Designer has stern words for builders and buyers alike



Marianne Cusato says some home builders are getting it wrong.

They have the right clients, but they are building the wrong house for them.

There’s too much fixation on stone counter tops and square footage, for starters.

Author of “The Just Right Home,” Cusato is a 38-year-old Miami architect who made a name for herself when she designed the first “Katrina Cottage” after Hurricane Katrina created the need for inexpensive housing that could be built or trucked in quickly after a disaster. New Urbanist planner Andres Duany, a mentor to Cusato, thought the FEMA trailer was an abomination, and put her to the task of designing an alternative.

FEMA still uses trailers, but Cusato won a lot of awards for the cottage. Now she makes her living not by designing houses, but by consulting with home builders on how to offer a better product.

This is her life’s calling, as you can tell by her other books: “Get Your House Right,” a guide to architectural elements and which to use and not use; and “The Value of Design.”

“The Just Right Home” is subtitled “Buying, Renting, Moving — or Just Dreaming — Find Your Perfect Match.” Published by Workman, it won the Bob Bruss award as best real estate book of 2013 from the National Association of Real Estate Editors.

“There are so many other things beyond granite counters and square footage; in fact, those things become completely irrelevant when you really look at the big picture,” said Cusato, speaking at the NAREE convention this year in Atlanta. “Granite is what is required in the vacuum of placemaking, in the vacuum of really looking at the lifestyle you want to have.”

In other words, instead of really thinking about sensible home design, some owners just want to dazzle their guests with fixtures and finishes.

She says the real estate calculus has shifted from home-buying to place-choosing. As such, proximity trumps location — it is important to be close to shopping, schools and jobs, rather than in just a “desirable” neighborhood.

“We are seeing a new economy and a different way of living. We have new rules of real estate,” said Cusato.

“It used to be an absolute given that you would want to buy a home; that you were un-American if you didn’t own — something was wrong with you, you failed somehow.

“If you bought that home, you were guaranteed that you could sell it whenever you wanted for a profit. So there was very little consequence to the decision — you would just do it, and the current would push people in that direction.”

The recent decline cast the market in a new light, she said. Buyers could make mistakes. Prices didn’t always go up. The time to buy is not necessarily now.

“What we are seeing in this economy is that it is no longer a given that you would own a home,” she said. “That renting could actually be a viable solution for a lot of people. If you can’t afford all of the money down, or the timing is not right — you are not going to be in that home for very long — it may be actually a good decision.

“We have made a lot of decisions based on what we thought we should do, or the perception of how we thought we were going to live in our home. But the reality of our lives actually turned out to be different, and that led a lot of people to the wrong homes.”

That didn’t matter so much in the 1980s or ’90s, when a house could be dumped and still yield a profit. But that is no longer guaranteed.

“That changes the equation,” said Cusato, who rents her Miami condo in the fashionable Icon Brickell tower. Her roommate is a small dog named Gigi.

“It not only makes home ownership more of a responsibility, but it also makes it much more interesting, because now you have to pay attention to where you want to live and how you want to live,” she said.

“Because we thought of homes as something that were consumable, a lot of people lived lives that did not quite meet their needs. The drive-til-you-qualify house, where you go just a little bit further to get a house that was a little larger — you think, ‘It’s just 15 more minutes, 30 more minutes.’ But what was the tradeoff? How did that end up impacting lives?

“A lot of people got trapped into thinking they needed the big yard for their children to play in, and the reality of the yard is that the children were overly programmed and never played in the yard. We thought we were buying into the American Dream, but the reality was often very different.”

Cusato said she wrote her book “to help people understand how they want to live their lives and how they want to live in their homes. This is a book about where you want to live, and we don’t go inside the house until chapter 13.

“There are very simple questions at the end of every chapter, a gut check, which is: What is your internal compass telling you. A lot of times, building up to the bust, we ignored our internal compass and did what we thought we should do or what we were told what was the best investment, even if it didn’t fit our lives.

“After we do our gut check, we do our reality check: Does it actually work for you?”

Cusato describes the “balancing act” that buyers must play, considering a home’s function, cost and delight.

“These key elements — any decision you ever make, especially housing, has to find the sweet spot among the three. Say it could work and you could afford it, but if you don’t enjoy it, it is not sustainable and you could never really make it work.

“If it works for you and you enjoy it, but you can’t afford it, then this housing decision will be limited. It is a balancing act with tradeoffs, because the reality is, the perfect home in the perfect place at the perfect price, really doesn’t exist.

“We all have to make tradeoffs. The answers are very different for everyone.”

Ignoring your “internal compass,” she said, and not accepting the balancing act, “could cost you tens of thousands of dollars over time.”

‘Buyers are liars’

Although Cusato said, “We are seeing a savvier consumer,” Realtors complain that “buyers are liars” — that they say they want one thing and end up buying something completely different.

“Realtors are working with homeowners who are not realistic,” said Cusato. “How many homes do Realtors have to show people before they come to terms with what they want, or the realities in how they live, or the price they can actually afford? They are wasting time with Realtors, chasing the dream that may not be their reality.”

As a result, about half of home buyers and 56 percent of renters have some form of buyers remorse after making a move, Cusato said. “That is extraordinary when you consider they are trapped there. Even if you stay there for a year and it is not the right fit, you are wasting time and money. And you are putting a lot of heartache into something you wouldn’t have to do if you thought about it up front.”

The book “empowers people to make the right decisions and do it with confidence,” she said. “The time to get in the market is when it actually works for you as a person. It may be that interest rates and prices are low, but if it is the wrong house, it doesn’t matter if the rest of the world is buying.

“If it is the wrong time, it is the wrong time. We have to take personal responsibility. Yes, we can blame bankers . . . but no amount of regulation can save us from ourselves.”


Harold Bubil

Recipient of the 2015 Bob Graham Architectural Awareness Award from the American Institute of Architects/Florida-Caribbean, Harold Bubil is real estate editor of the Herald-Tribune Media Group. Born in Newport, R.I., his family moved to Sarasota in 1958. Harold graduated from Sarasota High School in 1970 and the University of Florida in 1974 with a degree in journalism. For the Herald-Tribune, he writes and edits stories about residential real estate, architecture, green building and local development history. He also is a photographer and public speaker. Contact him via email, or at (941) 361-4805.
Last modified: November 8, 2013
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