Area-based socio-economic status (SES) measures are frequently used in epidemiology. Such an approach assumes socio-economic homogeneity within an area. To quantify the agreement between area-based SES measures and SES assessed at the individual level, we conducted a cross-sectional study of 943 children who resided in 155 small enumeration areas and 117 census tracts from 18 schools in Montreal, Quebec. We used street address information together with 1986 census data and parental occupation to establish area-based and individual level SES indicators, respectively. As compared with the SES score determined at the level of the individual, 13 different area-based SES indices classified the children within the same quintile 28.7% (+/- 2.8%) of the time. The discrepancy was within one quintile in 35.3% (+/- 2.3%) of cases, two quintiles in 20.6% (+/- 3.6%), three quintiles in 11.3% (+/- 4.2%) and four quintiles in 4.1% (+/- 0.2%). In conclusion, we observed a substantial discrepancy between area- based SES measures and SES assessed at the individual level. Caution should therefore be used in designing or interpreting the results of studies in which area-based SES measures are used to test hypotheses or control for confounding.