Tax Records is not the definitive source for square footage
Tax Records is not the definitive source for square footage

Why is the appraiser saying it’s only 1,400 sq ft? Tax Records shows the home is 600 sq ft larger. This issue comes up ALL the time, so let’s talk about it.

MY BIG POINT: I can’t speak for every market across the country, but I’ll say there can be a difference between what the building department has on file for a house and what is listed in the Assessor’s Records. In my market Realist is what we call Tax Records and that data comes from the Assessor. In my experience it is usually pretty good, but sometimes it’s completely off because it doesn’t actually reflect what is permitted. This means we need to look to a source that does (or should) keep reliable records on building permits. And that source would be the building department instead of the Assessor. 

The truth: The Assessor’s records are generally reliable, but I’m just saying sometimes they’re not. Why is this? At times it’s as simple as the original builder not turning in accurate information when a house was built. Or maybe an owner took out permits but official records were never updated. Of course we’ve all seen instances where the tax roll shows two units on one lot, but there’s really just one house nowadays. Let’s not forget sometimes owners do an addition without permits, so the Assessor might actually be correct even though the house is technically larger or has even sold on MLS as a larger home. For reference, here are ten reasons why an appraiser’s sketch might be different.


1) Garage included in the square footage: I recently measured a house for a Realtor that was about 1,100 sq ft despite Tax Records stating it was nearly 1,600 sq ft. Based on my sketch it looks like the Assessor had the garage included in the square footage for whatever reason. I’ve definitely seen basements included in the square footage too.

2) Non-permitted area included: I’m also working on something where the tax roll shows an area at nearly 2,500 sq ft but about half this space isn’t actually permitted. Look, most of the time Tax Records is pretty much right (especially in tract areas), but in this case it’s scarily inaccurate. One of the problems is in Sacramento County home owners can “correct” property characteristics in Tax Records by submitting a sketch from an appraiser. I get the idea here, but what if the area in the sketch was not actually permitted (and the appraiser hopefully disclosed that in the report)? It would seem like verifying square footage as permitted would be a nice touch when adding square footage into the tax roll, but I’m afraid that doesn’t always happen. It certainly didn’t happen in the case on my desk and I’ve seen many other instances where an area that was not permitted ended up being reflected as square footage in the Assessor’s information (and then Realist).

Closing advice: If something doesn’t seem right about the square footage, start digging further. Most of the time you’re likely going to be able to trust records, but sometimes they’re going to be off. So when something doesn’t smell right about the size, quality of work, setbacks, etc… it’s time to call the building department to see what permits are on file. I never rat out an owner either, so I don’t call and say, “Hey, this house measured 2,300 sq ft, but what do your records say?” Nope. I would call and ask, “Can you help a brother out? What do your records show for square footage and anything else that has been permitted?” Also, if you’re in Sacramento, here is a link that shows building permits online (you’re welcome). Lastly, remember that it’s not enough that permits were pulled. Were permits finaled? That’s the real question.

I hope this was helpful. This could honestly be a dissertation and what I’ve written only scrapes the surface. Please add your comments below.

Questions: Any stories to share or advice about relying on Tax Records (or not)? How is your market different than mine? Anything to add?

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