As we expected, the builder wasn’t going to finish our house by the original completion date. When they finally gave us a definite date, it turned out to be about five weeks later than the one planned. Since we had never really believed they would be able to finish by that date it wasn’t as if we had to struggle with the news, but we did need some kind of timeframe so that we could plan our move and take care of certain administrative matters.
The most immediate problem was that five extra weeks meant at least another month’s rent, or more than ¥100,000, not to mention associated utility bills. We are supposed to give the management of the building where we live, the semi-public housing authority UR, at least 2 weeks notice, which is actually pretty good. Private landlords usually insist on at least a month’s notice. In any case we were able to coordinate our moving plans with relative ease after A-1 set the completion date.
A stickier issue had to do with the loan we had taken out with JA Bank. As we said in an earlier post, the conditions for the loan and the conditions for payment to A-1 stipulated in the building contract in some ways worked at cross-purposes. Though the loan was approved even before construction started, we wouldn’t receive any money until the house was completed, which is normal policy. However, A-1 insisted on being paid in three installments: one-third upon conclusion of the contract, a second third when the roof beams were raised, and the final third upon completion. So already we had paid for two-thirds of the house out of our own savings, and that doesn’t even include what we paid for the land itself. Altogether, it meant we had put out close to ¥15 million even before the loan money would be ready for transfer to A-1’s account. So we had to bring in some money from our portfolio in the U.S., which wasn’t a problem since that is what that money was for, but until the loan money was made available our cash flow was a bit precarious.
Moreover, there were a bunch of documents we had to submit to JA before the money transfer could be implemented. Some of these had to be completed by A-1, including the invoice, which required some negotiations with young N, who didn’t always seem to know what was needed. Though the house itself was near completion, the septic tank had yet to be sunk into the ground, and that meant the plumbing hadn’t even been started. All these costs were finalized but we needed to give the bank an exact number. We also had to get documents from various public offices about the land transfer and the city inspection, most of which were routine but when we verified it all with the loan officer he said they all would eventually have to indicate our new address, the one we hadn’t moved into yet. And since one of these documents was proof of residency (juminhyo) issued by the city office, if we got it now we would just have to go again in a few weeks to get a new one because in principle you can’t change your resident status until you’ve actually moved. It was a Catch-22 situation: the loan wouldn’t be fully transferable until we were registered at the new address, but we couldn’t register our new address with the city office until the house was finished, and that required transferring the last payment to A-1. We wondered whether or not we were the first homeowners in Japan who ever had to face this dilemma.
There was nothing to do except lie to the city office, so we went in and told them we had already moved, a full two weeks before we actually would. We weren’t sure if prematurely registering an address was illegal (perjury? fraud?), and especially since one of us is not a Japanese national we weren’t comfortable with the subterfuge. In truth, however, there were a number of other final processes that perplexed us, all of which had to do with the fact that we were making it all happen ourselves without the assistance of a developer or real estate company. There was some confusion, for instance, about who was supposed to register the house with the local government, the bank or the builder. Each thought it was the other, and after a few phone calls JA blinked and made the necessary arrangements. An inspector came to the house before it was finished and, we assume, looked over the plans and declared everything cool. It sounded like little more than a formality, but we still had to pay about ¥100,000 for it all. We also had to pay for the letter of mortgage, or whatever the document is called that places the house as collateral in the hands of the bank if we default on the loan. And we had to have it all notarized, but we were fortunate that the bank used the same notary public who had done our documentation for the land purchase. We got the impression he worked cheap.
So now that the loan was nominally taken care of we could focus all our attention on moving. In the past we had always moved ourselves by either borrowing friends’ vans or renting them. When we moved from Tokyo in 2011 we hired movers to carry the larger items because of the distance involved and transported the rest ourselves in a rented Toyota Hiace. We decided to do something similar this time and called Yamato Delivery, which has a low-cost service for limited moving needs. A salesman came to the apartment and we told them what we wanted them to move–the refrigerator, the bed, the washing machine, the long wooden cabinet. He recommended a one-ton truck and two employees. Since we would be moving less than ten kilometers away, there was a discount, and if we didn’t actually specify the day or the time we could get an even bigger discount. That was tempting but we didn’t know how much leeway we’d have. A-1 would give us the keys to the place (it formally belonged to them until the last payment was made) on the last day of the month and we were supposed to be out of our apartment by the second day of the next month, so we had a three-day window of opportunity. That was enough to qualify for the discount, ¥35,000 for everything–the movers would just keep packing the one-ton truck until there wasn’t any room left. The salesman also took down our “preferred day for moving” and we said the first of the month, and, as it turned out, a week later the salesman called back and said our preference was accepted. He then had some guys deliver cardboard boxes and a large roll of bubble wrap. Then we reserved a mini-pickup truck for three days at ¥4,000 a day, starting the last day of the month. Then we started packing.
In the meantime, we visited the house every day, and the main activity in the last week was installing the septic tank. Originally, A-1 had placed the tank on the north side of the house, but there wasn’t much room between the house itself and the fence that our neighbor had built around his property, so it was decided to sink the septic tank in the larger “backyard” on the east side of the house. We were told it would take maybe two or three days, but it took almost a full week, mainly because only one guy and his wife were doing everything: digging the hole with a small backhoe, dropping the tank into the hole, and then sinking the various pipes and connecting them to the water heater and the toilet outlets, not to mention the bath and the kitchen. Since he had keys to the front door, he would let us in so we could take measurements for things like venetian blinds and ceiling fans that we would order later. There was also a question of whether or not the movers would be able to negotiate the turn at the top of the stairs for the refrigerator and the washing machine since both were to go on the second floor. The Yamato salesman said if they couldn’t get those two items safely up the stairs then they we would have to hire a crane for ¥20,000 extra and have them hoisted through the second floor window. Actually, we had decided by this point that we would buy a new refrigerator. The one we had was perfectly fine, but it was more than ten years old and in the meantime energy-saving technology had improved immensely. If we were going to go through the trouble of hauling it across town and hoisting it through a window, it made more sense to buy a new one that would last longer and start saving us money right now. We shopped around and found a relatively small one on sale at the Aeon mall, and the salesperson said delivery was free. We told her of our problem with the stairway and she said she doubted if it really was a problem. It wasn’t one of those huge refrigerators and the movers Aeon used could do anything, she said with a certain touch of pride. We would have to pay to have the old refrigerator recycled, anyway, so we decided to have Yamato transport it to the new house and then just leave it outside rather than take it upstairs. Then, when the Aeon guys delivered the new refrigerator, they’d take it upstairs themselves and take the old one away. That way we didn’t need to worry about the possibility of having to use a crane.
The big day finally arrived. We rode our bicycles to the car rental lot and picked up the mini-truck, which was as simple and free-of-options as you might expect for ¥4,000 a day. We threw our bikes in the back and drove to the nearby DIY store to buy a hand truck and a step ladder. Then we went to the property to wait for young N and older N, the guy who had essentially sold us the house. Though we had been here many times, and increasingly so in the past week, it felt different driving up in a vehicle, a little more momentous, but that may have had more to do with the anticipation. In less than an hour this thing would be ours, for better of worse.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to wait long for the men from A-1, and, as it happened, two guys from NTT arrived almost at the same time to hook up our Internet. We walked up to the front door together, admiring the front stoop, which was just pure, naked concrete, and Young N opened the house. The first thing you notice when you go in is the smell of wood, since unfinished wood covers everything–floors, walls, and ceilings. They had obviously rushed the final touches the day before, because the mirrors and other fixtures we had bought ourselves were finally up and they hadn’t been yesterday. The atmosphere was bright due to all the windows. First we showed the NTT guys where the LAN outlet was in the office. We had had two installed, one in the office and one upstairs, thinking they would be linked, which is the system we had at our old apartment, but the NTT guy said that was impossible. We felt pretty stupid.
After Young N showed us how the locks on the front door worked, we went upstairs. It was even brighter, and the pale brown wood practically glowed in the sunlight from all the windows. We stood at the kitchen counter and Young N went through all the untilities and facilities, explaining how to use the IH stove, the Ecocute water heater, how the ventilation system worked and the principle behind it. N gave us a complimentary can of beeswax which he recommended using for care of the wood. Since it’s unfinished it’s also more susceptible to damage, especially from moisture, but regular applications of beesway would protect it thoroughly from water spills while retaining the freshness of the raw wood. It felt a little strange to have to much unfinished wood at hand–not the feeling itself, which was delightful–but the sort of vulnerability, but then, this was Japan, where people don’t wear shoes in the house.
As the NTT crew ran a line from the telephone cables outside to the house, the woman who had sold us our storage heaters showed up to instruct us in their usage. These boxes looked even bigger in our house than they had in the showroom. There was one underneath the stairs and another at the top of the stairs to the right of the landing. Operation of the heaters was fairly simple but it appeared that it might take some time to acquire the kind of mindset needed to use storage heaters effectively. Basically, they were prepared devices, meaning you had to set them not for the temperature you needed now, but for the temperatue you anticipated you’d need the next day. They use the cheaper electricity at night to heat up the ceramic bricks inside, and the next day they simply radiated the stored heat. In the middle of winter, when it was cold all the time, this was not a problem, but it could be dodgy in the fall and spring, when temperatures fluctuated. She also showed us how each heater had its own breaker in the fuse box.
Young N demonstrated how to fill holes in the wood paneling after removing a screw or a nail, using a hole that lingered after one of the mirrors had been moved (it was lower than we wanted). It was a cute trick: stick a toothpick in the hole, saw it off at the surface of the wood with a box cutter, then smear some liquid wood around it and after it dried sand it down. Still, it definitely looked like a repair job, but that was OK. One of the advantages of having all-wood everything is that if it gets scuffed or damaged over time, the house gains character. With dry wall and stucco, it just looks old and cheap, or always in need of another paint or wallpapering job.
The only thing that hadn’t been finished at that point was the TV antenna and satellite dish, which would be put up in a day or two. Apparently, the technician was swamped, but we had already paid for it. There was nothing left to do but hand over the documents and manuals (two huge binders’ worth) and five-count-em-five sets of keys. They left, and we spent a few moments by ourselves absorbing the realization that we would likely live here the rest of our lives. And it felt good, because suddenly all the misgivings about half-measures and compromises, the feeling of being short-changed by the system, the overarching doubt about our fitness, financially and emotionally, as homeowners, dissipated in the sunlight that came streaming in through the windows and bounced off the raw wood, pushing reflections all over the rooms and into corners. It was a really nice place.
But it only lasted a minute or two. We had some moving to do…