It's house-hunting season. The FOR SALE signs are everywhere. The weekend Open Houses are beginning to heat up (even though the weather isn't), and anyone thinking of moving house in the summer knows that now is the time for action. But in today's tight economy we're all working with a new set of unknowns. Gone are the days when we could treat a mortgage number as an abstract entity, assuming that somehow or other our wages would go up, the value of our properties would appreciate, and all would be well. Now, more than at any time in the lives of those currently in the housing market, we must think very carefully about our living arrangements. But it's not all doom and gloom. In fact, there may be some good that comes at a time when, rather than feeling pushed to buy beyond our means, we're being asked to reflect carefully on what we really want and need out of a home. Here are some points to ponder.

1. Avoid simplistic square foot equations.
Compared to people in many other parts of the world, we in North America have grown up in an age of rock-bottom real estate values. This has encouraged large building lots, houses whose size far outstrips our needs, and low-density suburbs that extend outside of a city's core. There's no denying the allure of having lots of elbow room and views of nature, along with all the conveniences of modern living, but we'd do well to remember that there's not much evidence of a connection between the size of a house and its psychological value as a home. In fact, ongoing scientific studies suggest that how we use our living space is much more important than how much living space we have. It's time to jettison the old-fashioned idea that the size of our home is a measure of our success and think instead of what we need to be happy.

2. Distinguish between what you want and what you want to be seen to have.
We each have many different selves and they can be difficult to keep straight. We have our inner, private selves, the selves we present to our partners and other loved ones, and the public faces we present to co-workers, acquaintances and strangers. When choosing a home, make sure that you are thinking of the person you really are rather than of the image you might want to convey publicly. This can be an exceptionally difficult distinction to make, but it is worth taking the time to do so. It's not your image of yourself that has to live in your home, it's you!

3. Value shared spaces.
When assessing whether a house will suit your needs, think of creative ways to combine functions within rooms to save space. Do you really need a separate dining room? Will a craft room ever be used? Does each child actually need a separate bedroom? Think carefully about how you use your current spaces and consider how you could consolidate, re-purpose and rationalize their various uses. Doing this properly can not only save you a fortune; it can transform the patterns of your life in ways that will increase your comfort and satisfaction.

4. Think creatively about outdoor play.
Most of us would like to have a giant backyard big enough for a play set, a pool, a garden and a small forest of trees, but building lots large enough to accommodate all of these wishes can constrain our house search and stretch our budget beyond the comfort level. If you have children, look for opportunities to stretch play areas by utilizing often-unused front yard spaces. Can neighbours join together to knock down some fences and make a shared yard? It can take some time to overcome our psychological resistance to such measures -- when it comes to home spaces, we're not used to sharing -- but evidence suggests that such communal outdoor arrangements promote physical and mental health in both children and adults.

5. Buy for yourself and not for the next person.
When times are uncertain, it's hard to resist the urge to try to plan for every eventuality, no matter how unlikely it might seem. This can mean that we begin to assess potential homes as investments as well as living spaces. To a point, there's nothing wrong with this approach, especially if it helps our psychological comfort levels. But once we start looking at houses as if we are potential sellers rather than potential buyers, our perspectives can shift and we can lose sight of our own wants and needs. Think carefully about how to protect your own interests, but remember that right now you are the one who needs a home and your needs should come first.