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.
Boy, she wasn't kidding. 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” (Workman, April 2013), 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 under 500-square-feet of amazingly efficient and cute-as-a-button houses won Cusato lots of awards.
When I heard she'd put her latest thinking between covers, I grabbed an early copy, read it and called Cusato, whom I have talked to before about Americans' home needs.
Me: In writing this book, what did you learn that you didn't know before you started?
Cusato: 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 — literally — 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.
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.
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. Now that we can move again, what should we be thinking?
A: 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?
A: 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. If you see yourself staying in an area five to 10 years, and you have the down, you should seriously consider owning.
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: I know you're a big fan of compact, convenient housing. Does that mean you're anti-big house in the 'burbs?
A: Absolutely not. They're right for some. They're great for big families, for multigenerational families, for those who crave space, and those who work from home.
Q: In your book, you talk a lot about delight, which you say gets shortchanged.
A: Delight has to be an equal player with function and cost, yet delight gets ignored because it can't be quantified. 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. Find the sweet spot, and there you will find the right home.
Q: Once we find a place that meets our criteria, how can we be sure it's the one?
A: 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.
Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.