Across and further down the Sumida River from our apartment is a large condominium complex that has intrigued us ever since we moved here. Legend has it that the late rocker Yutaka Ozaki had just moved into it when he was found not far away in an alleyway one night, dying. It’s a good legend, and like many legends it’s not true. At the time Ozaki was renting a much more commonplace sort of “mansion” in the same neighborhood. But it’s easy to understand why this particular complex has attracted that sort of speculation. Every so often somebody moves out and you see a flier in the mailbox advertising the unit, which tends to fetch a price comparable to new condos even though it was built in 1991. The layouts are more imaginative and seem more livable than those of most condos. Rather than cut a box into rectangles, the designers staggered the position of the rooms along corridors and shaped the building in such a way that every unit looks out on at least two views, meaning there’s more sunlight; or that’s the impression one gets looking at the layout and then at the building’s exterior.
Last week, we finally visited the complex after we saw a flier announcing that two adjacent units on the 14th floor were on sale: a 67-square-meter 2LDK for ¥28 million and a 94-square-meter 3LDK for ¥38 million. Though both of these prices were out of our league we wanted to see what was really there, and were quite shocked at what we found.
It wasn’t so much that the apartments really looked twenty years old, but rather that it was easy to imagine it would cost a lot of money to make them look anywhere near new again. The living room in the larger apartment had fairly nice dark-stained hardwood floors, but elsewhere (except for the requisite washitsu) the floors were covered in acrylic carpeting that had turned piss green with age. Moreover the walls would have to be repapered. But what was truly discouraging was how dark the apartments were. Though there were plenty of windows, they were small and the “verandas” were extended so far out that sunlight could not properly enter the rooms unless the sun itself was low in the sky. The layouts weren’t bad, but the two apartments were just depressing. Talking to the real estate agent (who, mysteriously, had the same name as the “company” that presently owned both units: Inoue) we tried to make sense of the price: would anyone in their right mind pay these prices for these apartments, considering they would likely have to sink another ¥4 or ¥5 million a piece to make them look decent? Of course, we didn’t put it quite that way, but in any case, the impression we got from the guy was that he didn’t think it would be a problem to unload them. It was a “popular buidling.” Yes, we knew that, but our eyes were now opened.
Then, a few days later we visited another property on sale; not one that we had been eyeing for years, but one that was closer to our price range even if it was in a place where we didn’t think we wanted to live: Tsukuba, about 45 minutes northeast of Tokyo in Ibaraki Prefectre. The main reason we were interested was that it was a town house, which offers a compromise between the hive life of a condo and the everyday burden of a single-family home. There aren’t many town houses or duplexes in Japan, but most of the ones we’ve seen are decent: bright, open, rationally laid out. They also all seem to have been built in the same year: 1982. We’ve never been able to find out why. That year, there must have been some kind of fad for town houses that quickly faded. If you find one in Tokyo, it will be even more expensive than a comparably sized condo, but once you’re out of the city they can be really cheap.
This one was ¥14 million: 130 square meters, 4LDK, looking out onto a park; a 20-minute walk from Tsukuba Station. We met the real estate agent, a very young man originally from Osaka, in the parking lot of a nearby family restaurant. He drove us the short distance to a dull residential neighborhood, but the town house development was well landscaped, and the park itself was a good one, with a fairly large pond. Moreover, there were no buildings more than four stories, so there was plenty of light. From the outside, the property, with its whitewashed walls and veranda painted in deep brown, had character. Past the metal front door, however, it was a disaster.
Of course, the place was almost 30 years old, but it appeared that the people who had lived here had done nothing to keep the place up in that whole time. The walls were stained, the carpeting was even rattier than the condo we’d seen several days earlier, and despite windows on both ends of the town house it was dim and cramped. On the plus side, it was big and had a toilet on each of its two floors. The agent picked up on our disappointment and mentioned that the couple who still owned the place had moved out six months earlier. Apparently, they had lived here since buying it new in 1982, which explained the dingy appearance and lack of any amenities that would have dated it past 1985 (no modular outlets for telephones–meaning no internet service–and not even outlets for TV antennas). Though 14 million was within our budget, we estimated that, given the size and the fact that all the floors and all the walls would have to be redone, it might cost an extra 7 or 8 million to get the place in any kind of livable shape.
The agent understood and tried to be helpful. “Actually, that price is probably only what the land is worth.” He wasn’t just talking about the postage stamp of land under the house, but also the buyer’s share of the development’s “common property.” In that regard, buying a town house was like buying a condo. In addition to property taxes you had to pay a monthly management fee (kanrihi) and a monthly repair deposit (shuzenhi). What he meant when he mentioned the land price was that there was potential value, but you didn’t have to be an economist to realize that it was all theoretical. The value was based on what the owner wanted and how the property was assessed, but if no one actually wanted to buy the town house its value was essentially zero. Meanwhile, the couple who still owned it had to continue paying property taxes (¥70,000 a year) and the two monthly fees (¥11,000 & ???). The agent then said he could probably get the couple to go for ¥10 million. Really? we said.
“Actually,” he admitted, “some people just want to get rid of their property.” And then the entire force of Japan’s sad housing situation hit us. Even for ¥10 million we weren’t interested: We didn’t want to live in Tsukuba and we didn’t want to risk hiring somebody to remodel this place when, in the long run, we’d be stuck with it probably forever. We’ve already become resigned to the fact that any property we buy in Japan, other than one in central Tokyo, is something we’ll never be able to sell, so there’s only two criteria: It should be a place we can buy with cash, and a place we’d want to live in forever. Those are pretty incompatible terms for housing, especially in Japan.