The Measure of Things*

* Or, ‘Why square footage listed on the MLS points toward the truth, but might not be truth itself’. 

Just me being silly before leaving for my “What is ANSI?” class at Austin Board of Realtors

I am pretty sure the 100-foot tape measure in the video is older than I am, by the way.  Here’s bringing you information from Friday’s class on measuring square footage…

Where does that square footage number come from on a home-for-sale listing? It will say something like “according to tax records” or “according to owner”. But, really where did the county appraisal district or the owner get that number?

If the house was originally built as part of a subdivision of houses going in pretty much all at once, the builder probably had blueprints for 4 or 5 different house designs and the house in question came from one of those blueprints. Did the builder follow that blueprint exactly, or are there variations in the homes that all came from the same blueprint? Who knows? But, the county probably used the builder’s blueprint numbers to assign a square footage to the house in question.

If a house has no blueprint that is available, the county tax appraiser can come out and, using a wheeled device running along the ground, measure the footprint of the foundation to the nearest foot and calculate the square footage of the foundation from those measurements. (How exact do you think that is?) And, if the house has a second story, the footprint number is doubled to represent an approximation of the size of the house. Imagine if the upstairs portion of the house is a loft with only half the square footage of the room below. Or, imagine rooms under the sloping roofline that are scarcely high enough to stand up in. The county appraiser does not know these things just by looking at the house from outside, so the square footage calculation might be off considerably from the area a person can actually walk on inside the house.

Even square footage that was calculated by a licensed appraiser hired by a previous seller or by a previous lender might be a deceptive number. Until fairly recently, there was no standardized way of measuring square footage. Some measurements would include the thickness of interior walls in the total square footage and some would not. Some would include staircase space, some not. Some older measurements might include square footage of upstairs rooms with only 6-foot ceilings, while newer measurements would not. And so on and so forth.

A licensed appraiser is required now to use methods spelled out by the American National Standards InstituteWhich is a good thing, because we can compare two different house sizes measured recently by licensed appraisers.

But, if we are looking at the work of an appraiser from years ago, we simply don’t know how the square footage was calculated at that time.

Are you starting to be a little skeptical about how personally important that number is on the builder’s marketing material, or on the MLS listing? Yeah, me too. That’s why you always hear me answer the square footage question with exactly what we know, “1843 square feet according to the tax records“, or “5220 square feet according to the builder.” I am not trying to evade the question as much as I am emphasizing the approximate nature of that number we’re all looking at.

How does this affect you? Buyer or seller, you are gonna want the buyer’s lender to see an appraisal that matches what the buyer is offering for the house, right? I mean, what if the appraiser comes up with square footage that is considerably less than the square footage that has been on the county tax records all these years? The appraisal might not match what everyone has been thinking that amount of square footage should be worth! Either the buyer coughs up more funds from her pocket, or the deal falls through, ‘cuz no lender is going to make a loan greater than the ascribed value of the house.

Two lessons:

  1. If you are a seller and the square footage listed on the tax records, or from another source when you bought the house, seems really off from what you are observing when you are in the house, you might want to hire your own appraiser to make the calculation using the most up-to-date methods. Why risk going down a long road toward closing a sale when the whole thing comes to a screeching halt because the buyer’s appraisal is lower than the contract amount?
  2. If you are a buyer and you are running around trying the get the most square footage for the dollar, how are you going to know when you’ve found that touchstone? Can you trust the exact number you are seeing on the listing?

Buyers: calculating the value of a home in your mind should not begin and end with price per square foot. I hope you see by now that this is not a trustworthy number! Like I said, that number is a signpost that points toward truth, but it is not likely to be Truth itself.

Sources: Candy Cooke’s class on “What is ANSI?”

Square Footage- Method For Calculating: ANSI Z765-2013 from Home Innovation Research Labs


Dripping Springs Opportunities

Today, right now, at 1:31 pm, there are 130 new, under construction, or to-be-built-soon homes on the MLS (Multiple Listing Service) in the Dripping Springs school district. They range in price from $247,250 to $1,499,000, and a few even have acreage. There is even one cabin-style wood house on acreage out in the Henly area. By the way, there are some homes with an Austin zip code which are zoned to Dripping Springs, and there are houses in Driftwood, too, which are zoned to D.S.

Dripping Springs Independent School District

Now if it’s recreation you want in the DSISD, there are 22 homes on the MLS, of various ages, which have…. pools AND horses allowed. Sign me up! Oh, and the prices range from $525,000 to $3,197,700.


See the baby? This was the end of May- I wonder what this little fawn looks like now? They are all starting to lose their spots.

Lynn Bridge 512-970-9121

New Numbers

Another happy buyer client. “I love my new back yard with all the sunshine and grass! Thank you, Lynn, for helping my human and me find our beautiful new home.”

The clients of Austin Metrostudy are builders and related industries. “Our survey team drives over 8,500 miles and over 1,000 subdivisions every 90 days to provide you with the valuable information you need on future lots, vacant developed lots, homes under construction, and homes that have been completed.”

A representative of the company made a presentation to a group of REALTORS® on Friday and I will give you a brief report from the 5-county Austin area, and the Dripping Springs/Driftwood area, in particular.

Overall job growth in the Austin area has fallen from 45,000 new jobs/year created in 2015 to 30,000 new jobs/year created currently. However, with growth of 30K annually, it is still a hot job market and demand for homes is up with available inventory down. What does this mean? Rising home prices and a real affordability issue for the City of Austin. For the home-buying population in general, the good news is that annual salaries in the Austin area are $20,000 higher than other parts of the country.

New home builders have caught on to the affordability issue and, not wanting to leave any part of the home-buying field fallow, they are building less-expensive homes in the following ways: the homes are being built on smaller lots to reduce the price of land being used per house; some homes have fewer bells and whistles to make construction less expensive; and subdivisions are being developed farther from the city center where the land is cheaper for the developer to buy.

Builders are now experiencing a decided downturn in available workers, so a new house is taking longer to build, including most custom homes. There are fewer workers available to do the same amount of work.

There are certain pockets that have unique building situations, and my home area, Dripping Springs, is one. The land is hilly, so it is naturally more expensive to build on than flat farming lots are. Also, if you recall from my post about septic systems, neighborhoods in this area need to have their own sewage treatment plant, or each home must have extra acreage to accommodate an individual septic system. More land per home= higher price per home. The other unique aspect of the Dripping Springs area is that it is scenic; many lots have expansive views, which, of course, drives up the home prices.

The observed numbers for 2016, fourth quarter are: 473 new home started, and 378 homes sold/transactions closed. There are 2.9 months of inventory in the area (6 months or so is considered a balanced market, with about the same number of homes on the market as buyers looking for a home.). The number of vacant developed lots (the ‘hood has streets and utilities in place) is equal to a 32.8 month supply. There were 741 new lots in 2016, with 8000 future new lots on the books. 1000 of those have streets in, or excavation has started. The average base price for a new home in the Dripping Springs area is $458,000, and this number has not risen recently.

love to keep track of new homes in this area, whether they are truly luxurious, or less expensive, but thoughtfully planned. One new subdivision with prices well below average is easily in walking distance from the business area of Dripping Springs, as well as from an established historic park. Also, see my post on the truly custom homes in Driftwood.




Functional Friday- A Real Custom Home

Functional Friday- This day is reserved for home design, home décor, and tips for organizing.


This week, I visited a sample custom home in Driftwood, Texas and listened to builder representatives explain the custom home building process. The company is Hill Country Artisan Homesand it is a division of Pacesetter Homes, which is a Qualico company out of Canada.

My most basic take-aways for you are:

  1. Look for financial stability in the home builder! You don’t want to get part-way through the process and find that the builder has gone belly-up, taking your monetary advances along into bankruptcy.
  2. Look at the resources of the home builder. The higher-quality and more reliable the vendors of materials and the building crews are, the more likely you are to get the best prices that the builder has negotiated, and even to get a completed product ON TIME.
  3. How well does the company communicate? Especially if you are building a new home in another state or city from where you are currently living, you’ve got to have timely and thorough communication from your builder.

The builder I visited with this week builds truly custom homes, either from your own plans with your own architect, or starting from select plans in their portfolio and working with an independent architect that the builder regularly works with. In this particular subdivision, The Preserve at La Ventana, the subdivision covenant states that no two homes may have the same floor plan or design. The lot sizes start at 1.5 acres and the home-with-lot prices start at about $600,000.

The first meeting with the client is reserved for asking the client lots of questions to narrow down lifestyle needs, including access for now and in the future, hobbies, specialty items, etc., and to find out which style the client is attracted to. At this stage, no one even looks at a floor plan. This is the ‘discovery phase’.

If you want more detailed information than I can give in a short blog post, I’ll be happy to share what I learned. Just email me at, or give me a call at 512-970-9121.

If I Could Give an A+ on Angie’s List…

My friend contacted me the other day with an interesting question. Could a double-deep residential lot be subdivided in an Austin neighborhood?

lot lines represented by food

Here’s the situation represented by food (bird’s eye view): the marshmallows are the approximate footprint of the current house; the spaghetti are lot lines, both lots belonging to one parcel; the chocolate, which may or may not have been nibbled, represents the street.

Is it possible to develop or sell the back lot?

City of Austin has a website to help answer such questions. But, it makes me cross-eyed. So, there is this really handy human interface called the Development Assistant Center that helps me keep my cool.

Friend and I took a field trip to the Development Assistant Center this morning, and we found the waiting area rather occupied. I had visions of a several-hour wait before we could be helped! Nope.

One relaxed conversation later, we were called into the office area of Michelle Casillas, a Senior Planner. She checked the zoning (single-family 3 in a “P” overlay). All lots must have access to a public street, yes? Well, this one only has access through the lot which fronts onto the street. That’s OK, IF… there are 20 feet of space between a structure and the side edge of the property for access to the back lot. (This stretch of 20-by-something land is called a ‘flag’.) 🇺🇸

This particular lot does not have enough width between the house and lot line for a flag. However, it might surprise you to know that, inside this particular zoning of SF3P, a duplex, or even a separate domicile can be built, IF both homes are in a condominium regime. The city has nothing to do with a condominium regime. You go to a development attorney to get that drawn up.

The field trip to the development office wasn’t entirely good news for my friend, but we were treated respectfully and served quickly and efficiently. A really nice experience.

If I could rate the City of Austin Development Assistant Center on Angie’s List, I would give it an A+. Thank you, city government.

The Not-so-lowly Brick


Back on April 1, I had an inspiring visit with Eric Jensen at the Elgin Butler Company showroom in north Austin. Butler Brick is an old Austin company established in 1873, about the same time as Gracy Title Company from a previous post. Eric is the Trikeenan Tile and McIntyre Tile representative for the company, both lines of “artisanally-made” tile that belong to Elgin Butler now.

Below is a snapshot of the museum wall at the Elgin Butler Company showroom. The Butler home was built on the soil that now hosts the Zachary Scott Theater in Austin, and the clay quarry was excavated in what is now Zilker Park. If you ride or walk along the trail on the north shore of Ladybird Lake past the Texas Rowing Center, you will see an old brick support for one side of a pulley system that carried clay from the quarry on the south side of the Colorado River to the north side, where the original Butler Brick factory was.


Do you know the difference in construction of traditional modular brick and thin, facing brick? Yeah, I didn’t, either.

This is a face-glazed modular brick, sized 2 1/4″ x 7 5/8″ on a side:


The holes lower the weight. This brick is manufactured like pasta being extruded, then cut into brick-size. The glaze gets sprayed on and fired after each brick is hardened, checked for proper specs and sanded smooth. Bonus? The glaze is graffiti-proof.

Here are variations of bricks:


In the back is the large structural brick. You could really build a wall out of a bunch of these things! And in the front,  thin bricks made by scoring the glazed structural brick and breaking off opposing faces. These can be applied to the surface of a wall that is constructed of a material less expensive than the brick.

Now a question for you: what happens to the ‘insides’ of the brick that has been shorn of its glazed faces? It is broken up and used in the clay for making more bricks. Not much waste here.

Eric said that the market for bricks has changed rapidly- even high-end buildings are expected to be demolished in a relatively short period. So, thin brick, rather than structural brick, meets the needs of the architects and contractors who are working for the owners/investors.

Now, let’s get excited about the artisanal tiles showcased at the Elgin Butler showroom. E.B. owns McIntyre Tile, a small factory in the wine country of California. It also owns Trikeenan, located in Hornell, NY, next to Alfred University, home of extremely highly-trained ceramics graduates.

Tile glazes are gauged on their smoothness and consistency of color from 1, which looks the same in every single batch, to 5, which can sport quite different hues and textures in the same kiln batch. Trikeenan is known for its hand-dipped, “rangy” mineral colors. The kilns are not uniform in temperature throughout, so the glaze processes differently, depending on where tiles were stacked inside the kiln.


The Trikeenan tiles above all came from the very same batch! The slight irregularity in size and shape is especially highly-prized.

Below, you can enjoy more fun with those irregular, handmade-looking, artisan tiles:

IMG_1851 IMG_1855 IMG_1854

Shhhhh…. here’s a secret: when the tiles are formed, they are smooth. They have to be impressed with a roller to create those dings and scratches.

IMG_1853 IMG_1852

McIntyre tiles are being made for high end designs, too, and they are extremely hard, durable tile for indoors or out. Here is a line of “Sears and Roebuck house” colors, made for restoring these particular historical treasures, or for emulating the feel of that Arts and Crafts period.


Here’s my brick and tile informant, Eric Jensen himself, pointing out more showroom products.


Every time I venture into the Elgin Butler showrooms, I want to take, at the very least, a sample of EVERYTHING home with me. I run my fingers across everything because it is all so luscious.

On this trip I was introduced, for the first time, to the office guru: John Russell (Russ) Butler, great-grandson of the founder of the company. Russ no longer owns the company; it was sold by the Butler family to Matthew Galvez about 10 years ago; but Russ retains office and employment as the “how-to” guy for all the builders and architects on the other end of the phone connection.


He majored in Chemical Engineering in college, with a minor in Ceramics, and worked for Gladding, McBean, maker of terra cotta sewer pipe. In the pre-Sputnik, pre-Atlas rocket era, Russ Butler worked on ceramic nosecones for rockets.

Apparently, I will be able to slip into a group tour of the brick plant one day, so I’ll report back to you. If you have any questions, you can go visit the Elgin Butler showroom yourself, or ask me here and I’ll find you an answer. I hope you feel inspired to find a way to enjoy more classy brick and tile in your life.