Friday, May 31, 2019

The Price Per Square Foot Trap - Revisited

I wrote this article last year and figured it is time to revisit this.

Originally posted August 3rd, 2018, by Rod Sager

So often I hear clients talking about the price per square foot on a residential listing. I even hear real estate agents talking that up. Why is this house $200/sf and this other one is 180/sf? Sometimes people are adamant about not paying more than "x" per square foot. My friends, in residential real estate, the price per square foot rarely matters as a comparative value. There are way too many other variables that affect the value of a residential property. Any property actually, but in residential there is a broad range of variables. The only time that price per square foot can really be comparative is if all other variables are identical or near identical.

For example to use the cliché of apples and oranges why is this Apple priced at 1.48 per lb and this Orange is .99 per lb? Why is a Red Delicious $2.99 per lb. and a Granny Smith is $1.99 per lb. Apparently Red Delicious Apples are in higher demand!

Well friends the only time this price per foot stat really matters is when you have two houses in the same neighborhood, same floor plan, same condition, same upgrades, hell, right next to each other in fact. Then if one is priced at a higher amount, you have to ask, why?

I think price per square foot is the most abused statistic in residential real estate. Ranch homes are always going to have a higher price per square foot. Small homes in expensive gated communities will have a higher P/SF than a large spacious home in a run down neighborhood. A brand new home will cost more per foot than an old house. Homes on acreage will often cost more because the land value is higher.

One simply cannot make any prudent decision based on price per square foot unless all these other variables match. Since that almost never happens, then we have to look at those other variables. In the end what really matters for a person buying a home that they intend to live in, is this: Do you like the house? Does it do what you need it to do? Can you afford it? If you answer yes to these, then you're done, pull the trigger and write it up!

Don't get caught up in price per square foot. I sold a 720 sf house last year for $255k all cash. It was nicely remodeled but nothing over the top. That is $354/sf. I sold a 4200 sf mansion with a breathtaking view of the Columbia River for 750k around the same time. That was only $179/sf and the house was decked to the nines with top grade trim, marble, soaring ceilings, the whole bit. Why such a dramatic difference. Simple, lots of variables. There is a massive demand for smaller affordable homes. Far more buyers than sellers. In the high end the opposite is true. Furthermore, there is a bit of the economy of scale when building a large house. Neighborhood plays a role as well but when comparing a very large house to a very small house you cross one of the rare times that location is not the number one variable. Demand is the number one variable here. When comparing similar homes across neighborhoods, location resumes its role as the primary variable driving values.

A 2000 sf home on a 10k lot next to a railroad yard might fetch $150/sf and the exact same house a few miles away in a nice neighborhood with a view might fetch $225/sf. Do not let the price per foot trap keep you from getting the right house. Understand that smaller one level homes will almost always have high per foot costs and larger homes on a small lot will have lower per foot costs. Here is a simplified example of why this is the case. Let's take a lot in a neighborhood that is 8,000 sf and fully ready to build. The city says the builder can put any house between 1200-2400 square feet, one or two levels. The following is an oversimplified hypothetical scenario:

The lot is 100k and the development costs (underground infrastructure, city required appurtenances, fees, permits, etc) are 35k. The builder is into this deal 135k before the first nail is hammered. The physical structure cost will vary depending on size and design dynamics. The landscaping and other costs will be more or less the same regardless, lets say 10k. So the hard costs fixed are 145k. Lets say the 1200 foot ranch costs 100k to build. That puts the net cost before marketing and other post build expenses at $245k Let's say the builder budgets 15% for marketing and other costs of sale (real estate commissions, taxes, staff, ads, etc). That makes the total cost of goods about $282k. Let's say builder makes a 10% profit. That makes the 1200 foot ranch home $309k. Now the same scenario with a larger and slightly more expensive 2400 sf two story trimmed out the same might cost 165k to build. Now the builder has a total cost of goods at 360k and a sales price at $395k. The cost per square foot on the ranch is $258/sf where as the equally built and trimmed 2400 foot home is only $165/sf.

There are many costs that are more or less fixed regardless of what type of house is put on the lot so the larger house is less expensive to build on a per/foot basis. The builder however makes only $28k profit on the little house where as he makes $36k on the larger house. The builder has a finite amount of land with which to build so he wants to maximize profit and thus larger homes become more profitable despite having a lower cost per square foot. The lack of new small homes puts even more pressure on the resale market for small homes and that is why you might find a 1940s 720 sf house at $354/sf. 

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