Apartment Square Footage: How to Measure is Not Standard

Published on Feb 14, 2011

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With rules and regulations governing everything from minimum window sizes in bedrooms, to fire codes for building materials, to entrance and egress rules, you would think something as fundamental as how to measure the square footage of an apartment would be spelled out by law.  Especially something that is used as a selling point in many real estate listings and marketing materials.  Ahhhh... but this is New York real estate.

It seems rather straightforward. To measure the square footage of a room in an apartment, you measure it's width, and it's length, and you multiple.  For example, let's take a "typical" small one bedroom apartment that you might find in an old (former) tenement building.  Let's say your bedroom is 8' x 10'.  That means your bedroom is 80 square feet (OK, we've seen even smaller bedrooms in NYC, but go with it... ).  Let's say your living room is 10' x 15'.  That makes it 150 square feet.  Combined, your living room and bedroom are 230 square feet.

Let's say your bathroom is 6' x 8' (48 sq ft) and your galley kitchen is 5' x 10' (50 sq ft). That brings the total up to 328.  That's it?  Don't forget the closet (2.5' x 5' = 12.5 sq ft), and the hallway (3' x 5' = 15 sq ft).  That's still only 355.5 sq ft!  Let me guess... the landlord, or broker, told you the square footage was 500.  And if you're like most people, you really didn't know the difference... which is one reason they can get away with it.

So where does the rest of the square footage come from?  Good question.  When you had your tape measure out, did you measure from the "inside" of the walls (e.g. up against the wall)?  You did?  You need to think like a developer. You need to measure to the "outside" of the wall, where the bricks are (or, in the case of a wall shared with your neighbors, to the middle). Did you include the space taken up by the interior walls of the apartment?  How about that space or shaft where all the pipes, electrical wiring and air vents feed to the upper floors? If it's associated with your apartment, you can be assured your landlord will count it.  Still, that doesn't seem like that gets us to the "magical" 500 number we spoke about.

Here's where you get to be really creative.  Now, to be clear, not every landlord does this.  But, it happens more than you would think.  You know the hallway outside your apartment?  The foyer or entryway to your building?  The laundry room (if you're fortunate enough to have one), or maybe even a roof deck?  You have access and use of those areas, right?  Well, just add up the square footage, divide it by the number of apartments, and that's your share of the common spaces!  Now tack it on to the square footage of your apartment, and voila!

Now, that's if your landlord (or broker.. .sometimes the broker quotes a square footage estimate that has nothing to do with information from the landlord), actually takes the time to do all of that measuring and arithmetic.  Sometimes, they just approximate a number, based on what they feel sounds good (and they can get away with).  Or they will tell you that the square footage was based on construction plans, is an estimate, and that normal "construction tolerances" could be involved (e.g. your apartment shrinks from the design to the actual building).  Though, if construction tolerances are that different from the design, you may be wondering how the building doesn't fall down.

Now, you're probably asking yourself, is this legal?  Actually... yes.  As we hinted at in the beginning, how to measure the square footage of an apartment, and what you can and can't include, is not spelled out by law.  As to why... your guess is as good as mine, but the word lobbyists comes to mind as a possibility.  Believe it or not, in co-op conversions, square footage is not required to be reported.  In condo offerings, the law does not tell the developer how to measure square footage in an apartment.  However, it does say that the developer must disclose how the square footage was arrived at, and then (of course) they must abide by those rules in quoting square footage.  These laws, to our knowledge, do not apply to rentals, however.

So what should you take away from this?  At least for rental apartments, take the square footage listed with a grain of salt.  It's a guideline, and nothing more.  Some will actually be accurate using "common sense" measuring techniques (there are honest landlords and brokers out there... really), and some will be inflated.  Take measurements... will your furniture fit in the space? Or is there a door in the middle of the wall, precluding you from putting the sofa there? Is there adequate closet space (OK, there's almost NEVER adequate closet space in NYC, but I digress).  If your furniture fits, and if you feel comfortable in the space, then go with it.  I've seen 400 sq ft one bedroom apartments that were well designed and livable, and I've seen 600 sq ft one bedroom apartments with a hodgepodge floorplan that were not functional.

To read more about a real-life case involving a condo, check out this article about a buyer who is taking the developer to court over the issue.  The NY Times also did this article in December of 2010 about this very issue.

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