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 that the same maxim applies to houses: You don't just buy the house; you buy the whole neighborhood.

To judge from her new book, "The Just Right Home" (Workman), architect/author Marianne Cusato seems to think that what's around a home matters more than the house itself. Cusato, 38, is known for the adorable Katrina Cottages she designed for those left homeless by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Less than 500 square feet in size, each is amazingly efficient and cute as a button. They've won Cusato lots of awards and attention.

Architect/author Marianne Cusato’s new book, "The Just Right House" could help readers find a home to rent or own that will enhance their
Architect/author Marianne Cusato's new book, "The Just Right House" could help readers find a home to rent or own that will enhance their quality of life. (Alex Fagundo)

In a phone interview, I asked Cusato what she learned while writing the book. "(It) turned out to be much less about the home itself and more about finding your quality of life," she said. "Where you choose to live ... has a tremendous impact on how you spend your days."

So your message is, "First decide on the place; second, find your place in it," I asked Cusato.

"Exactly. Too many buyers and renters do the reverse," she said. "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. 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. ... But they're not thinking about how a half-hour more on the road each way will impact their life."


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Now that the housing market is loosening up, and we can afford to move again, what should we be thinking? I asked her.

"When everything was flowing, ... you could sell whenever you wanted, and you would make a profit." Cusato said. "Then that changed. That's all the more reason why you can't ignore how you really want to live."

You rent and I rent, I observed.

She said, "Whether you rent or own should depend on two factors: your need to be mobile and your personal finances. If you see yourself staying in an area five to 10 years, and you have the down payment, you should seriously consider owning."

Since Cusato is a big fan of compact, convenient housing, I asked if she thinks people should avoid living in a big house in the 'burbs?

"Absolutely not," she said. "They're great for big, sprawling families, for multigenerational families, for those who crave space, and those who work from home. (But) delight has to be an equal player with function and cost, yet delight gets ignored because it can't be quantified on paper. ... 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."

Marni Jameson is the author of "House of Havoc" and "The House Always Wins" (Da Capo Press). Contact her through www.marnijameson.com.