In the weeks since we visited the house in Usui we have, indeed, thought a lot about it, and our interest has blown hot and cold. Though we like the layout and the unblocked view to the south, we’re still not sold on the location. Keisei Usui Station is 20-25 minutes away on foot, and the train takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to central Tokyo. It’s considerably cheaper than the Hokuso Line, which we use now, and there are more trains per hour, but the Hokuso Line gets directly to the heart of Tokyo in about an hour and is never very crowded, even during rush hour. And it only takes us about 7 minutes to get from our front door to the platform. Of course, the train isn’t a monumental consideration since neither of us goes into Tokyo more than twice a week. Then there’s Usui itself, which as a bedroom town is older than Inzai and experienced the kind of suburban sprawl that plagued most Tokyo bedroom towns developed in the 60s and 70s, while Inzai was better planned and has more parks and open spaces. That said, Inzai is also somewhat antiseptic and lacks the kind of character older Japanese communities offer. Usui was incorporated into the larger city of Sakura some years ago and Sakura is one of the great castle towns of the Kanto region. Parts of it are quite beautiful and well-preserved, it’s just that those parts are not in Usui.
The more practical concerns have to do with the house and the land it sits on. As we said in the previous post, the real estate agent wasn’t very helpful in regard to the history of the structure or even who lived in it previously. All he could tell us was that another real estate company had bought it at auction, fixed it up, and put it on the market. Oh, and this company was “scary,” whatever that means. Eventually, if we really wanted to find out we would have to deal with this company, but before we did that we wanted to find out as much as we could on our own. As far as the land went, the elevation is 10 meters, which isn’t as high as we would like (at least 20 is our ideal). The open land to the south, we learned, was once rice paddies, which means it is even lower, about 6 meters. Now it is neglected and overgrown, so while the view is unblocked it’s an upward view, like being on the edge of the floor of a basin, looking at the opposite rim.
One day we rode our bicycles to the property to get a better idea of the neighborhood. Underneath a layer of dead leaves and acorns, there is an old, rutted, paved road that skirts the western edge of the overgrown rice field, and walking along it we could see pools of water amongst the vegetation. Though it had rained recently, it was obvious the area could be inundated under certain conditions. A middle aged woman came walking along the path in the opposite direction with her dog. We asked if she lived in the area. She said she lived over the western ridge on higher ground, and had been there for 20 years. She confirmed that there used to be rice fields in the open space but couldn’t remember when they had been abandoned. Was the land going to be developed, we asked? She wasn’t sure, though there had been some talk about a developer wanting to put a sub-division on the top of the southern rim of the basin but it never happened. We told her why we were there and pointed to the house we were interested in. She knew the next door neighbor to the east and offered to introduce us to him.
As it happened, he was in his (very small) backyard. She called to him from across the field and he came out to meet us in front of the house. He had bought his in 1990, seven years before the one we were interested in was built. Strangely enough he never got to know the people who lived there, and though he knew they had kids he couldn’t recall how many. He couldn’t even remember when they left. The woman who lived on the other side of the house came out to pet the middle aged woman’s dog. She also said she didn’t know much about them. This seeming portrait of unneighborliness was neutralized by the impression that all three of these people appeared to be good friends. We asked the man about the land and he said it was pretty solid. His house was even lower than the one we were looking at but he said he’d never had any problem with water, and that the 311 earthquake hadn’t had any adverse effect on his house, which was quite large. We mentioned our concerns and our ignorance about the structural aspects, and he said that when the house was being built he was impressed with the insulation. Since his business had something to do with sales of window sashes we thought such a comment qualified as being informed. We mentioned the central air conditioner that had confused us during the inspection and how you just didn’t find such things in single-family Japanese homes. In fact, we had called the manufacturer, Mitsubishi, and discovered that this particular model was designed to heat as well as to cool, though from what we saw the one in the house was only used for cooling. Mitsubishi also told us that they had stopped making this model more than five years ago and only kept replacement parts in stock for ten years, which means it might be expensive to maintain and if it broke down after five years it would be difficult to repair. Getting rid of it might be even more of a burden, since we were told that we would have to hire an expert to remove the freeon or whatever coolant it used. Taken together the air conditioner, the insulation, and the double-glazed windows might indicate an acute respiratory problem in the family. Maybe the child had severe allergies. Maybe the house was custom built.
In subsequent weeks we made other trips to Usui/Sakura with regard to the house. One Friday while in Tokyo we took the train from Nihonbashi to Usui to see what the trip was like. Despite the fact that we had to change trains twice, it was smooth and didn’t take as long as we thought it would. We then walked from the station to the property and it took us about 20 minutes. We chose another route to return to the station, using backroads in what we thought was a straighter line, but it ended up taking more time.
One day we also rode our bicycles to the Sakura city office, which is located on the top of a hill and commands quite a nice view of the surroundings. The building itself is something to see. A modernist structure designed by the late Kisho Kurokawa, it looked like that famous capsule apartment building he designed in Ginza. We were there to find out as much as we could about the field to the south of the property; more precisely, if there were any plans to build on it. In the planning department two young men waited on us enthusiastically, eager to demonstrate their usefulness. They pulled out various maps related to the land we were interested in but they didn’t have much to tell us. As of now there is no plan to develop the land but they said that if the owner or owners decided to sell it to a developer they could do that. And then the developer could start construction right away? we asked. They said yes, and we were confused. We had been under the impression that land designated for farming could not be used for housing until is was rezoned for residences, and in order to do that the local agricultural authority would have to approve the changeover. But apparently, it wasn’t that strict. The difference, we had always been told, is that agricultural land is taxed at a much lower rate than residential land, which means agricultural land is worth less than residential land. But the two officials said that it didn’t really make a difference. If a developer wanted to buy it as agricultural land and the seller wanted to sell it, the process wouldn’t be that difficult. Of course, the advantages were different for either party. A developer would prefer paying agriculture prices while the owner would prefer residential prices, but in any case if the two sides agreed, they could develop this land at any time.
Obviously, the Sakura planning department wasn’t going to be any help, so we went to the local branch of the justice ministry, which registers land titles. We paid a small fee and found out the names and addresses of the parties who owned the field to see if they were companies. They were private citizens and lived nearby, so whatever the status of the land, it hadn’t yet been sold to a developer, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t be.
To be continued…
Please don’t take another three weeks to post Part 3! I have been so curious about your house hunt all these months. Will you or won’t you…
All credit to you for doing due diligence! We made similar inquires back in 2000 when we bought a piece of land in Karuizawa. It had a magnificent view of Mt. Asama, but the reason the view was so magnificent was because it was across an abandoned _tanbo_ that was being used by hobby farmers. It had been a pond originally, then converted to a farm. It was wholly unsuitable for building – at least not without deep piers – and thus had been designated as “open space.” Was it really? We went the town office and got as close to an unequivocal answer that indeed it was. We ended up buying the land and built a house Cape-Cod style place with US and Canadian materials. Interestingly, the place, perhaps giving off a bit of a “Green Gables” vibe, was such a novelty that it inspired adjacent landowners (but none in the way of our view of Asama!) to build their own “Western”-style homes. The area became a bit gentrified and we were able to unload the place in 2007 at – gasp! – an actual profit. Since then, we visit once in a while, and the big issue with the open space area now is the hobby farmers building tatty-looking plastic greenhouses on it.
As a former builder (timber frame and 2×6 construction – I am actually a boatbuilder) and having traveled all over Japan and lived there for one year, I find the housing situation fascinating. Everyone talks about how a house is worthless after 30 years, as though it was about to fall down. I lived in Urayasu (in a large apartment that was forty years old, considered unrentable because of its age and lack of bath, so we got it for next to nothing and loved using the local sento). I’ve always been curious watching new homes go up in Japan. The foundations and frames are well done, so new housing I suspect is structurally very sound. The tragedy is what the framing then gets covered with, inside and out, probably the most horrible materials I have ever seen. Therefore a Japanese house is destined to look crappy in three decades, but there is no reason that it should be considered valueless. There really should be some kind of incentives for remodeling old homes rather than letting them become ghost towns or tearing them down for new construction.
Brasor writes in the JapanTimes about trying to get more information about structural integrity of homes. I would think that any city government would have soils maps showing whether or not a site consisted of fill. Other than that, here in the US one would pay $300 or so for a building inspection to check the basic condition of the home.
Finally, by contrast I live in a 2×4 home built in 1876 in Vermont. It has all its original trim and clapboards. We did take out all the horsehair plaster in the downstairs and replace with sheetrock, but only because in the 1970’s people nailed masonite paneling to the walls and destroyed the plaster. Our upstairs just required peeling many layers of wallpaper (including gorgeous papers from the early 1900’s) and painting. Needless to say, our house is not built to anything like modern standards of 2×4 construction (either in the US or Japan) but it remains straight, plumb and true…. My Japanese friends are always stunned when I tell them that I live in a Meji-era house, and that there are Edo-era homes in my town as well.
My parents-in-law live in an 2002-built Sekisui house in northern Kyushu. I too have heard of the loss in value of 30 year old houses in Japan and wonder if that will hold true for these new houses that are being built by big companies like Sekisui and Toyota. The interior and exterior materials certainly seem to be much more durable than older homes of previous eras.
With regard to your home search, it seems like the primary obstacle for you is the price in and around the Tokyo area – any thought of moving to a more affordable area of Japan?
Sorry, read your blog further and realized that you are looking further out.
Following your blog just for the fun of it because we built, own design, etc., 26 years ago in Yuukarigaoka, Sakura, and have no plans to move for the foreseeable future. Will be interested to see what you decide about Usui.
An american friend nearby (Yotsukaido) is looking for a house. I have recommended that he check out the school situation because he has small children who will attend Japanese schools. However, I don’t know the source for lists of which schools have more students who go on to higher level high schools and colleges. It does make a difference because the atmosphere and behavior problems can be quite different depending on the neighborhood. I know lots of anecdotal info (having put 3 kids through some of the schools in Sakura, etc.), but I wonder if real estate agencies (or only cram schools) possess this knowledge.
We’ve found that real estate agents usually know where the schools are and how far away they are from a given property, but that’s about it. If there’s an agent who knows the kind of information you mention it would be totally coincidental. Unfortunately, most of the agents we’ve dealt with don’t even know the things they *should* know, like what the property tax will be.
I visit a friend yearly in Japan and she used to live in the Sakura area, one stop beyond Yukarigoaka (which she called “potterville”) One odd thing that struck me was the low cost of empty or nearly empty older, multifloor commercial buildings in surrounding small bedroom towns. I remember seeing an abandoned “designer” house up the side of a hill, (past a craft pottery, comes with a free abandoned mini truck) near potterville and being advised that it probably would sell for more than one of the commercial buildings in (a nearby) town! Anyways, loved Sakura/ katsudai/ potterville area, they have a nice autumn festival, and the museum is cute! Nice blog, keep up the good work!