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.