Baby you can park my car

We sold our car in 2006 and have never replaced it, despite the fact that in the meantime we moved out of the city and into a suburb where a car is considered essential. Our original reason for getting rid of ours was the cost. We were paying for insurance and biannual inspections and parking just for the privilege of owning a vehicle that we really didn’t use that much. Living where we did we had ready access to several train lines and as we both aged what we once considered the convenience of having a car at our disposal faded, mainly because driving in Japan isn’t very enjoyable, what with the narrow streets, highway tolls, and difficulty with street parking. Though we’ve often thought of buying a car again for emergency use, we keep putting it off because it’s really nice not to have that burden any more. We manage just fine with bicycles and car share services. 

The last place we lived had an underground mechanical parking facility. The space you rented was actually a pallet that moved vertically and horizontally. Parking lots are two-dimensional and thus require a lot of ground space. Mechanical parking garages, what we liked to call “3D parking lots,” used space both above and below the ground level to store cars, thus requiring less real estate. When we wanted to use our car, we went to the carousel assigned to us and, inputting a special code, “retrieved” the pallet by rearranging the other pallets in the carousel in order to place ours right at the front of the gate. This means, of course, that you have to wait for all the pallets to be rearranged properly, and sometimes it took a little time. It was especially troublesome if somebody else who had rented a pallet in your particular carousel was retrieving their car just as you arrived. On a few occasions, we needed our car quickly in order to make it in time for an appointment, and someone was already there getting their car so we had to wait. Fortunately, we never had, like, a medical emergency that required an automobile. The only saving grace was the rent, which was relatively cheap for Tokyo. Before living in that apartment we lived close to the Saitama border and rented a parking space from JR under the railroad tracks. It was unpaved but the tracks protected the vehicles from rain, and we paid ¥23,000 a month. The pallet we rented was ¥18,000 a month, and it was much closer to the center of the city. 

We were renters and so parking didn’t come with the apartment. It was optional and thus required extra rent. In many condos, however, parking comes with the unit you buy—or it doesn’t. But in any case if the parking space is mechanical, maintenance is much more expensive than it is if it’s just a two-dimensional lot, and, according to a two-part feature in Asahi Shimbun, more and more condo homeowners’ associations are having trouble coming up with the funds to maintain their parking facilities. Condo residents typically pay monthly fees for both regular management and long-term major repairs for the physical buildings, including the one that contains the parking garage. In order to alleviate some of the burden, condos will opt to rent spaces to people from outside the condominium, though many won’t since it’s sometimes difficult to get consensus to allow outsiders to use the premises. Asahi says that, depending on the area, up to 40 percent of condo parking lots/garages are vacant. The newspaper visited on older condo in Nerima Ward, Tokyo, where the age of the average resident has increased in recent years. These people have given up their cars and one-third of the parking spaces assigned to the condo are empty. Nevertheless, the homeowners association will have to pay ¥100 million on maintenance over the next 8 years. They could demolish the garage and be done with it, but that would require the agreement of three-fourths of the residents, which would be difficult to do. Another condo in Minato Ward said that because of the parking maintenance costs, the association’s fund was running ¥2.3 million in the red every year, so they contracted with a parking lot operator to rent spaces to outsiders, and now they’re running in the black. One parking sublease company said that as of January, they had contracts with 457 condo homeowners associations, which translates as a sevenfold increase in their sublease business over the last 5 years. And yet vacancy rates continue to rise. 

As everyone knows, Japan’s population is dropping, and apparently more and more parking spaces in mechanical garages are standing empty. Many condo homeowner associations cover maintenance costs for their garages by renting spaces to non-residents, which means if spaces remain unoccupied the homeowners have to pay more per resident every month to maintain the garage, even if they don’t have a car themselves. One homeowners’ association the newspaper talked to in Tama, in western Tokyo, said they’ve already raised the long-term repair fund twice to cover maintenance costs and will probably have to do it again soon. In some cases, evidently, homeowners’ associations have foregone maintenance in order to save money and the facilities have fallen into disrepair. Between 2017 and 2019, the land ministry reports 11 serious accidents in mechanical parking garages that resulted in injury and/or major damage, including pallets that came off due to rusty bolts and collapsed with cars on them. One expert told Asahi that while automobile usage has gone up due to the COVID pandemic, in the long run there will be a loss of users and by extension a greater number of parking space vacancies in Japan, thus causing more of a financial burden for condo owners and parking lot/garage operators. 

In 1957, Japan enacted a parking law to address the skyrocketing sales of cars. At the time, there weren’t enough places to park all these new vehicles, and the law obligated local governments to provide sufficient parking in any new buildings they approved within their jurisdictions. The city of Chiba, for instance, mandated that parking spaces for up to 60 percent of the units in a new condominium must be assured. However, as demand for residential land increased, especially in big cities, the cost of such ordinances was considerable, which is why the mechanical 3D parking garage was developed. Many were built on the cheap. You can still find these ugly, 3-4 story sheet metal parking towers all over parts of Tokyo where land owners built them to make money on the parking boom, but now many are empty.

The land ministry reports that from 1991 to 2018, the number of parking spaces nationwide increased by almost 3 times while car ownership increased by only about 30 percent. In the ten years leading up to 2018, parking spaces increased by 20 percent in Tokyo’s 23 wards while car ownership decreased by 10 percent. One reason for the increase is that parking lot operators, like Times, are actively soliciting owners of small plots to let them lease the land for coin-operated parking lots, some of which also offer car-sharing services. Many local governments are now reviewing their parking space ordinances, but nationwide mechanical garages have much higher vacancy rates (19.5 percent) than do flat parking lots (6.9 percent). Also, the older the building, the higher the vacancy rate—in Tokyo, the vacancy rate for buildings that are more than 21 years old is 38 percent. Older garages have another problem in that more new car buyers are opting for SUVs that don’t fit on older pallets, so if you’re going to buy one of those Toyota boats, make sure you have a space in a parking lot lined up. 

4 comments

  1. Paul D. · March 28

    Similar to you, we decided to forgo the expense and hassle of owning a car, since we own bikes, have a train station nearby, and subscribe to a car-sharing service.

    For some reason, the trend of tearing down houses and replacing them with big parking lots continues unabated in my neighbourhood, despite the lack of places that seem to need any extra parking.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Durf · March 30

      If you look around the lots that have cropped up like this you may find that they abut small properties that a developer hopes to obtain at some point so a much larger development can go up across that entire area. Holdouts will keep the bigger plans from moving forward and a parking lot is a way to pay taxes on the incomplete property in the meantime.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Lee · March 30

    Hi,

    Another great article.

    Yes, parking in Japan can be a mess and very expensive. I got by without a car for a couple of years until we had a child. Then we needed one and of of course the parking lot.

    Did like everybody else around the area: rented one for a year and then parked on the street for free until one day I went out and saw that there were no other cars parked on the street except mine with a big fat parking ticket on it. Well it was good while it lasted for three or so years.

    Then rented a space in front of the apartment building. IIRC the cost was around 15,000 to 20,000 yen a month.

    With Japanese condos there appears to be a whole range of parking arrangements depending on the building.

    Some buildings’ parking lots are not owned by the condo owners, but rather the developer or management company and they charge ridiculous fees for the parking. I’m not sure if there is a legal obligation for the condo owner to rent and pay for parking in these instances. I guess it would depend on the building and contract.

    Then there are the ones owned by the body corporate and rented out as in the article.

    The other option, is of course, the owner owns a parking space (maybe even assigned) and is not charged a cost or fee for the use.

    If one was going to buy into a condo the parking situation should be one of the first things that is checked out. Huge unexpected additional costs to the owners that will increase over time and even worse as many of the units become vacant and nobody paying their share of the common costs.Those mechanical contraptions are expensive to maintain as indicated in the article.

    I still maintain that the next bust in Japanese housing values is going to be all the condos that become vacant over time that leaves huge costs to the remaining owners.

    Those monthly common area and management fees in some buildings are huge and the sinking fund fees add even more to the cost. Over time they can up to more than the cost of the condo.

    Looking at real estate for sale around the world is quite interesting and can you can see where carrying costs are high. Hawaii used to be reasonable, but the monthly fees over the past years have skyrocketed and can often run well over US$1000 a month. Some of that includes such things as central air, sewer, and water and even some buildings include electricity. The place we used to rent when we were there on vacation had a monthly fee of US$100

    Now the cost is a little over US$800 a month which includes AC Central, Cable TV, Electricity, Hot Water, Internet Service, and other Common Expenses, Sewer, Water…..(for the pool) which may make it ‘cheap’ if you actually live in condo and use lots of those services.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. borners · 14 Days Ago

    Among anti-car urbanists the Japanese system of no onstreet parking, no-minimum parking for residential and commercial real estate is considered the best system in the world or rather the least car-subsidizing one. Pointedly the most intensely socialist country on parking is….America.

    Um also to the writers of this blog, um do you have a public contact email? I’d like your advice a someone interested in researching Japanese real estate policy.

    Like

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