Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of building a home. This one is about the final preparations before construction of our house began.
The design came together quickly because it was so simple. In fact, we thought that whatever form it took it would never be simple enough. Each item that went into it was going to cost us, so we didn’t want a wall or a door or even an electrical outlet that we didn’t need. It’s one of the reasons we chose A-1 as the builder, because every plank and screw was subject to our approval, and while the simplicity of our basic idea made it quick and easy to plan, refining it took time.
The initial estimate was close to ¥14 million, which was reasonable but more than we originally wanted to pay given what the land had cost. The A-1 design our plan was based on cost less than ¥11 million. The difference was taken up by the design fee and some custom add-ons, like the extra toilet. So we scrutinized the plans. Did we really need a door to the office on the first floor? Would a mail slot be cheaper than a mailbox? Could we find less expensive lighting fixtures than the ones A-1 would purchase through its usual supplier? We weren’t being cheap for the sake of being cheap. Several decisions actually cost us more than if we had let A-1 go its normal route. The bathroom on the second floor did not have a standard vanity unit, which would have been less expensive than the built-in sink and mirror combo we requested. We gave in to the unit bath because on further inspection we didn’t think we would find a tradesman who could build the kind of Western bathroom we preferred at a price we could afford. As antiseptic as we found unit baths, they tend to have more structural integrity and are easier to maintain than custom-made bathrooms. And though we weren’t crazy about the standard system kitchen we’d been forced to choose at Housetec, we didn’t need to buy overhead cabinets since it’s an open kitchen. We also opted for sliding doors for the upstairs bathroom and the downstairs toilet, and they are more expensive than conventional hinged doors. Sliding doors take up less room, and at 89 square meters the house didn’t have any extra room to spare. We had already eliminated the “veranda” that tends to be standard in any Japanese home, and that saved us a lot. And since our house is essentially a big box there were fewer angles and thus less surface area. With A-1, real wood panel walls are standard, but for a bit more you can have conventional sheetrock walls, and for a bit less again you can have OSB (oriented strand board), which we chose for the walls of the office and the walk-in closet, since they would eventually be covered by bookcases and other furniture, so the look wasn’t important. Originally, we opted to leave out a UHF-BS antenna unit on the roof, thinking we’d get cable or Internet TV, but after calling around to various cable companies and internet providers we discovered that such services weren’t yet available in our neck of the woods. In fact, they might not be available for some time, so we opted back in for the antenna unit. In the name of simplicity again we asked them not to tile the genkan (foyer), but just leave it as bare concrete, and not just because it’s less money. We like bare concrete and since we included in the design a small recessed storage area just to the right of the genkan it would all be of a piece. We also wanted a lot of windows, which costs more than having less windows, though due to the usual “modular” Japanese design methodology, which bases all measurements on ikken multiples or portions of the length of a tatami (182 cm), we had to chose window sizes accordingly. Any other sizes would require custom work, which would mean going outside the modular parameters and spending more.
Another reason for the simplicity was that it would allow us to change things later more easily. Once everything was built it would be expensive, not to mention stupid, to change features we didn’t like, so rather than risk putting in something we might not like in the long run, we left out as much as possible. We’d be paying for whatever post-construction changes we made, but they would be easier to carry out and probably cheaper. A-1 wasn’t going to do any landscaping–no concrete apron or approach to the front door–and while those are always options they are options most homebuyers want because they think that as long as they’re building a house they should get as much done as possible. We may have been asking for trouble by leaving all that until later, but until the house was built it was difficult to make decisions that would have a permanent effect on the look and practicality of the property as a whole.
It was this aspect of the building process that was the most difficult to address. As we’ve already mentioned, one way A-1 saves money is by doing away with promotional schemes, including model homes. Building and maintaining model homes is expensive, and those costs add to the prices of the homes people buy. A-1 doesn’t see the necessity, and neither did we given how simple we were trying to keep things. But there is a big advantage to model homes, which is that the buyer has a clearer idea of what things will look like once the house is finished. We didn’t. A-1 brought us photos of other houses they’ve built with similar features to ours, but our design was unique, and so these photos could only give us an idea. Take the stairway. Though we thought it might be good aesthetically to have a metal stairway, it would have been very expensive, as much as a million yen more. Nagaoka showed us the standard wooden stairway A-1 installs and it looked nice in the house depicted, but that house is very different from ours. The fact is, we wouldn’t know what it would look like and what sort of practical improvements it would need until it was finished, so we wanted to keep all our options open until we could make choices based on reality.
These considerations were swirling through our heads when we met with Noguchi, the salesman, and Nagaoka, the architect, for the final design meeting. They said they would come to our apartment, but we decided to rent one of the meeting rooms in our apartment complex. We reserved it for two hours and though we didn’t think that much time was needed, in fact it wasn’t enough. Nagaoka spent a good deal of it going through the contract item by item. As with the contract for the land, most of it was standard legalese that just needed to be aired, but there were certain items we focused on, mainly in terms of payment. Because our loan would not come through until the house was ready to be occupied–meaning after it passed the local authorities’ inspection–the payment schedule was important, and according to the contract A-1 would charge a penalty for every day the payment was late. Upon signing the contract the first third of the entire cost of the house was due. Then, when the roof beams were installed we would pay the second third, and the last third when the house was complete. Since we had almost ¥15 million in various savings and investment plans in Japan and were already approved for a ¥7 million loan by JA, the amount of money wasn’t an issue. It was the timing. We had already shelled out more than ¥5 million for the land, as well as an initial payment to A-1 toward the design fee. By the time the second payment was due we may not have any liquid assets left, which means we would have to break a mutual fund or two, and that would entail additional, incidental expenses. The cost of digging the well, almost ¥500,000, wasn’t included in the price of the house. And there were also going to be taxes and registration fees that we probably hadn’t heard of yet.
Most of the negotiation was about small things, like the number and location of electrical outlets (more difficult than we imagined for such a small house), the positioning of lighting rosettes (most of which would be used for ceiling fans, since we prefer indirect lighting), and how many antenna outlets and LAN ports we needed (we opted for two LAN ports, unaware that internet providers only install one per house). We had them eliminate the whole category of lighting fixtures, which came to more than ¥150,000, since we would purchase those on our own, but were confused by the line item “miscellaneous costs,” which Noguchi told us was a cushion for extra, unforeseen expenses. We asked how they came to a fixed price for something they didn’t know about yet, and he said it was simply based on the overall cost of the house.
We didn’t sign the contract after the meeting, deciding to wait until they sent us the new estimate with the changes we discussed. Even if we had signed, we wouldn’t have been locked into that price–there was a clause that said the final payment would reflect any additional changes that happened after the contract was concluded. But we wanted to see it anyway, and when Nagaoka sent us the new estimate a week later it was lower than the first one by several hundred thousand yen, though most of the difference was not from structural changes but from administrative costs that no longer applied. It was comforting to know we could get the price lower through our own effort, but the process was ongoing. We were still working out which window sizes we wanted and whether we needed bracket lighting attachments on the bedroom wall. It seemed as if these things would take forever.
Before construction could start we had to dig a well. Though our land was nominally within a housing development, it was a small one, basically a tract of forest surrounded by farmland. Part of the tract had been sold to our realtor, Chiba Jutaku, which had divided it up for sale, but calling it a “development” was pushing it, since the usual infrastructure wasn’t available: no waterworks, sewerage, or gas lines. Technically, the land wasn’t zoned for residences. It existed in that bureaucratic limbo known as “shigaika chosei kuiki,” which means an “area being adjusted for urban use.” For all intents and purposes, it was land that had been cleared and leveled and then sold for a profit.
We could not actually build on our plot until the local land authority gave us permission, so buying it before the fact seemed risky, but these kinds of sales happen all the time and are always approved. We could see that for ourselves, since there were already five finished houses in the development and they had gone through the same thing. Over the past three years we had looked at many properties that were also classified as shigaika chosei kuiki, and they were more to our liking since lots that were already approved for residential construction tended to be in housing developments built by developers, meaning they were densely populated, and we wanted more breathing room. The thing about infrastructure is that most of it is built by private or semi-private entities that aren’t going to extend utilities to areas where they won’t see a profit, and a dinky little housing development of eight homes in an agricultural area where farming families have been living for generations without infrastructure isn’t worth it for them. The edge of Chiba New Town was only a 10-minute walk from our property, and anything within that massive development project, which incorporates portions of three cities, has access to all the usual infrastructure. But proximity means nothing. We might as well be living on the moon. Though we had already paid for the land and gave the go ahead to have the well dug, we called up the semi-public water authority whose bailiwick was closest to our property and asked about future prospects of waterworks being extended to our area. They said it would never happen. A little more research revealed that water usage throughout Japan peaked around 2001 and has been dropping ever since, and because local water authorities’ funding comes from customer billing and not from any public outlay they have less money with which to lay new pipe than they had in the past, so there’s absolutely no incentive to extend waterworks to any areas except those that guarantee a large customer base.
As it turned out, the well-digging company Chiba Jutaku recommended had some sort of family connection to the mayor of Inzai, and seemed to be the only well-digger in the vicinity. When we first inspected the land the agent told us that it would cost about ¥400,000 to dig the well, since the company charged ¥100,000 per ten meters and the water table below our property was about 40 meters deep. The water came from Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture to the north, and not from nearby Inba Marsh or Tone River. We went to our builder for a second opinion and they contacted a well-digger in a different town who said that we should hire someone local, since it was important for the well-digger to have an understanding of the geological properties of the place he was drilling. That sounded to us like the logic of a closed industry whose members watched one another’s backs, so we patronized the local monopoly. When we first realized this was the case it blunted our enthusiasm for the land, since it effectively increased the price by ¥400,000 with no chance of negotiating a better one, but then we recalled that in almost any prepared subdivision where waterworks and sewerage are available, new property owners have to pay a fixed fee to “join” the waterworks, and usually it was around ¥300,000. Furthermore, once the well was dug, the water was free in perpetuity (unless the folks in Nikko somehow found out we were tapping their aquifer and asked us to pay), while people hooked to public waterworks are billed periodically for the amount they consume. The tradeoff seemed fair, especially when the realtor told us that the city of Inzai would subsidize 100 percent of the cost of buying and installing a septic tank for us, since sewerage was available in other parts of the city but not in ours. We also found out a little later that this subsidy was dependent on availability of funds, that there was a set budget for septic tank purchases and installation within a given fiscal year, so we should make our application as soon as possible. As far as the lack of natural (or “city”) gas lines went, liquid propane gas delivery was available, and LPG is more economical and supposedly safer than natural gas, but we had already decided to make our home all-electric, so it wasn’t a consideration. Unlike the other three utilities, electricity is readily available everywhere in Japan, mainly because extending power lines is relatively easy and power companies always make back their investment.
The decision to go all-electric also had an effect on our well-digging plans. Because we decided to avail ourselves of the EcoCute water heating system, which uses heat exchange principles in a more economical and, supposedly, “ecological” manner, we would have to purchase a special storage unit designed for well water. After the well was drilled a sample would be sent to the local land authority who would test it before issuing the construction permit, but the testing was also needed for the EcoCute system. If certain minerals were present in certain amounts it might undermine the system’s efficiency, and so we’d need to install a filter. At first this news was further discouragement because it was yet another expense we hadn’t expected, but we soon learned that the filter only cost about ¥70,000. Still, it was one more mechanical device with the potential of failing someday, so we were relieved when the sample tests came back negative for the problem minerals; though at that point we were almost ready to install the filter anyway since our neighbor told us that the water he got from his well tasted bad and he only used it for washing. This was in contrast to another friend of ours who lived some distance away but also had well water, which she preferred to city water. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste so we decided not to install the filter in the end.
Given all the mental energy we spent on the subject of water, you would think the drilling itself would have been momentous, and on the day the task was to be carried out we planned to go over in the afternoon to watch them do it. But by the time we got there it was finished. In fact, not only was the pump installed and the ground smoothed over, the crew had already left. Obviously, drilling a well isn’t as big a deal as we thought it was.
The number of choices we had to make was sometimes overwhelming. If we had bought a house already built, we would have simply looked at what was there, decided what we didn’t like, and then replace it. If the house was being built according to a builder’s plan we would have seen what was available and haggled over what we did want and what we didn’t. A-1 was closer to this model, but the main reason we chose them was because there were more options involved, and not just in terms of design. But Noguchi did try to push things on us. He and A-1 would get a commission for anything they sold. We had managed to hold our ground at Housetec, at least up to a point.
But we went about procuring other fixtures ourselves, and not just because we thought it would be cheaper. The initial estimate included all lighting, which A-1 would purchase through its agent and then pass on to us. They told us outright they could buy these fixtures cheaper and we believed them, but we have some lighting fixtures already that work fine and look OK, so it seemed like a redundant expense. And we don’t like the kind of garishly bright overhead lighting that Japanese people prefer, so while we did have rosettes installed in the ceiling, they were for fans, not lights. A-1 gave us a catalogue for one of their lighting suppliers and we looked through that and then went online and purchased the fixtures that we needed ourselves. They were sent to our apartment so later we just brought them to the new house to have them installed when the electrical work was done.
A more important matter was the heating system. Since the house would be all-electric, the most economical means of heating would be air conditioning units for each room, but we didn’t like using air conditioners for either heating or cooling, a preference, especially with regard to cooling, that always invited derision. Both of us grew up in homes that were not air conditioned, though we lived in places that got quite hot in the summer. One reason we chose this particular piece of land was that it was surrounded by trees and though the difference is probably only a degree or two the idea of “natural” air conditioning appealed to us. As for heating, we didn’t like the typical air circulation method, which involves heating air and then pushing it around a room by means of a fan. We preferred radiant heating, which is basically heating surfaces through infrared radiation. We thought about central heating, which is rare and expensive in Japan, and also about floor heating. Our apartment at the time had floor heating, but since it was only in the living room it was difficult to gauge its efficiency.
What we wanted was heating that was even throughout the house at all times. Since we work at home and would be using the whole of our house most of the time, it made sense to have a unified heating system rather than a component system, but when we checked into floor heating for the entire house we ran into snags. For one thing we would have to start right away since a floor heating system, using either water from the EcoCute water heater or electric elements, had to be incorporated into the basic design of the house. Another, more serious problem was that you needed special floors for floor heating systems, usually veneer flooring, which we didn’t want. There are floor heating systems made for natural wood floors, but A-1 didn’t deal with them for some reason, which meant we would have had to contract out just the floors, and that would have involved all sorts of inconveniences for A-1, not to mention much more money.
So we decided to go with storage heaters–big metal boxes filled with ceramic bricks that are placed in strategic locations in the house. They absorb energy at night when the cost of electricity is low and then release it during the rest of the day as radiant heat. A-1 recommended this method because HouseTec sold a system built by a German company. Based on the size of our house they recommended two storage heaters, one for each floor, which would have come to more than ¥500,000. We decided to look around ourselves and found a dealer in Narita that sold storage heaters made by a Japanese company headquartered on the Japan Sea coast. Storage heaters are popular there because air conditioners are not so effective. Air conditioners use heat pumps and heat pumps don’t work well below certain temperatures. The Japan sea coast can get really cold.
We visited the showroom in Narita and talked to the woman who ran it. She had one space heater set up in the main room of the office and it was intimidatingly big, about two meters long and 30 cm deep. She looked at the plans for our house and recommended a 50-kilowatt unit for the downstairs and a 60-kilowatt unit for the upstairs. The heaters come in various sizes in steps of 10 kilowatts, the biggest being 70-kilowatts. She explained the physics behind the process and gave us an estimate that was almost ¥100,000 less than HouseTec’s. Later we contacted A-1 and after a few days they came back with a comparative price—not as cheap as the Narita showroom’s but HouseTec tried to make the case that the German model was better in that Europeans had been making these kinds of heaters for a long time. But we liked the idea of buying local, and the warranty for the Japanese model was five years. Even after that, the company would provide regular service, virtually for life.
So we decided to go with the Japanese company, which meant coordinating between A-1 and the sales agent. The main difficulty with space heaters is the weight. Each unit is more than 300 kilograms, which means the floor under it would have to be reinforced. Also, special electrical outlets would need to be installed. Our problem, then, was selecting the best place for them. Since our house is small and these heaters are huge, we spent a few days going over the drawings. Actually, the only place we could put the downstairs heater was below the stairway, which was wasted space anyway, but the saleswoman told us that we might end up losing heat since it would just rise up the stairwell and into the second floor, where we decided to put the other heater against the wall to the right of the stairs, because that was the only place where it would not be in the way. So we compromised. Instead of a 50-kilowatt unit downstairs and a 60 upstairs, we opted for two 60s so that the downstairs would be heated more evenly. This would be made possible by installing ceiling fans to aid in air circulation, something we had already planned anyway.
A-1 wasn’t pleased that we went outside to purchase a heating system since HouseTec would lose a big sale, but they got over it. In any case, we had bought the water heating system from HouseTec, and the city subsidy for the septic tank had come through, so HouseTec would be getting that sale as well.
During the negotiations with A-1, Noguchi asked us, several times, whether we wanted to hold the various ceremonies associated with building a house. Understanding marginally that this would involve hiring a kanushi (shinto priest) to perform a jichinsai (rite of purifying the land) before construction could begin in earnest, we said no. Neither of us is religious and both regard Shintoism as a convenient instrument of the state for propping up emperor worship, but in any case we have no desire to pay for something that is superstitious in essence. Noguchi said he understood and we assumed that was the end of it.
But after the foundation was poured and carpenters started erecting the frame, Nagaoka, who was now in charge of the project and would be our liaison with the construction side, sent us an email saying that the workers would be carrying out a jotoshiki, the ceremony to mark the raising of the roofbeam, which is a big deal and, since it involved the people who were actually building our house, seemed more momentous than the jichinsai, though initially we looked upon it as being no more relevant. The idea is to give thanks for the successful completion of the house thus far, which seems premature since only the frame has been finished, but we’re sure the ritual has somehow been streamlined over the centuries and, in any case, it’s entirely symbolic. If it’s something the carpenters value, we could appreciate it, but from the way it was presented to us it sounded like another expense, an obligation A-1 was passing on to us for our approval, as if we were being asked to confirm something that had already been decided anyway. We knew that the carpenters would, however perfunctorily, carry out the jotoshiki and since we were the end beneficiaries of this gesture it would be considered cold of us not to participate–or so we were led to believe. Upon further interrogation Nagaoka said we would be responsible for the refreshments. He also said it was customary to present go-shugi (gifts) to all the carpenters in the form of cash, usually ¥10,000-¥20,000 to the chief carpenter (toryo), and ¥5,000-¥10,000 to each of the others. After studying the matter on the internet we came to the conclusion that, while the ritual did have the effect of bringing the house owners and work crew closer together, it was mostly a racket and could become expensive depending on how many contractors showed up for the ceremony.
Eventually we decided to participate, since it was going to take place with or without us and several internet commentators had wondered out loud, after the fact, if the carpenters tacitly sabotaged their houses because they didn’t attend the jotoshiki and/or give out go-shugi. One thing we learned in all our research into the house-building process was that Japanese carpenters are a proud species, and tend to place themselves above the rest of us unskilled mortals. Though we didn’t like being blackmailed, we thought it best not to challenge the status quo.
However, there was a more immediate difficulty involved, namely, lack of cash. The raising of the roof beam occasioned more than just the jotoshiki. It also marked the second payment to the builder, according to our contract, which amounted to one-third of the total cost of the house, or close to ¥5 million. Keep in mind that our loan would not come through until the house was completed and approved by the relevant authorities, so we had to produce this second installment ourselves, which meant cleaning out all our various Japanese savings and investment plans and even transferring some money from our American portfolio. It was something we knew we were going to have to do, but we had planned it down the last yen, and suddenly we were going to have to pay money to throw an afternoon party to make sure the carpenters didn’t leave cigarette butts in the insulation. We tried to make a deal with Nagaoka: Could they arrange for the go-shugi and give out the envelopes in our name and then just add the expense to our overall bill for the house? He refused with uncharacteristic bluntness, as if what we had proposed constituted some kind of blasphemy against the construction gods. We were more than a little irked, because we didn’t own the house until it was finished. Legally, A-1 did, so having us not only pay for the jotoshiki but also requiring us to arrange for it came across as an imposition that revealed the changed circumstances of our respective roles in the transaction. Before we signed the contract, we were customers and treated with the kind of fawning deference customers in Japan can expect. But now that they had us they acted as if they were in charge and had been all along. From now on whenever we asked for a change in the original plan or a modification they would preface their response with, “Well, it will cost more money, but…” The jotoshiki, as it were, was simply an aspect of the business of building, but also a part of the process whose financial form was amorphous and thus non-negotiable. Though we had the option of not participating, we were led to believe that it would be a mistake, even if the consequences of such a mistake weren’t explained to us. It was the same thing with the line on the contract estimate for “miscellaneous expenses.” These were unforeseen costs that would inevitably pop up during the course of construction, and amounted to a full ¥1 million, whose roundness of number made us wonder if it wasn’t arbitrary. When we asked how they decided on that amount, Noguchi said it was based on the “size of the property.” Would we later receive a detailed breakdown of the expenses incurred under the designation? Apparently not. It was a pre-emptive catchall category, which means it could cover many things or nothing at all, but we would never know what.
Logistically, the jotoshiki was a pain in the ass. We asked how many people would be participating because we had to know how much food and drink to bring. We were told there would be the chief carpenter, four underlings, Noguchi, and Nagaoka, so we went ahead and ordered the meals. Then, the night before the ceremony we learned that two carpenters wouldn’t be attending because of back problems, but by that time it was too late to cancel part of the box lunch order, so we would have two more than we needed. Also we had to hire a taxi to take us to the building site so that we could carry all the food.
The one good thing about the jotoshiki is that it provided us with the opportunity to formally meet our head carpenter, an agreeable, modest young man, as well as the other workers, or at least three of them. In that regard it was worth the trouble, though not necessarily the expense. In the end we decided not to pay the go-shugi, and after handing out the lunches we left before the actual ceremony, which was really for their benefit, not ours. We didn’t think the workers would hold it against us if we didn’t give them little gifts of cash and watch them sprinkle sake on the worksite, and we were willing to take the chance on principle. Besides, it was easy to get the feeling that the two carpenters who didn’t show up did not, in fact, have back problems. More likely, they just didn’t feel like coming all that way just for a ceremony. Since there was no work for them that day they weren’t being paid. Later, still wondering if we had been too serious about the matter we told a neighbor about our misgivings and she laughed and said when she had her house built she didn’t pay for the jotoshiki at all and would never give out go-shugi. “That’s just stupid,” she said.