NEW YORK (MainStreet) —Architect Marianne Cusato has written a book called The Just Right Home (Workman, 2013), echoing the Goldilocks-like search for the perfect domestic comforts. But Custato, who designed the Katrina Cottages in New Orleans post-hurricane, says people have trouble making the right real estate decisions. Cusato spoke to us about her market theories, her support for renting over buying, her advocacy for at-home creature comforts, and the trend toward more efficient homes.

Despite all the defaults and under-water homes, the real estate market seems to be picking up with more bidding wars etc. Are we over the hump?
Cusato: Yes, it appears that we are over the hump. But, it is important not to mistake the recent activity for a return to the irrational exuberance of the housing market in 2005. What is happening at the moment seems to be the result of an inventory shortage. We are seeing a pent-up demand entering into a market with limited options to purchase. New construction has slowed to a trickle, even though the industry is ramping up again. It will take time to get back up to speed. At the same time, many existing homeowners are holding off on selling their homes until the value comes back up a little more. This means that all activity is focused on the few homes that are available, resulting in some places in bidding wars. Having said all of this, there are reports that some of the lax lending policies that created the 2005 bubble are creeping back into the market. If this trend continues, we will only have ourselves to blame in a few years time when the house of cards comes crashing down again. Only time will tell if we have learned from our mistakes.

You have heralded the benefits of renting over buying--why?
Cusato: Home ownership is a great investment for many but not necessarily perfect for everyone at all times. In the book, we outline the different variables to consider before making this decision. First and foremost - can you afford to purchase? We walk the reader through the costs associated with buying and maintaining a home to help them determine if the timing is right. Next, there is the question of mobility vs. stability? How stable is your job, do you need the flexibility of being able to relocate quickly? On the other hand, do you know that you will be staying in one place for a while and want the security of knowing where you will live for the next few years? We outline the pros and cons of each to help the reader determine their right fit.

You say the front porch is back in vogue. How so?
Cusato: A front porch provides connection to the outdoors as well as to a larger community. In a time when Facebook defines community for many, others are finding great value in engaging with friends and neighbors in person. A front porch facilitates these interactions by changing the face of a street to create an outdoor room. The porch pulls the action from being isolated on backyard decks to the front of the house where neighbors can run into each other by chance, encouraging communityconnections to grow.

You argue people are aiming for smaller/more efficient properties: what are some of the innovative trends you’re seeing in this respect?
Cusato: Homes that are efficient to heat and cool - we ask for our cars to have a MPG; it is reasonable to expect the same level of information about our homes. We recommend to the reader that they ask for a years worth of utility bills for any property they are considering, whether to rent or to own. If a full year isn't possible, make sure you get at least January/February and August/September. This way you can allow for heating and cooling in your budget and avoid surprises.

  • Clutter control - Nothing makes a house feel smaller than clutter. We all have things, well designed homes allow for this in clever and creative ways. Perhaps the space under the stairs is captured for storage or a desk, shelves could be added going up stairs, clutter closets that are fitted out with plugs for all of our many cords, a printer, papers, etc....Smart home designs allow for our things by absorbing clutter, thus leaving the living spaces free and open to live.
  • Connection to the Outdoors - Whether it is the front porch as noted above or a garden terrace in the back of the house, smart home designs engage seamlessly to bring the outdoors in to the house.
  • Smart Floor Plans - This starts with something as simple as making sure that the furniture works, can the bed be located in such a way that you can lie in bed without looking at the toilet? Is there privacy between bedrooms, ideally bedrooms are separated with closets or bathrooms so sound doesn't carry between rooms.