When buying a home, it’s important to understand square footage fully, because 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.”

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 access 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.

To be considered as finished square footage, the space typically must have the following attributes:

  • Flooring
  • Wallcovering
  • Ceiling
  • Ability to be lived in 365 days a year (for example, it must be heated in the winter)

Square footage FAQs

How is square footage calculated when a home is listed for sale?

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. For example, 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 can a finished basement be included in the finished square footage of a house?

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 how the square footage was calculated.

Does an attic need a certain clearance or entrance in order to be considered within the listed 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 the square footage.

Do porches need to be “four-season” — and what does that mean, exactly?

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 other areas have I missed? Are other spaces included or excluded from square footage?

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.

How do I know if a basement bedroom counts toward finished square footage?

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 counts 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.

How can buyers protect themselves, and what questions should they ask to get the details on what’s included in square footage?

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.

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 the needs of you and your family.

But, if the numbers are important to you, talk to your agent or reach out to the Betty Most Agency for additional help. Call Betty Most today for more information.   Are you planning on buying or selling a home, call Betty Most or Randy Baugher today to get started.  (715) 821-6491.