SIZE MATTERS… And When It Comes To Real Estate…

by: Greg Nagel
Ask Nagel Realty

SIZE MATTERS... And When It Comes To Real Estate,
Width Is Actually More Important Than Length

The Premise

If you take 100 people and ask them to compare 2 rooms:     Room 1:  15×15     vs     Room 2:  30×10

Literally, 100/100 will choose Room 1 despite it being smaller! I cannot explain why this is the case, but it’s been my observation with literally hundreds of buyers I’ve worked with, whether they are Wicker Park condo buyers, Bucktown single-family home buyers, West Loop loft buyers, or Ukrainian Village 3-flat walk-up buyers. Room width matters.

Other Factors, Like Sounds, Are Buyer-Taste-Specific

While this preference for room width is seemingly universal, there are lots of things that are more buyer-taste specific – like sound.  I’ve had buyers that did not think the noise was too loud being right next to Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital  with its ambulance bay and emergency helipad and purchased in the Ranquist development on Oakley where their living room was looking right at the helipad! However, I’ve had other buyers who would not buy a condo in the East Village on the 1000 block of Wolcott, because of the noise from Lasalle II when it rings its bells twice a day. The point is that buyer’s sensitivity to noise varies widely. My theory is that it has to do with how much noise there was in the primary bedroom they grew up in but that’s just a guess.

entrance to Saints Mary and Elizabeth's emergency room and helipad
Saints Mary and Elizabeth Hospital emergency room entrance & helipad

Standard Lot Sizes Make Width Everything

So in Chicago, our standard lot size is 25 feet wide by 125 feet deep, so the length is literally 5 times the width! So intuitively, width is clearly more valuable.

Typically, most of our buildings are about 21.5 feet wide outside brick to outside brick with a 3.5-foot gangway. Inside the properties widths are about 19 feet, but keep in mind you have staircases eating up lots of space, so on narrower lots, you start seeing dining room tables start to encroach on fireplaces. With narrower spaces, it can start to look and feel like a bowling alley, and less like a home.

Size Really Matters When Buying Land

Chicago zoning rules determine how many units can be built in a single plot of land, with Floor Area Ration (FAR) determining the allowable buildable above grade square feet, building height, and required setbacks.  These factors are all driven by the lot size and zoning.

A standard 3,125 sq ft lot that is 25×125 in Ukrainian Village zoned R4 might be worth around 500K or $160 per sq ft.  However, a 3,000 sq ft smaller lot that is 30×100 in Ukrainian Village zoned R4 might be worth 550K or $183 per sq ft, solely because of the additional width.

    • Size Matters!
    • Width is literally worth more than length!
sirvey drawing of 1040 N Winchester
This is the survey of my personal 4 flat apartment investment property in East Village

Lies, Damn Lies & Square Footage Numbers

Realtors are notorious about putting in erroneous square footage numbers into their MLS listings. This is partly due to their marketing zealousness overpowering their sense of integrity, partly due to incompetence, but perhaps mostly due to the fact that there is no consistent measuring methodology. Developers, architects, appraisers, assessors, and even construction engineers all have their own measuring methodologies that differ further by product type. I’ve seen them measure only usable space ignoring hallways, but I’ve also seen garages included. I’ve seen them do outside brick to outside brick and then subtract out the common hallways. The lack of consistency has led to many realtors just putting “Zero” down on their MLS listing to reduce argument and limit liability.

mark twain quiote: There are lies, damn lies and statistics

What tends to be a lot more accurate than the MLS total square footage are the room sizes. An inaccurate room size is much more obvious than if a broker put down 1,600 square feet when it’s really just 1,300 sq ft. If a broker represents that a bedroom that is really 10×10 is 14×10, that’s going to be pretty obvious to most people – and can be easily checked with just a tape measure.

Before I ever let a buyer make an offer, I do extensive analysis to determine a home’s true market value by preparing a Comparative Market Analysis (CMA), as I never assume the seller has accurately priced the home. When doing the CMA, I use the room size square feet for comparing the subject and comparable properties as opposed to using the stated total square feet.

This excludes bathroom and hallways which can cause a minor inaccuracy, but it is far more reliable than using the total square feet. Incidentally, this is also how appraisers do their square feet calculations in their valuations as well.

How Buyers Should Analyze Size And Rule Out Properties

So even if the living room is 300 sq ft, like the 30×10 Room 2 in my opening example, it will not feel nearly as good as a 18×15 room that is only 270 sq ft. I advise my buyers to make sure the lower metric of a living room dimension is at least 14 feet wide.

Also, some brokers will list the dining room combined with the living room, and some properties have an open layout where the kitchen contributes to a great room feel.  So when evaluating the overall living space, it’s important to look at the total square feet of the Living Room, Dining Room, & Kitchen combined.

example of an "open" layout living space

Assuming we were to compare 2 properties that both have a typical open layout:
Property A:  LR=20×15 including DR, kitchen =10×10 which totals = 400 sq ft
Property B:  LR 17×15, DR: 10×10, kitchen = 12×10 which totals = 475 sq ft

Property B enjoys a more spacious living space despite having a smaller stated Living Room. So what I coach my buyers to do when reviewing MLS listings to determine which properties we should tour is for them to do a two-tier analysis even before they look at the pictures, which can be quite deceiving:

  • Is the lower metric of the living room at least 14 feet or wider? If not, then most likely we should rule that property out.
  • Look at the total sq ft of the Living Room, Dining Room, & Kitchen combined to determine if the living space size is appealing.

If the property is narrow, that should be reflected in the price. For buyers comfortable with a narrower space, it can be a way to get into a neighborhood they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. But they have to know the trade-offs – narrower spaces can sometimes feel more like living in a bowling alley than a home.

Size Matters! Width is more important than length! Therefore, Ask Nagel!

Greg Nagel

Greg Nagel is the Managing Broker/Owner of Ask Nagel Realty and a Top 1% producer of all Chicago brokers. He has been featured on two episodes of HGTV’s number one show, House Hunters. Check out the 200+ five-star reviews of Greg’s work from his clients on Zillow.