The rest of the story

What you see is not what you get

We’ve received two letters in response to our Aug. 2 Home Truths column about renewal fees, both from landlords who obviously want to relate, as Paul Harvey used to put it, the rest of the story. Both letters were sent to the Japan Times, one for the Readers in Council page and the other indirectly to us with a directive that it not be published. Moreover, the RIC letter was published anonymously, so while both of these persons hold strong opinions as to their own situations as property owners neither seems to feel that strong that they might risk exposing themselves to whatever sort of negative reaction landlords can normally expect. This is probably unavoidable. The landlord-tenant relationship is almost by definition an adversarial one; the dynamic fraught with defensiveness. Both landlords basically wanted to show the difficulties of maintaining properties for rental purposes in Japan, and in the process defended the collection of supplemental fees such as reikin (gift money), shikikin (deposits), and koshinryo (rental agreement renewal fees) as essential to their businesses. Read More

Higher ground

Aobayama Park, overlooking Sendai

The land ministry has decided to monitor real estate transactions in the disaster-affected areas of the Tohoku region. As evacuees start moving out of temporary shelters and rebuilding their lives, many will likely seek new properties on higher ground, thus causing steep appreciation in land prices on elevations considered out of the reach of future tsunami. The ministry, along with the prefectural governments of Iwate, Miyage, and Fukushima, is afraid that real estate companies will try to corner the market on these tracts of land.

The ministry has already asked local governments to gather information about land transactions. The idea is for the local authorities to designate certain choice areas for monitoring purposes based on the Land-use Planning Law, which regulates the buying and selling of properties. Any transactions that take place within the monitored areas will have to be approved by the pertinent prefectural governor before any contracts are concluded in order to preempt deals deemed “improper” by the law. If the governor does not approve the transaction he can have it voided or ask that the terms be changed.

It’s obviously a necessary policy, but it may be difficult to carry out. Local governments are still hashing out whether or not to allow people who own certain low-lying properties to rebuild on the same land. Until they decide, those families are in limbo. Meanwhile, families who have already decided to move to higher ground may be in the process of looking for land and will thus get a jump on everyone else. The competition could end up being fierce, so it will be difficult to judge what constitutes an “improper” deal in some cases if the buyer and the agent come to an agreement. Also, if the local government decides that certain plots of land on lower elevations should be left clear, they will probably have to compensate the owners, something that could take time. And until those families receive their compensation they won’t be able to move. This will be particularly difficult for fishermen and other people in the seafood business, who want to live as close to the sea as possible.

According to the Tokyo Shimbun smaller, more isolated coastal communities aren’t waiting for the government. Some have already started rebuilding. Since tsunamis have been a fact of life in those villages for many centuries, a kind of lore has developed that instructs the villagers where it is safe to build and where it isn’t. After a tsunami, everybody moves to higher ground, and then over the course of decades they slowly work their way closer to the sea, since they’re all fishermen, until the next tsunami hits. It’s an inevitable, tragic cycle.

Home Truths #2

Caveat emptor

Our latest column in the Japan Times was published today. You can read it here. It’s about the recent Supreme Court decision regarding koshinryo (renewal fees). One small clarification: The photo caption mentions that cheaper rents may mean higher renewal fees and “gift” money. In many cases if the landlord has set the rent lower for the purpose of attracting potential tenants, he/she may also not charge gift money for the same reason. Renewal fees, however, are more hidden because they are usually only mentioned in the fine print, meaning they kick in later, when the tenant has to renew the contract a year or two after moving in. Also, some landlords, especially corporate ones, are making their rental agreements longer, say five years, and then setting the renewal fee a bit higher than average. Another theory associated with renewal fees that we neglected to mention is that some landlords use it to generate higher turnover. Since supplemental fees allow the property owner to make a bit more money in a slumping market, logic says that you make more money if the turnover is higher because more new tenants mean more supplemental fees. This is the same economic logic behind the shaken (regular vehicle inspection), which all car owners have to pay for every two years (or every year, depending on the age of your automobile). When the shaken, which is expensive, comes due, many car owners simply trade their vehicle in for a new one. The first shaken for a new car is three years. The same concept is supposedly used for renewal fees: People will move to a new place because they don’t feel like paying it. The reason we didn’t mention this theory is because we’re not really sure it’s credible. People’s attachment to the place where they live is different from their attachment to their car. If people move because they don’t want to pay the koshinryo it probably means they don’t like the dwelling in the first place.