When I was a young woman contemplating marriage, my mother used to say: You don’t just marry the man. You marry the whole family. Now I see the same maxim applies to houses: You don’t just buy the house, you buy the whole neighborhood.
And if you ask architect Marianne Cusato, what’s around a home matters more than the house itself.
In her new book “The Just Right Home,” Cusato doesn’t even get to the particulars of the house until Chapter 13.
“That surprised even me,” Cusato said when I called to talk about her new book.
Cusato, 38, is known for the adorable Katrina Cottages she designed for those left homeless after the eponymous hurricane. The efficient, cute-as-a-button under 500-square-feet homes won Cusato lots of awards, and much deserved attention.
When I heard she’d put her latest thinking between book covers, I grabbed an early copy, read it and called Cusato. We gabbed as only two house-obsessed women can. Here’s what that sounded like:
Q: In writing this book, what did you learn that you didn’t know before you started?
The book turned out to be much less about the home itself and more about finding your quality of life. Where you choose to live – whether in a bustling city or a quiet neighborhood – has a tremendous impact on how you spend your days.
Q: Seems your take-home message is: First decide on the place. Second, find your place in it.
Exactly. Too many buyers and renters do the reverse. That’s a mistake.
Q: I know! My last house, which I still own but rent out, has beautiful Rocky Mountain views and is great for entertaining, which we did often, but we had a 40-minute drive each way to school, which took years off my life. If I had to do it again, I would sacrifice views and size for something closer to school. Where else do buyers go wrong?
It’s easy to get swept away by the romantic view of what a house offers, and overlook what it would be like to live there. A lot of focus goes into the checklist – does it have granite and stainless – and not enough into the life you will live once you’re there.
Many trade commute time for more house. They rationalize that they can get a fourth bedroom and a bigger yard if they drive a little longer. But they’re not thinking about how a half hour more on the road each way will impact their life.
Q: Thank goodness the housing market is loosening up. So many people have been housebound. Now that we can move again, what should we be thinking?
When everything was flowing, we all relied on two promises: one, you could sell whenever you wanted, and two, you would make a profit. That was the mentality. We all had the get-out-free card. Then that changed. That’s all the more reason why you can’t ignore how you really want to live.
Q: You rent. I rent. Isn’t that interesting from two people who love houses as much as we do?
Whether you rent or own should depend on two factors: your need to be mobile and your personal finances. I could live anywhere. I don’t have kids, am not married and my job is completely mobile. But all that could change. So mobility is important to me. But if you see yourself staying in an area five to 10 years, and you have the down payment, you should seriously consider owning.
What I love most about my current house is that I don’t own it. My youngest is about to go off to college, and I will be redefining home – again. Though I want to settle down and nest more than a duck in spring, mobility and flexibility matter more now.
The timing to buy has to be right personally. Lately I see buyers getting too caught up in the market, jumping on a house because interest rates are low. That can be a mistake.
Q: In your book, you talk a lot about delight, which you say gets shortchanged.
Delight has to be an equal player with function and cost, yet delight gets ignored because it can’t be quantified on paper. How many bedrooms, kitchen size, appraisal value and costs are hard facts. When function, cost and delight work together, they keep each other in check. Combine the three, find the sweet spot, and there you will find the right home.
Q: What delights you in the place you live now?
I love the way the light enters my apartment. It makes me happy in the morning. I also love the water views of the Miami River. It’s a balancing act. You make tradeoffs. When I moved to this apartment (from the Coral Gables area of Miami to the upscale Brickell neighborhood), I traded a second bedroom for nicer finishes, and a little walkability – before I could take the elevator down and be in the middle of restaurants everywhere – for amazing views.
Q: Once we find a place that meets our criteria, how can we be sure it’s the one?
We all have a pretty good internal compass. We get in trouble when we don’t listen to it. You think you want to do something. It feels right. Then you’re told by those around you that you’re making the wrong choice. When you stop and listen to yourself, you know what to do.