Understanding Square Footage in a Home

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A home’s square footage is based on multiple dimensions across multiple rooms. This makes it a hard thing for most people to envision—especially when you’re entering into the real estate market for the first time.

An average 2-bedroom apartment is about 1,000 square feet. Most single-family homes range from 1,500-2,500 square feet. On the other side, most tiny homes have the square footage of 500 or less.

But what does that mean? More importantly, how much square footage do you need to live comfortably? While the answer to the second question varies from one person to the next, understanding how square footage is measured can help you figure it out for yourself.

How is square footage calculated?

For zoning and real estate purposes, the square footage usually indicates the home’s total footprint. The opposing walls of the structure are measured and multiplied together. This tells you the total area the house occupies.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a completely accurate method. Large unfinished spaces like garages and basements are subtracted, but the number still includes space lost to walls, stairs, and other construction. This can make the home look larger by the numbers than it feels in reality.

If you want to know the usable square footage of a home, you’ll likely need to take your own measurements. Luckily it’s pretty easy to do if you remember your high school geometry:

  1. Measure two perpendicular walls of each room.
  2. Find the area of each room by multiplying its width by its length.
  3. Add all the room areas together to find the total square footage.

This can get tricky in rooms that aren’t completely square, but it should give you a rough idea of how much square footage you have to work with.

Published square footage numbers should be taken with a grain of salt unless you know how the measurement was determined. They’re likely to be in the right range but the usable square footage may be lower.

Is square footage important?

The overall square footage of a home gives you a basic idea of how much room there is inside, but it doesn’t give you the complete picture. How that space is arranged can be just as important as the total area in determining whether the home feels spacious or cramped.

Figure out which things in your life need the most uninterrupted space. If you want to put in a home theater, for example, you’ll need a room that’s at least 10’ in one dimension (unless you have the budget for an ultra-short throw laser projector).

Other common items that have a large footprint include:

  • Treadmill/elliptical machine (Footprint: 32-40ft2)
  • King-sized beds (Footprint: 42ft2)
  • Ping-pong table (Footprint: 175-225ft2 including playing space)
  • Pool table (Footprint: 200-285ft2 including playing space)

The bottom line

Size isn’t everything. When you’re shopping for homes, it’s important to know your minimum square footage requirements. Beyond that, though, bigger isn’t always better. Here are some basic tips to follow when you’re looking for a home that will fit your life:

  • Know how much space your big-footprint items need. Whether they’re things you have or things you want, planning ahead for large furnishings lets you better visualize how the home will accommodate your life.
  • Bring a tape measurer when you tour homes. It’s hard to visually assess the size of a space. The color of the walls, the placement of windows, and the presence or absence of furniture can make rooms look bigger or smaller than they really are. Taking measurements lets you make a true comparison.
  • Figure out how much space you’re using now. Most renters don’t think about square footage. Knowing the size of your current home or apartment can help in setting your size range. Does your current space feel too small? Where do you wish you had more space? Knowing what you don’t like can help you hone in on what you need.

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