Though we still look at condos, it’s mostly for academic purposes. We have nothing against condos aesthetically or practically, but collective living automatically brings with it certain restrictions that we don’t really want to buy into. That may sound strange coming from people who still rent, but the responsibilities inherent in owning a property are more pronounced when the property is collective. For one thing, the condominiums we tend to like in terms of layout and design are actually those that were built by the housing authority, now called UR, and most of those still don’t allow pets. (We plan to cover the pet problem in more detail in a later article.) This small but significant restriction is indicative of the condo experience: people who own are understandably more caught up in the collective enterprise and thus pay closer attention to their neighbors. Renters are relatively forgiving, maybe because they tend to think they won’t be staying here forever. Owners have more of a stake and thus there are more rules and the rules are enforced. We’re not against rules, but it seems less stressful to own a house, where you can pretty much do whatever you want, than a condo, where you may not be sure what you can do until you move in.

Recently, however, we inspected two condos that made us think twice about this idea. Both were built by UR’s predecessor in the 1980s, and were located in a huge danchi not far from where we live. Danchi have a reputation for being grey and dull: lines of identical five-story buildings set up like dominoes on a featureless landscape. But they’re usually well-built and have more practical floor plans than commercial condos, whose first priority is making money for the developer who built them. And depending on where they’re built, the landscaping can be quite attractive. What’s more, a number of danchi built during the 80s included apartment buildings that feature one apartment unit per floor. These detached structures were usually built at the end of longer apartment buildings. The advantages are obvious: more sunlight because all four sides can have windows, and more privacy, too. Also, perhaps because they’re detached, they tend to allow pets.

The first one we saw was on the second floor of a five-story building. It was a little more than 75 square meters, the size of our present apartment, and cost ¥7.9 million. That’s already well within our budget, but what was surprising was that the real estate company, which had bought the unit from its owner, had already carried out renovations: new floors, new walls. They had yet to renovate the bathroom, but the bathroom was in quite good condition and looked as if it had been renovated by the owner sometime in the past. The apartment had two rooms on the north side looking out at other danchi but from a perpendicular perspective, meaning you didn’t actually look into anyone’s windows. The LDK and a washitsu with new tatami occupied the south end of the apartment, which also looked out perpendicularly at other danchi, though directly in front of the window was a small park-like area. Because there were so many windows the apartment seemed darker than it should have been, but that may just have been due to the overcast skies.

Our main concern was that despite the renovations we would want more done if we decided to buy the place. Though the realtor-owner wouldn’t probably put any more money into the place, they could steer us to reform companies who could give us a deal. The bathroom layout was compact but unsuited to our needs, and would probably cost at least another ¥1 million to change. The kitchen would require some changes as well, maybe an island for the sink and stove. The agent said that would be possible, but it would another ¥1-2 million. And, truth be told, we didn’t really like the new wallpaper. We also didn’t particularly see any point in the two tatami rooms, but he told us that, according to the rules of the danchi, the one washitsu on the north end, which was deemed the “master bedroom,” had to have tatami for noise-proofing purposes. This was the first time we’d heard of this restriction. Also, we couldn’t change the veneer flooring because the rules stipulated a certain grade of flooring, also for sound-proof purposes. This is what we’re talking about: as soon as we start thinking about renovation, we run into restrictions that we wouldn’t have to worry about if we were buying a house. We liked the place fine, but in the end what made us reject it was the idea that it would be a waste to take out some of the recent renovations. We would prefer to have been in charge of all the renovations from the start; and, of course, the renovations already carried out by the realtor were added to the price. Essentially, we would be paying for work we didn’t want and which we would eventually discard.

Several weeks later we inspected another detached apartment in the same danchi, but this one was situated along the main roadway. The building was also five stories high, but the apartment for sale was on the fourth floor. It had been almost completely renovated, including a brand new bathroom, and was the same size and general layout as the previous one, but cost ¥8.2 million. Since it had had twice as much work done on it, that seemed like a particularly low price, but you have to take the building floor into consideration. In most condos, the higher you go, the more money you pay, but most condos have elevators. Danchi, at least those built before 1990, don’t, so the opposite is true: the lower the floor, the more expensive the unit.

This one was also much brighter, and since it was also an overcast day we concluded that it was because other buildings were farther away and we were higher up than we had been in the previous apartment. The reform job on the bathroom wasn’t bad, either, and since the only thing that had been changed in the kitchen was the hood fan, we didn’t necessarily have to feel we were wasting money if we renovated the kitchen area. As it stood, there was no room for a refrigerator against the wall where the counter area was installed, so we would want to make the counter area shorter in order to accommodate a refrigerator. Otherwise, we’d have to put it against a different wall, which would be a waste of space. The agent said it wouldn’t be a problem but once we started talking money it apparently was going to cost more than we were willing to pay.

But the main drawback had nothing to do with the apartment itself. It was the location. As we said, it was along the main road, and with the windows open on that side, the sound of traffic was quite loud. One of the reasons we moved from our apartment in Tokyo was the noise. Though we were on the 24th floor, the sound of the various train lines that ran past our building was constant and instrusive. You couldn’t watch TV with the windows open and even with them closed you had to turn up the volume or sit really close. Since we don’t like air conditioning and this danchi condo had very good cross-ventilation, it seemed, once again, a waste to have to close the windows to keep out the noise of cars. You just can’t win.


  1. Miko · July 14, 2012

    I’ve just ordered some noise-cancelling, light-cancelling curtains. They are widely advertised as being “multi-functional” 多機能. ‘ll let you know if they really are.


    • Miko · August 1, 2012

      The curtains were a good buy, but I think that anything would be better than the flimsy Hello Kitty ones I had before (for ten years, no less!). The new ones cut out much of the disturbing morning light, and if you keep your windows closed they greatly reduce the amount of outside noise that you are likely to hear at peak hours … unfortunately if you insist on keeping your windows open they can’t do much to help. All I can say for sure is that I’m sleeping a lot better these days. I’m glad I bought them.


  2. Richard · July 15, 2012

    Given the prices you mentioned, I immediately imagined that any renovation would only be via “approved” companies, where there will be significant cost inflation due to lock in.


    • catforehead · July 15, 2012

      We wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. It probably depends on how desperately the owner/realtor wants to unload the property. They probably won’t have too much trouble selling these two, so cost inflation is a good possibility. However, we’ve looked at other properties that the owners renovated in order to make them more sellable and some were still on the market months after being put on sale. A few times we hinted that we’d like something changed and the agents said they could probably get the owners to pay for it. Whether the owners would pay as much as we would have liked is an entirely different story.


  3. Amy · July 17, 2012

    Oh, thank you for this very informative post on UR apartments. Is there a website which lists UR apartments for sale? I’ve found so far. Thank you.


    • catforehead · July 18, 2012

      There is no website that only lists UR-related apartments for sale. As with any property, the owner usually contracts with a realtor when (s)he wants to sell, like Higashi Nihon Jutaku. Another realtor that handles a lot of UR apartments is Asahi Living.


  4. taotsupro · August 1, 2012

    That was a good read. As a danchi condo owner, I liked to add 4 points:

    1. In my danchi insect windows on the outside where forbidden at the time we moved in. So now we have them on the inside which sucks!
    That tatami rule does not surprise me at ^-^

    2. We moved in when my wife was pregnant. We live in the 4th floor (better for air circulation!, but carrying a baby car and shopping is impossible! I would always advise to move more to the ground.

    3. About noise: this can be a trap. Just outside of the northern room we have a big park. Kids playing are no problem, but in July the danchi matsuri is held just there. Including drumming and fireworks. The smoke is actually the worst.

    4. Our danchi is from 1974, 5 stories, but quite quake proof. Last march did not leave a single crack, while a high rise danchi on the other side of the street (~12 stories), suffered some minor damage, which is now under repear.

    Overall, living in a danchi in south Yokohama proofes to be very convenient, but I still look forward to move to a more modern place ^-^


    • Miko · August 1, 2012

      I’ve lived in three danchi apartments in my time in Japan, all public housing located in or around Kobe City. I would have to say that life on the second floor is best, because it’s relatively easy to walk up and down, and to a certain extent it’s protected from the outside noise and disturbance (if you live in a nice, quiet neighborhood, that is). Danchi are often designed with the best of intentions: quiet, clean, and green. You feel you can’t really complain about anything, and yet you can’t escape that nagging feeling that something is missing – a sense of community, perhaps? I’ve lived in this particular danchi for 12 years, and I still don’t know the names of my neighbours. I know the names of their dogs, though!

      By the way, every danchi I know passed through the Kobe Quake of ’95 with flying colours, even as the buildings around them collapsed. I would have no hesitation about moving into a UR building, but if they want to attract more tenants they have got to get real about the pet issue!


  5. Stan · September 4, 2012

    There are buy vs. rent calculators on the Internet, if you want to work out the economics. But it all boils down to “whether you buy or rent, the more space and luxury you want, and the more you spend, then the more you lose”. It’s easy to live comfortably while young and have nothing saved for old age.
    Like having a credit card and credit history, home ownership makes you appear more credit-worthy, if you may want to start a business in future. If you don’t buy a place and get a loan while reasonably young, you will only find it more and more difficult to get a loan–or to rent–when you get older.
    You can safely assume that you will wipe out half the price (of a new place) in depreciation after ten years. With the shrinking population, you can’t avoid depreciation unless you buy a tiny second-hand one-room place near Shinjuku station or the like: there will always be wealthy people who buy such a place for the kid to be registered as living at, so that the kid can get into a good school in the area. Such places don’t depreciate much, and are resellable.
    After ten years, or if you buy a ten-year-old property, it won’t depreciate much–but, with the shrinking population, you may have trouble reselling it unless it’s in an area that is in reasonable commuting distance of Tokyo and has facilities like shopping and either schools (to appeal to young buyers) or cheap “Eco” buses and the like (to appeal to elderly people).
    If you buy in Japan then–as a general rule of thumb–you will be ahead after about 10 years or less, and will probably have the place paid off after 20 years (unless you choose a longer-term loan in order to have more spending money). Even if you buy a place and write it off after twenty years, you are still going to be ahead, compared with renting.
    A “mansion” or “danchi” is likely to be much more affordable than a standalone house, because of the much smaller cost of land. So it is also likely to be easier to resell–unless very old and run-down. Danchi are well built and have schools in the vicinity. Despite the rules, people don’t usually make an issue about pets unless they are big or noisy dogs.


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