Reform or Die

Here’s another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of buying/building a home. This one is about keeping up properties.

One of the most popular sub-genres of reality TV is the home improvement show. In 2002, Japan’s Fuji TV launched one called “Before/After,” where superannuated, usually cramped properties were magically transformed into marvels of modern design. The producers hit on a fool-proof hook for the show that they exploited successfully week after week, year after year, without seeming redundant. 

People with properties they wanted to fix up would contact the producers, who sift through the candidates, looking for the most broken-down or unusual cases. The best sequences highlight houses that would seem impervious to improvement due to their state of disrepair or local environment. A surefire hit is always the hovel located in one of Tokyo’s warren-like residential areas, usually dating from just after the war, when neighborhoods were constructed on the fly, and which require not just ingenious design skills to improve, but superhuman feats of logistics, since there usually isn’t any room to get heavy machinery to the property owing to narrow alleyways. The architects are lone wolves who waive their design fees and charge only for materials and labor. The recipients of their largesse come up with a ceiling amount they will pay, thus adding another layer of challenge to the architect’s task. The family is then sequestered off-site while the work is done and documented in detail by a film crew. The residents are not allowed to view the property until the “reform” is complete. The climax is dramatic, with the family entering the sparkling new house with tears streaming down their faces and the anodyne voice of the female narrator showing us the stark differences achieved by the architect. 

“Before/After” sparked a boom in home improvement TV shows but not in home improvement–or, at least, not to the extent that it made a difference in the marketability of older homes. One of the main problems with remodeling in Japan is lack of regulation and oversight. The vast majority of homeowners can’t afford the kind of architects featured on “Before/After,” but anyone can start a home improvement company. In the past, the biggest complaint with regard to remodeling was fraud, characterized by operations that over-billed elderly people for poor work. Eventually, the complaints became more general owing to greater demand by homeowners who decided it was cheaper to renovate their present houses than it was to buy new ones, even if that wasn’t necessarily the case. In 2011, the Center for Housing Renovation and Dispute Settlement Support addressed more than 4,500 claims, mainly in Tokyo. In most cases there were no contracts, design plans, or even written estimates. If a particular job costs less than ¥5 million, according to the law, the company that carries it out doesn’t have to be registered as a construction firm, though remodeling companies are supposed to be insured for shoddy work. Also, the work doesn’t need to be inspected by the relevant authorities unless “it affects the integrity of the structure.” Some years ago a Nagoya woman whose condo became virtually unlivable after a reform company replaced her floors and windows couldn’t sue because there was no contract. The National Consumer Affairs Center of Japan handled more than 13,000 reform-related complaints in 2011, or twice as many as in 2010. Since there were no regulations, the center urged homeowners who were going ahead with remodeling to record all conversations. The Japan Bar Association in April 2011 urged the construction ministry to pass new laws to cover the industry, no matter how small the company.

When it comes to home improvement, experts recommend hiring designers who understand the engineering aspects of a remodeling project and can subcontract the various jobs to tradespeople. Such projects, however, can run into the tens of millions of yen, which is why comprehensive discount remodeling companies have sprung up, offering total renovations for much less. Many are associated with major retail home improvement centers, and are thus deemed to be reliable. They cut costs by buying materials in bulk, which usually means limited choices for the consumer. As with anything, you get what you pay for. 

But most homeowners in Japan don’t renovate in any substantial way, because they’re not conditioned to think of their properties as an investment. And until very recently, there were no government incentives to improve properties. The idea that one’s house, as opposed to the land it sits on, accrues or even retains value over time isn’t widespread in Japan, so as long as people can put up with the wear and tear, they let their houses slide. So the question becomes: Do the houses not retain value because people don’t keep them up? Or do they not keep them up because they believe their houses don’t retain their value? In any case, the majority of used houses, especially those built before, say, 1990, are virtually junk. 

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