What Can I Count as Living Area?
Enclosed Porches, basements, garages, bonus rooms, unfinished rooms. Does your home have any of these areas? Are you confused if you can count them in your home’s living area? In this blog post, we’ll answer the question we’ve heard from countless homeowners: “What can I count as living area?”
The focus of this blog isn’t to give you every example of what areas can and cannot be counted as living area – or as it’s commonly referred – square footage, but to give you some general guidelines that you can apply to almost any area of your home.
In general, in order to be included in your home’s square footage, the area must be finished, the area must be accessible to other finished areas of the home, and specific ceiling height requirements must be met. We’ll look at each of these next.
Before we go any further, I want to mention that most of the information in this post is taken from the 2013 ANSI Standards document, which can be found here.
So let’s begin with the finish (no pun intended!). What are examples of finish materials, and what spaces are included in finished square footage?
ANSI states that
Wall and ceiling finishes include but are not limited to painted gypsum wall board, wallpaper-covered plaster board, and wood paneling. Floor finishes include but are not limited to carpeting, vinyl sheeting, hardwood flooring, and concrete floors with decorative finishes but do not include bare or painted concrete.
Decorative finishes are long-lasting or permanent components of the slab produced by such methods as chemical staining, integral coloration of the concrete, scoring, or stamping that modify the texture or appearance of the slab.
Let’s think about your basement. Do you have bare or painted concrete block walls? Maybe bare concrete floors? Then that portion of the basement cannot count towards the basement finish (more on that later). Or perhaps you have concrete floors in your home (yes, we’ve seen it many times!). If the concrete is not treated with the methods mentioned above, then those areas with bare concrete cannot be included in your square footage calculation.
Regarding garages and other areas, ANSI states that
Garages and unfinished areas cannot be included in the calculation of finished square footage. Chimneys, windows, and other finished areas that protrude beyond the exterior finished surface of the outside walls and do not have a floor on the same level cannot be included in the calculation of square footage.
We also read that
Porches, balconies, decks, and similar areas that are not enclosed or not suitable for year-round occupancy cannot be included in the Statement of Finished Square Footage.
So that second story bay window that bumps out beyond the outside wall? Not square footage. The garage? Nope. Three-story chimney? Can’t count it. Covered porches and patios, or three-season rooms do not qualify either.
What role does access play? I’ve seen several bonus rooms placed above an attached or detached garage that are accessible only by going outside, or through the garage. Here’s what ANSI says about those rooms:
Finished areas above garages are included in the finished square footage that is at the same level in the main body of the house, but only if they are connected to the house by continuous finished areas such as hallways or staircases.
So if you go out to the detached garage and up the stairs to a finished, heated & cooled area, it cannot be considered in the square footage. Or even if the garage is attached to the home, if you must access the bonus room by going into the attached garage, then going up the stairs to the finished room, that area also cannot be counted.
Ceiling Height Requirements
This is perhaps the most misunderstood, and even disregarded aspect of measuring a home’s square footage. To be counted in the square footage, if we’re following ANSI guidelines, here’s what must be followed:
For a room to be included in the square footage calculation, the floor located under sloping ceilings must have a clearance of at least 5 feet (1.52 meters); further, at least one-half of the square footage in the room must have ceilings of at least 7 feet (2.13 meters) in height. For example, a one-and-one-half-story, 28 by 42 foot Cape Cod- style house has a first level with a ceiling height of 8 feet. On the second level, the ceiling has a maximum height of 9 feet but a minimum height of 4 feet at the walls as the ceiling slopes to match the pitch of the roof. All areas are finished. While the first level has 1,176 above-grade finished square feet, only that portion of the second level meeting the ceiling height requirements described above is included in the square footage calculation.
So to recap these ANSI standards in English, here are just two things to remember:
- If you have an upper level with sloping ceilings, only the area where the side (knee) walls come up to at least five feet can count in the living area.
- At least one-half of all rooms must have a ceiling height of at least seven feet.
Another word about porches
Builders are notorious for beefing up the ‘square footage’ of a home by including the garage and porches. They like to call it ‘4,200 square feet under roof’. This only works to complicate things. What if the true living area was only 2,200 square feet, and the home had another 2,000 square feet in garages and porches? See the problem? So if you’re reading plans or any marketing material from a builder (or anyone for that matter), make sure they’re advertising living area. Because garages, porches, decks, etc. are not considered living area and should never be listed as such.
One possible exception to this is an enclosed porch. Throughout the country, these rooms go by various names. Sun Room, Florida Room, Enclosed Porch, Four-Season Room. In order for such a room to be counted in the living area of the home, it must meet the following criteria:
- The room must be heated and available for year-round use.
- The room must be finished to the same degree as the rest of the home.
- The room must be accepted in the market.
In our neck of the woods, number two above is usually the deciding factor. Sometimes we see just a straight enclosed porch with no heat. So that automatically doesn’t qualify. But most of the time, they have heat, and are accepted in the market, but aren’t finished to the same degree as the rest of the home. We see walls of windows, bare concrete floors, vinyl knee walls, you name it. Unless the rest of the home is like that, then it won’t qualify as living area. This doesn’t mean there’s no market value, though! The enclosed room could – in some markets – command just as much in market value as living area. That’s a very important question you’ll want to ask of your appraiser.
Finally, let’s wrap this post up by talking about basements. Basements are another very confusing aspect of a home’s living area. Across the country, sellers and Realtors advertise square footage differently, and sometimes, you need a Ph.D. just to understand what belongs where! But since this is a blog post from an appraiser’s perspective, I’ll let you know how appraisers calculate square footage in basements, and how we all must report basement square footage.
One of the most common questions we get when appraising a home with a basement is, “you don’t count the basement in the square footage, right?” My answer is always “yes and no” First of all, in the markets we serve, we follow ANSI. ANSI guidelines state that if any portion of a lower level is below grade, then that entire level is considered basement. So if you are at grade level on three sides, but one side is two feet underground, then the entire lower level is basement. Now let’s say the main level has 1,500 square feet and it’s over a full, 100% finished basement. On page one of the appraisal report, it specifically asks for gross living area above grade. So that will be listed as 1,500. Above that, in the Improvements section, and again on the ‘sales grid’ portion of the report, the basement is listed separately. We list the total basement square footage, and also the portion of that square footage which is finished. So in this scenario, you could see 1,500 square feet listed as the basement square footage, and 100% listed as the finish. I won’t get into the weird and confusing format we write in on the sales grid. That’s a post for another day. And just know that the basement should be considered in the value estimate of your home.
So, no – basements aren’t considered in the living area of the home, but they are considered in the basement square footage of the home. How basements are valued varies from market to market and from state to state, so again – it’s extremely important that you hire an appraiser to help you develop an opinion of your home.
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That is all.
Helping homeowners navigate the appraisal process,
Ryan Bays, SRA, AI-RRS