Marianne Cusato’s new book The Just Right Home (Workman, $12.95) deals with a question that’s more complicated than it might seem: Where should I live? The book mixes personal finance advice, self-help and tips for navigating the real estate market. At a time when the economy and housing bust have made it tougher to get out of a place that’s not right for you, it’s more important than ever to pick the right home, Cusato says.
Cusato spoke recently about how to make the best housing choices. An edited transcript follows:
Q. What are some of the most common mistakes people make when buying a home?
They look inside a home and they read off a checklist: “It has this, it has that, it’s got the granite and the stainless.” But we don’t think about the experience of living there and how that’s really going to touch everything we do in the day.
Another mistake is buying a house for resale. In reality, if everybody just bought the house they wanted, unless they have really extreme needs — like they love that orange tile or whatever — if you pick what you want to live in, most likely that’s going to be a really good house for resale.
We’re pulled in a certain direction because we think that’s what we should do, but we don’t always listen to what actually would fit best in our lives.
Q. I’ve occasionally interviewed people who expanded their house or moved into a big house when their children are in high school, and I’m thinking, “In five or 10 years, you’re going to have a lot of extra space because the kids will be gone.”
Exactly. Take the long view of where you’re living and how your family might shift — both in terms of the downsizing when the kids move away or even getting bigger because maybe elderly parents might be moving in.
One of the things we try to encourage in the book is really looking at how you’re going to live in your space. What do you do on weekends, what do you do in evenings, where do you eat your meals? When you start to really look at those elements, you’re going to get closer to the home that’s the best fit.
Q. You say that buyers need to look at three things: function, cost and delight.
When you link all of these together, you end up with the most sustainable home in terms of livability. Does it work, does it have the number of bedrooms I need, is it close to where I need to be — that’s the function. If you’re focusing on cost, if you’re looking at a price point, you can get a price point. Delight — that’s the piece that’s not always allowed a seat at the table. If you add that in and balance it with cost and function, if you get the right mix of those, you hit a sweet spot.
Q. When you talk about delight, can you give me some examples?
For me, I love the way the light hits in my apartment. I love waking up and having the light just streaming in. I was talking to someone who had been living in the suburbs and moved to the city and was really worried about giving up the yard. She found a place with a little terrace and she loves her terrace.
It might be your proximity to a park. It could be inside your house; it could be outside. In some cases, delight might be that you got a great deal on it. Some people choose to spend less than they can afford and then have more money left over for other things.
Q. You’ve designed small houses for people who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina, and you’ve also designed houses in a walkable neighborhood. Do you think there’s more of an interest in these kinds of walkable neighborhoods and maybe even smaller spaces?
A: Because of the size of some of the houses I have designed, people sometimes mistake what I say as “everyone should live in 300 square feet.” That’s not the message. The message is: Live in the space that works for you.
All square feet are not made equal. When you have the ceiling height that’s 9 or 10 feet and windows on multiple walls and connections to the outdoors, and when you can actually use the space in your yard because you have private outdoor living space, then the space that you have feels so much larger. It’s not a matter of square footage, it’s more about how that square footage is utilized.
Q. In the book you say that a smaller back yard, if it’s designed well, can be more useful than a larger yard.
If you can walk outdoors and feel that your neighbors are not just staring down at you, you’ll go outside. When the space doesn’t work, you’re not going to use it. You can plant trees and help to define the space.
It’s learning to read a house and knowing what you’re looking for. Other things to look for: How the house flows. Is there privacy between rooms? Can you have a private conversation? Does the furniture fit?
Q. What should people look for on the street?
One of the big things is: Does the streetscape form an outdoor room? Elements like pushing the garage back and the porch forward — that actually helps the space because it puts the person as a primary element and the car is secondary. When the car is primary it’s hard to get out and walk, and that’s led to a lot of isolated places.
Q. You mention mother-in-law apartments, but zoning laws often prohibit them. Do you find that zoning sometimes stands in the way of changes to housing policy, such as allowing for denser development?
Zoning laws are usually quite well intended but they have consequences that go deeper than people would plan on. There’s nothing greater to enrich a community than being able to have a mix of incomes — which doesn’t mean we’re bringing housing projects in. It means you could have an accessory apartment in the back of your house for an aging parent, or a young professional or your college-age kid who’s home for the summer and needs a little more privacy. When you add those demographics into a community, you enrich the community. It can also help the homeowners offset their mortgage costs.
Q. Housing construction seems to be picking up again after years of very low levels. What trends do you see in home construction for the next couple of years?
I think we’ve seen a much savvier consumer. When anything will sell, anything will be built. And that’s what we ran into, up till the housing bust. Now we’re seeing consumers who are asking for something different. If you look at Millennials, they’re not asking for their parents’ homes. They don’t want to live the way they grew up. That’s natural; most generations react against where they’ve come from. They have college debt. They want their house to be efficient. They want a home that makes sense and is livable and has proximity to the things you do in a day.
There is also a shift toward more urban and dense areas, especially in places where the formula already exists. You’re in an area where there’s precedent for that, and people like living like that.