square footage in their listings and in coming up with their list price.
County records- When using county records you really have to be careful that you use the correct number. I wrote a previous post on how to read the county data in order to use the correct number for the gross living area. The only time I advise that you use this information is if you do not have access to an appraisal. If you decide to use county records then you may want to limit it to one story homes that may or may not have an unfinished basement. The reason for limiting it to these types of homes is that I have found the county data to be the most accurate with these types of homes. The basement is usually a footprint of the main level, which as I said is typically accurate for a one level home. When a home has a 2nd floor, or if it has finished area in the basement the information is hit or miss. If my previous post does not help you learn how to read the county records information give me a call, I would be happy to help you. One thing you may want to keep in mind with county records is that sometimes people do not get building permits to do work and if this is the case then the county will not have accurate information on square footage.
Real estate appraiser- If none of the previous sources of information are available, or you do not feel they are accurate, you can always hire an appraiser to measure the house for you. As I previously mentioned, it will be measured using the ANSI standard which provides a consistency necessary to make sure you are comparing “apples to apples”.
For any agents reading this, do you use any of these methods? Do you think it is important to include the square footage in MLS listings? I would live to hear your input.