Year zero (1)

CIMG3311Two weeks ago we received a phone call from N, the salesman at A-1 whom we worked with when we built our house. There was a young couple who were thinking of asking A-1 to build a house for them, but they hadn’t yet secured a piece of land. Apparently, their desires are similar to what ours were: an area that had a bit more nature than your average subdivision. They currently lived in Matsudo, which is about 45 minutes west of us.

The request was a surprise. A-1 doesn’t advertise, since advertising adds to their overhead and thus to the cost of their products. They don’t build model homes for the same reason. When a potential customer wants to get an idea firsthand of what their homes are like, they ask past, presumably satisfied customers if they can bring the potential customers in for an inspection. We did it ourselves when we started looking for homes and read about A-1’s philosophy and design concepts, and were impressed, much more so than with any manufacturer’s model home display. In A-1’s case, you get to see how the owner is actually living in the house designed for them.

However, we thought our home may have been too individualistic for this kind of tour. When N called we had just received the property tax bill for the house and land. Since we moved in after January 1, 2014, we didn’t have to worry about a tax bill for the house until this calendar year, and last summer, when a city official came to assess our property, he almost laughed, implying that what we had wasn’t really worth that much. The tax bill seemed to bear out that implication. The estimate for the house came to less than ¥50,000. Of course, that wasn’t based on an assessment of the market value of the house, but nonetheless, even if you take into account the special deduction that reduces the amount due on a building for tax purposes to one-sixth its assessed value, the assessment was much less than what we paid for it a year ago. We’re not sure what that means, but we do understand that our house is unusual and, perhaps, not the kind of thing that would attract the average buyer: the kitchen and bath are on the second floor, the bedroom on the first; few doors and walls. It was designed to be inexpensive and to satisfy our peculiar needs, so it wasn’t exactly marketable, especially when you compare it to the vast majority of Japanese homes, which, we assume, reflect market demand. We had to assume that N was bringing the couple here because of the environment–the surrounding woods and such–which would give them an idea of what A-1 could accomplish in such a place.

They arrived in the afternoon on a Saturday. It was the first time we’d seen N since the day we moved in. He gave us a gift box of drip coffee for our trouble (in the past, A-1 paid cash to homeowners who showed their houses to customers; obviously not any more) and seemed genuinely impressed with what we’d done with the place. He gave us some advice for removing or, at least, diminishing the scratches on the wood floors left by our cats (“just take a damp cloth and wipe it down regularly”) and wondered how the heaters, which we didn’t buy from A-1, had been working out. The couple, who seemed to be childless, also seemed impressed, but that’s pretty easy since there are few domestically built houses outside of vacation cabins with all wood interiors. They commented approvingly on the wood scent when they entered, an attribute we no longer noticed. And they seemed to really like the open second floor because it was so bright, though, given their preference for privacy, it probably had more to do with the fact that we had so many windows and none of them faced any of our neighbors. This was mostly a matter of luck, and we wondered how realistic they were in their ability to find a piece of land like ours. They seemed willing to move out to this neck of Chiba Prefecture, but their conditions for a land purchase were even stingier than ours had been. We set a limit of ¥5 million and ended up paying ¥5.3 for 220 square meters. They were hoping to find something for only ¥3 million, which was possible but it would have to be even farther away from urban functions like shopping and transportation than our property is. They said they were fine with that.

They left more animated than they were when they arrived, which led us to believe they liked what they saw and would be more inclined to use A-1, and in a way that made us feel good. Though we’ve had problems with the company ever since we started dealing with them, we realize, after living here for a year, that we probably ended up with something closer to what we really wanted than we could have gotten anywhere else, at least given the money we were willing to spend. As it happens, A-1 was supposed to send some workers this past week to fix two problems that they haven’t fixed since we moved in: a slightly bent gutter that allows water to pour down the north side of the house when it rains, and the front stoop, which started cracking and chipping even before we moved in. The gutter is sort of a pro bono favor since the damage was not caused by anything A-1 did, but rather the result of a freak snowstorm that occurred a week after we moved in. As the snow slid off the roof it pulled the gutter away from the edge. The stoop, however, was definitely shoddy workmanship. As we eventually found out it was done by one of the carpenters, and not by a mason.

CIMG3279As outlined in a previous post, the house is as air- and water-tight as they told us it would be. There isn’t that much dust compared to the apartments we’ve lived in, even in the summer when we keep the windows open. Most of the things we aren’t 100% satisfied with have less to do with A-1 than with our own desire to keep costs down. The biggest test for the house was the winter cold, since we had opted to put one large storage heater on each floor. Our house is relatively small and both floors are open, so the agent who sold us the heaters figured that would be enough, and as it turns out she was right. It was generally comfortable all winter, though more comfortable on the second floor than on the first. Storage heaters absorb electrical heat at night, when the cost of electricity is much less, and then radiates that stored heat during the day. The difficulty for us was the size of the units. They’re quite large, and the only convenient spot for the one on the first floor was underneath the stairway. The agent had warned us that this position wasn’t ideal, since much of the heat would rise up through the stairwell to the second floor, and she was right. The second floor was always much warmer than the first, and so we ended up adjusting both heaters accordingly: the first floor unit was set at a higher load than the second floor unit. That meant always having to second-guess weather forecasts since we needed to adjust the heat setting beforehand. We had to basically predict what the next day’s temperature would be. This seemed to work fine on fair days. The sun would shine through the many windows on the first floor and supplement the radiant heat to keep everything at a comfortable temperature. However, when the sun wasn’t out, the first floor could get chilly, and while part of the problem was the position of the heater, it also had something to do with the windows. Though they’re double glazed, the frames and sashes are aluminum, and you could feel the air become colder when you passed your hand near them. We should have spent more on the windows, maybe on resin frames and sashes. Since there are so many of them, it would have been considerably more expensive.

CIMG3357Which isn’t to say we haven’t spent a lot since the house was finished. As explained throughout previous postings, the house is very basic. We left off a lot of fixtures and didn’t order landscaping, both of which A-1 offered us at reasonable prices, because we wanted to decided those things ourselves and didn’t really know what we wanted until we moved in. Had we gone with A-1 we would have gotten generic fixtures on the inside and a lot of concrete on the outside. The fixtures weren’t really a problem. We had blinds custom made at Nitori for all the picture windows and sliding doors, as well as translucent curtains for the small windows on the north side of the house. We bought and installed our own curtain rods. We didn’t order a vanity for the main bathroom and instead converted the space with the bathtub into a shower room-cum-changing room by putting in a standing shelf for towels and cutting carpet tiles for the floor. Then we bought a bunch of small wood shelves from IKEA and put them all over the place, mainly in the kitchen and the main bathroom. No vanity or special cupboards needed. We installed brackets for movable shelves in the storage space next to the foyer as well as a shoe rack. We bought ceiling fans online and connected them to the rosettes we had installed in the ceiling on both floors–two on the second and three on the first.

CIMG3304That part was easy and relatively inexpensive. The hard part was the landscaping, because we didn’t really know what we wanted, only that we didn’t want concrete and asphalt, which is relatively easy to take care of but not very aesthetically pleasing. One problem is the unorthodox shape of our plot–a right triangle. We don’t have a car at the moment, but there’s always the possibility we’ll get one so we started with the idea of a parking space–no garage or car port, just a space. We also flirted with the idea of a Japanese style garden–not the elaborate kind with a koi pond and rocks and sand and bonsai, but stone pathways and a meadowy mix of vegetation. Then we noticed that whenever it rained the sides of the house would get splashed with mud from the water hitting the ground, so we decided first to encircle the house with gravel (jari).

CIMG3299One of the reasons it was difficult to envision landscaping options was because there were no delineating features to our property. The structure sat there in the middle of the plot and all around was mud, weeds, and woods. Moreover, our backyard was a huge mound of dirt that had been excavated for the septic tank. We tried spreading it around but it turned out to be an enormous task. We decided we needed help and went to an exterior service attached to one of the discount stores in our area. We tried to explain to the salesman what we wanted but he misunderstood, thinking we wanted to cover our entire land with slate slabs (we only suggested the slate for the approach from the street to the front door), and the estimate came to more than ¥6 million. Maybe he should come and look at our property, we suggested, and he seemed up for it, but, this being the summer after the big housing rush brought about by the consumption tax hike, he said they were busy until the end of summer.

We weren’t happy with his attitude, anyway. We needed advice, and that was fine as long as money wasn’t an object, but as soon as we mentioned a budget and then said we didn’t know exactly what we wanted, they lost interest in us as customers.

CIMG3404We spent a month or so poring through exterior catalogues looking at bricks and gravel and railroad ties and whatever, and eventually realized we were approaching the problem from the wrong direction. We actually needed to hire a landscaper–not a landscape architect, which we couldn’t afford, but someone who knew how to do both plants and gaiko (exterior), so we visited a few nurseries and sounded them out. As it happens, we got the best reaction from one of the nurseries at the same discount store, a family business. We sketched out our ideas on a copy of our land diagram with an outline of the house in its approximate location. We threw ideas back-and-forth with the matron of the place, a crusty old woman who knew her plants. In the end we set aside a patch of soil in the front bordering the street where we would put a small garden. The rest of the front would be filled with sod. In the southeast corner closest to the road, in the middle of the sod, we would embed two long railroad ties as a kind of parking space. The approach would be brick, and between the approach and the neighbor’s fence to the north we would place tetrapod-like blocks for the foundation of a bicycle port. A half-meter wide border of gravel would surround the house, punctuated by yellow slate slabs. The backyard would also be sod with a Japanese maple in the middle. It was simple and simple to do, she said. In a week’s time, her son, a mountain of a man who this tiny woman couldn’t have possibly borne, had made a more dedicated sketch. We wrangled over prices and which plants we wanted in the garden and finally settled on ¥1.5 million for the whole thing, including labor. They said they could do it in less than a week. (to be cont’d.)CIMG3257

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5 comments

  1. stvr · May 14, 2015

    I’m just astounded that two 50-somethings spent $200,000 on a house that they can’t grow old in. Do you think you’re invincible?

    Like

  2. Takahiro Yoshiyuki · June 8, 2015

    Dear CatFore,

    I’m currently in the same position as you were looking for land in Japan. I’m part Taiwanese part Japanese and my wife is Japanese. We currently live in Florida~ and I really want to move to Japan to export cars to America. I asked my wife if she wanted to move back and shes all for it, but she knows nothing of what I’m asking for in terms of land buying and such. (she’s clueless as well as I) I thought you might be able to help me.

    My wife comes from a town called Tone (its just south of Ryugasaki)

    She also says its the “boonies” in Japan lol, no train station or anything (this is where her parents live)

    I was hoping to live somewhere near there and be a hour away from Tokyo, via train (doesnt matter if its the expensive train either) I live a hour away from Orlando, Florida. I am use to living on the outskirts of a city.

    That’s pretty much it and will probably use A1 like yourself.
    If you can give me some suggestions where I should start looking in Narita that would be great.

    “somewhat close to Tone Town”
    “an hour away from Tokyo”
    “an hour-ish from Narita Airport”
    “somewhat near the Chiba Port”

    Like

    • catforehead · June 21, 2015

      Tone is not far from where we live. I think if you take a train from there it will take longer than an hour to get to Tokyo and even longer than that to get to Chiba Port, since Tone is in Ibaraki Prefecture. The problem is not the distance, but rather the fact that the local train lines in that area are very irregular and mostly run east-west, when you want to go south. Narita might be more convenient for your purposes, but it’s still far from the port and the land is a bit more expensive. If you plan to drive, it’s a different matter, but since we don’t drive we’re not sure about the traffic situation. There’s a lot of new housing developments in this area, but maybe you would be better off looking in cities like Sakura or Shisui, which are more suburban and have lots of train lines that go everywhere and often.

      Like

  3. eurasiaendtoend · June 19, 2015

    Hello again.

    I have been following this blog since the 2011 quake when I searched for how people living in high-rises coped with the shaking.

    Of course the frequency with which you post has slowed but it was nice to see this post (which I just noticed a few days ago) on your first year.

    I bought a second hand apartment in unfashionable N.E. Tokyo in 1997 after prices flattened out having fallen sharply after the bubble.Unfortunately prices started falling again after I bought!

    I sold it in early 2014 after deciding I don’t want to own a condo in case of another quake. You did the right thing buying a piece of land and building the house of your dreams. At least the land is yours and not commonly owned and therefore ripe for dispute and tension which is how I see condos.

    Many more happy years of living in it.

    M.C.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brian · October 21, 2015

    We paid about 100,000 yen for a 6-meter silver birch in front, with landscaping around it, and 850,000 yen for the rear: a sofa-sized deck and about 10 meters of fencing (both solidly built with 2x4s and cement), about 10 meters of a pathway of rock, railway ties, Oya-ishi, and cedar 2x4s, and rock-bordered and dry-stacked planter areas. I added about 100,000 yen of plants. No sod, just a path between planted areas. The landscapers used about a dozen preexisting trees that they root-balled and moved, about 200,000 yen worth, they said.

    After watching the 6-week (many days off for rain, etc.) process, I would never attempt anything like this on my own: the precise measurement, the drainage considerations, the soil pounding to compact it below the pathway. The rocks were irregular American football-sized and came on a crane truck in a 1-ton bag (with 2 tons of soil).

    We let them experiment with various things. For instance, they used traditional tataki below the deck, tataki being a sort of half-baked primitive concrete formerly used as flooring in Japanese houses.

    The fact that it was done in the rainy season turned out to be lucky: The drip lines were clear, and the garden was designed such that stone, rock, or ground cover was below any dripping.

    My personal taste is to be immersed in a jungle. Good alternatives to grass/sod are tall “grasses” like susuki or prairie grass; and sedum, moss, or creeping thyme. Perennial “herbs” are good: plant them and see what survives, for instance, meadow sage. There are many “weeds” and ferns that just appear if you have bare soil areas: if I like them I leave them alone. Nurseries push non-native plants and consider stuff like susuki a weed. Books by British expat garden designer Paul Smither are a useful source for ideas about using native Japanese plants. And nearby public streets and abandoned lots are a good source of hardy “plants” and mosses.

    Liked by 1 person

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