As mentioned elsewhere in this blog and others, we live on what has been described as the most expensive train line in Japan. It’s also one of the most convenient–if you’re traveling into Tokyo or to Narita Airport. If you’re trying to get somewhere in the local vicinity that isn’t directly on the line, however, it’s not convenient at all. For instance, a few weeks ago we wanted to inspect a property in Sakura, a fairly large city in northern Chiba, which happens to be serviced by two train lines. As the crow flies, Sakura is directly southeast of where we live, and by car probably would take about a half hour to reach, but we don’t own a car. By train it would take more than an hour, though, as well as a considerable monetary investment, because we would have to go into Narita first and then transfer to another line, and while the line we live on does go to the airport, it doesn’t actually stop in Narita city, which is where the connections are.
So we did what we usually do: rode bicycles to the property. Pedaling from Inzai to Sakura gives you a perspective you wouldn’t otherwise have if you drove or took the train. Inzai is still “developing,” as it were, and has been carefully planned; or, at least, more carefully planned than other cities in Chiba. The roads are wide and straight. Sidewalks provide ample bicycle lanes. Subdivisions do not encroach awkwardly on farmland or abundant tracts of forest–the satoyama dynamic holds for the most part. The commercial areas are well contained and laid out in a relatively efficient fashion. As you pass from Inzai to Sakura, these features slowly give way to the more common Japanese suburban clutter. The roads become narrower and sidewalks eventually disappear altogether. Houses and commercial buildings appear on top of one another. Main thoroughfares take forever to get where they’re going and if you really want to get there in a reasonable amount of time you have to constantly stop and check a map. Japan, as someone once told me, was custom made for GPS.
I don’t mean to imply that Sakura doesn’t have its appeal. For one thing, it skirts a good portion of Inba-numa, the large lake-like body of water that various local governments have been wise and gracious enough to preserve in a mostly natural state. We’ve ridden often around the lake, which has a network of bike paths. It’s also popular among runners and joggers, and is the place where Olympic marathon medalist Naoko Takahashi did almost all of her training. In fact, the property we were inspecting is only about a ten-minute bike ride from the lake, in an older residential neighborhood whose closest train station is Usui on the Keisei Line. That said, by foot the station is 20-25 minutes from the property, over rather hilly terrain. This was of concern to us because, again, we don’t have a car so getting anywhere distant means taking this train. Presently, we can walk to Inzai Makinohara station in about 8 minutes, and while I don’t mind riding my bike to any station, the narrow roads and the hills make it more of a chore in Usui’s case.
The property itself was quite interesting, though, which is why we wanted to see it. It is located on the edge of a subdivision at the bottom of a rather high hill. One of our criteria is firm ground, in terms of avoiding not just liquefaction in an earthquake but also general subsidence over time and more intense vibrations. We find out how high a particular property is above sea level by using topographical maps and software, since the higher the land the more stable it’s likely to be. This particular property is ten meters above sea level. The altitude where we live now is 25. Sakura/Usui is on the same plateau as Inzai, but being closer to Inba-numa, which, as the name indicates, is more of a marsh than a lake, it is on a downslope toward the water. Ten meters isn’t bad but it’s difficult to tell if that’s ten meters of tableland or, say, five meters of tableland and five meters of dirt that has been trucked in from the top of some mountain in the middle of the Boso peninsula, which is a common situation throughout Chiba.
As it turned out our realtor didn’t know, and we didn’t really expect him to. We’ve used him several times in the past and he’s familiar with what we want and has probably given up on us already. We’re sort of in a standoff with regard to accomplishing anything toward a sale: he doesn’t expect us to buy anything he shows us and we don’t expect him to know all the things we need to know in order to make a decision, such as the quality of the land underneath the house we’re looking at. One reason we tend to use this realtor rather than others (almost any property we look at will be listed on multiple real estate websites) is that his contract fees are smaller than others’, owing to the fact that he has no staff. He does everything himself. He’s also based in Sakura.
There were two reasons we wanted to look at this house: layout and prospect. The house was built in the mid-90s and had two stories. The first was mostly open: a wide living-dining-kitchen area that took up the whole south side of the floor, with a small Japanese room on the north side and the bathroom facilities on the west side. The second floor almost mirrored the first. There were two bedrooms on the south side but they opened up on each other to essentially form one large room, and then on the north side there was another isolated bedroom. There was also a very large storage area/walk-in closet on the northwest corner. But it was the prospect that makes the layout work. To the south of the property there was nothing except an empty tract of land overgrown with vegetation, and the south side of the house had lots of windows to take advantage of the view–you could look out and see absolutely no one, not even another structure. This was doubly strange because the property was boxed in on all its remaining sides in the Japanese subdivision manner. The houses to the east and west weren’t more than five meters away, and the house to the north was separated only by the widths of two driveways that connected the properties to the public road and which were shared by five or six other properties. Despite the cramp, however, the house got plenty of unobstructed sunlight because of the way it was built.
Whether it was a custom job we couldn’t tell and wouldn’t know right away because the realtor didn’t know either. After he arrived and parked in the very narrow space along the north side of the property he opened up the house and told us that it was owned by a different real estate company, which had bought it through a court auction, meaning the previous owners had lost it due to foreclosure. They had carried out some improvements and were now selling it. The most noticeable improvement was the exterior. We normally don’t like siding but this had recently been painted and looked fine. There was almost no empty land to speak of, only a narrow strip of dirt between the south side of the house and a short fence separating the property from the vast, empty tract that stretched off into the distance. The interior was even brighter than we expected, because unlike in most Japanese houses the north side was not reserved for the mizu-mawari functions–the kitchen and bathroom. There were windows on the north side as well, so the entire interior received plenty of ambient light. Even the bathroom had windows, which, instead of directly facing the house to the west, were positioned southward. Consequently they were completely transparent. The living-dining room had picture windows and a sliding door, as well as smaller windows arranged in the southwest corner, which was rounded in a kind of bay effect. We were pleasantly surprised to find that all the windows were double-glazed, which in our experience is quite unusual for a house built in the 90s. The Japanese room had obviously been recently remodeled, and not just with new tatami. The remodeling job did not include new floors, and while we weren’t crazy about the wood laminate flooring, it was better than most we had seen in houses of this particular age and was still in good condition. The kitchen was spacious and the wood cabinets better than tolerable.
In short, though there were some things we would like to change, it was habitable as it was and would not require much more of an investment to suit our wants. But it also struck us as expensive given the location, the age, and the distance from the station: almost ¥15 million. Of course, we’ve been doing this long enough to know that a property is only worth as much as you yourself are willing to pay for it, but ¥15 million was a rather lofty position from which to start the bargaining, and again the realtor couldn’t help us since he wasn’t selling it himself. In fact, when we suggested he could maybe talk the other realtor down if we expressed an interest he became uncharacteristically blunt, telling us that the company was “scary” and that they would never budge from this price. It wasn’t as if he was going to make a big commission if he sold it to us. He said he wouldn’t charge us a commission, which would seem to indicate that the owner would pay him. In any case, he was next to useless in terms of giving us any more information about the house, like who lived there before or why the house had central air conditioning and not central heating (we suspect that this rare feature is one of the reasons for the high price, but we don’t use air conditioning ourselves, preferring proper ventilation in the summer). Obviously, we would have to negotiate directly with the other realtor, which means we would have to think the matter over carefully.
…to be continued