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Here’s another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of buying/building a home.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


At ¥17.8 million it wasn’t within our budget, but we’d been to the city of Shiroi a number of times–it’s only a few stations from where we lived–and found the house’s surburban ambience more appealing than most. Moreover, the photographs posted on the realtor’s website made this one in particular look attractive, at least from the outside: Lots of green, and the property adjoined a wide promenade on the eastern side. The fact that there were no photos of the interior should have told us something.

We got lost on the way and called the agent by phone. He picked us up not far from the property and seemed genuinely shocked that we would actually walk the 17 minutes from the station. Even more garrulous than the usual salesmen, he was open to our questions, even as they became darker when we discovered just what a dump the place was. Built in the early 90s, the house looked as if it had never been taken care of at all. The laminate floors were dull and scuffed, the wallpaper stained brown with mildew. The layout wasn’t bad. All the rooms opened up on one another in a way that seemed well thought out. And there was as much light as could be expected given that there was little space between this house and the neighbors to the south and north. The kitchen was the best part. It was large and featured a corner counter with a corner window. Unfortunately, the view from the window was dominated by the neighbor’s ugly makeshift backyard shed. The promenade that made an impression in the photos wasn’t quite as wide as we thought, but at least it afforded open space to the east. Nevertheless, the kitchen would need to be completely redone. There was also a “workshop” in back of the kitchen that was filled with garbage. 

The second floor had two large rooms and more light. We asked if the owner would be willing to tear down the aluminum balcony on the southern side of one room. The agent looked surprised. Why would we want to do that? Because it was ugly and unnecessary, we said, and explained our enmity toward balconies/verandas, which in Japan are commonplace and used mainly for drying laundry. He listened and nodded blankly.

We were frank about how bad the place was, and he understood, telling us he’d shepherded 15 potential buyers through this house in the previous four months. We thought that sounded like a lot and he told us that his company was the exclusive agent for the property. No one had yet expressed any interest. Maybe they had also been intrigued by the photos on the website, and he proudly remarked that it was he who had taken them. We congratulated him on their effectiveness and he seemed pleased, though we were being borderline sarcastic.

It was difficult not to like this particular agent. When we also mentioned we hated pebbled glass, he explained the legal proscriptions against transparent glass. In the past, whenever we had brought up the topic, salesmen had mostly sloughed off our concern by saying it couldn’t be helped, that for the sake of “etiquette” pebbled or clouded glass was standard because Japanese houses were positioned so close to one another. It made no difference that in European and American cities people who lived in such close proximity to one another usually just put curtains up when they wanted privacy.

The rationale behind the windows, however, didn’t extend to other possible points of inter-neighbor contention. One of the undeniable truths we absorbed in our search for better used housing is that Japanese single family homes are very large in proportion to the amount of land they occupy. A common stereotype about Japanese life is that people live in “rabbit hutches,” a term that apparently is French in origin and originally used to describe the stacks of nondescript kodan apartments built en masse during the 60s and 70s. Cramped apartments are still the norm in the big cities, but suburban houses built after the mid-80s are quite big and compete in size with houses in Australia, the U.S., and Europe. The difference is that the land these houses sit on is small in relation to the size of the house, thus increasing the feeling of people living on top of one another. The clutter of residential subdivisions is mirrored by the clutter inside individual homes.

We said the price seemed way too high and he replied that, actually, the price reflected only the value of the land. Now it was our turn to be shocked: ¥17.8 million for less than 170 square meters in a suburb an hour outside of Tokyo? Yes. Shiroi was very popular, he said, though we couldn’t imagine this particular plot of land justifying that price. He admitted that, in the end, they would probably just tear the house down, but that would cost money, so he was still holding out the hope that somebody might want the house, too. Maybe he was being a little too frank. He was definitely being unrealistic.

We should have asked him why his company hadn’t recommended the owners put some work into the house. Some realtors we’ve met consider at least minimal renovation a necessity for used homes and many won’t take on a seller in certain markets unless they agree to spruce the place up. We had seen some of these homes, renovated simply for the sake of boosting the sale potential, but in most cases the work done was purely cosmetic–new wallpaper, maybe new cabinets in the kitchen. New tatami and fusuma (traditional Japanese sliding doors) are standard in all housing transactions and don’t really count as reform, but some sellers go a little farther by replacing the flooring and putting in new bathtubs. In almost all the reformed properties we inspected, however, the changes didn’t amount to anything that made us want that place any more.

One time we looked at a 20-year-old apartment after it had just gone on sale. It was large and sunny, but the walls needed to be repapered and the floors replaced. The realtor told us that the ¥11.6 million asking price included the cost of remodeling, which would be carried out after a sales contract was signed by a company already chosen by the owner. We said we preferred having the remodeling done to our own specifications and asked how much cheaper the apartment would be if we bought it in its present state. The agent checked with the owner and called us back: He’d knock off ¥600,000.

Based on what we knew, repapering and replacing floors in an apartment that size would have cost more, so we assumed the job the seller envisioned would have involved little more than hanging cheap wallpaper and laying down low-grade veneer flooring. It would not include new bathroom or kitchen fixtures. This latter point was important to us because one of the conditions we had for any property, whether condo or house, was that it have two toilets, which isn’t the norm in Japan.

The exceptions are new luxury condos of more than 100 square meters or so. Initially, we accepted this truth—after all, most apartments in the U.S. only have one toilet, too. Then, later, when we started looking at previously owned single-family houses, we realized that most did not have more than one toilet, even when they were two-story homes. We were puzzled that so many apartments and houses ostensibly built for families would only have one toilet, and we eventually found we weren’t alone in our puzzlement. 

“There are always merits and demerits to any property you purchase,” a woman once wrote on a housing website we often visited. “And as the years went by one demerit became more intolerable.” That demerit was having only one toilet, a situation that results in tense standoffs in the morning, as everyone in the family gets ready for their respective days at school or work. The woman was writing because she now regretted buying a condo instead of a house. “I’ve never seen a condominium with two toilets,” she wrote.

But two toilets didn’t really start becoming common in single-family houses until the 90s, and even then it was more of a trend than a standard feature. And you only found them in two-story houses, almost never in single-story houses, though occasionally much older single-story houses might have one toilet and one urinal. 

There are several reasons why housing developers resisted two-toilet designs even though there was a demand. For one thing, Western-style flush toilets didn’t become the norm in homes until the 70s. In fact, until the 80s it was a sign of status to have a throne-style toilet in your home. Japanese squat toilets, which normally didn’t have a full flush function, depend on gravity in order to eliminate the wastes they receive, and having one on the second floor is problematic in terms of keeping the plumbing clear all the way to the waste tank. 

Another reason is that developers and housing manufacturers, in order to keep prices down, try to concentrate all the plumbing in one area to reduce pipe lengths. If there are two toilets in a two-story house, they will likely be positioned one on top of the other so that they can use the same pipes, and on the north side of the building, where the bath tub and probably the kitchen are close by. Space is always at a premium in Japanese housing, and having toilets with separate plumbing systems takes up room that otherwise could be used for storage. In Japanese homes, toilets are typically given their own closed-off compartment rather than incorporated into a washroom, a situation that’s common in Europe but one that automatically uses more space.

We also learned that many condo owners look for ways to install a second toilet in their units, which isn’t easy. First of all, you need to get permission from building management and owners associations, since only the horizontal plumbing in a building is owned separately by individuals. Vertical plumbing is communal property, and any new toilet will have to be connected to vertical pipes. Another difficulty is the space beneath the floorboards, which must be sufficient enough to house new pipes with a slight diagonal drop. In the case of older condos where the space under the floors is narrow, the floor might have to be raised to accommodate the plumbing. In addition, waterproofing work needs to be carried out, and some condominiums have strict rules regarding materials. Consequently, installing a second toilet in a house tends to be cheaper than installing one in a condo.

However, there is one special situation where older condos do end up having two toilets. Some of the used units we visited were 100-square-meter apartments created by combining two neighboring 70s-era kodan units. As previously mentioned, in elevatorless kodan from the 70s and 80s stairwells served two apartment entrances per floor. Since the 1990s it became increasingly difficult to sell these condos, so some developers bought them up and combined two apartments per floor into single larger apartments.

We inspected two of these remodeled kodan and in both cases the new apartments retained the two original toilet compartments. One even retained the two original bathrooms, though in both cases one of the two kitchens had been changed into an extra bedroom. It was an ingenious idea and an affordable one. Both of the apartments we looked at were around ¥10 million. We might have bought one of them if the management company allowed pets, but that wasn’t why they were difficult to unload. Japanese consumers still like new things, and these large units, despite the work done on them, still smacked of the Showa Era, but not in a way that inspired nostalgia. Sometimes, even two toilets isn’t enough. 


In 2010, the construction ministry conducted a survey of people who had recently sold homes. Of those who had carried out home improvements for that purpose, 73 percent said they received more money than they would have had they not carried out the work. However, the average “added value” these improvements provided was ¥1.66 million, though the average amount of money spent on said improvements was ¥3.13 million, so in fact these homeowners lost money, since they paid more for the improvements than they received in added value. In a sense, the ministry was asking the wrong question. What they should have asked was: Did they think the improvements made any difference in terms of actually selling the property? Though appearance is an important sales point, location, layout, and price are probably more important considerations in Japan’s over-stuffed used housing market. We visited dozens of cosmetically improved properties in our search for a home, and many remained unsold months, even years, after they went on sale, the main reason being location. The remodeling, regardless of the quality, meant nothing. 

It particularly meant nothing to us, since our whole rationale for looking at used properties was the idea that we could buy something very cheap and fix it up the way we wanted, but as our search continued we realized that there wasn’t much point to it because the worse properties were so bad that we couldn’t even imagine what was needed to make them habitable. Once we looked at a house in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, that was built in the early 90s. It was located on the side of a fairly steep hill and commanded a view of Inba Marsh to the northeast; or, at least, that was what various real estate portal sites implied. The place had already been on the market for six months, and when we noticed that the price had been cut for the second time we thought we might take a look. Originally, it was about ¥18 million and now it was ¥13 million. The owners were still living there, but the agent said it would be no problem to look at it.

It was even worse than we could have imagined, since the photos on the web didn’t include interiors. The owners hadn’t even bothered to clean up, and we walked through bedrooms with dirty laundry scattered on the floor and a kitchen so cramped and cluttered there didn’t seem to be anywhere to stand. Even the “view” the portal site had publicized turned out to be nothing. The only vista was from one of the bedrooms. It was impossible to tell how much work the place would need since it was difficult to see the floors and walls, but it must have been considerable. 

We crossed it off our list and would have forgotten about it completely, but it remained on the market and thus on all the portal sites that we checked regularly. Eventually, we noticed that the owner decreased the price yet again, to ¥8.9 million, which was quite a drop. The asking price was now about half what it was when it first went on the market. The agent had told us confidentially that the family couldn’t move until they sold this house, which made their laziness even more confounding. Couldn’t they see the house was unsellable as it was? The low price obviously wasn’t enough. Would it have helped if it were closer to the station? Probably. Would even perfunctory “reform” have helped? It couldn’t hurt, but the owners apparently felt it wasn’t worth it to sink any more money into it, so the only recourse was to wait until someone was desperate enough to want it. It was hard for us to imagine that there was a buyer anywhere who would want such a house. As far as we know, it may still be on the market.


One comment

  1. Lee · April 19


    Several comments:

    1. Yeah, I get a kick out of watching those shows in the USA especially when the prices they pay for tradesmen and materials are shown. The cost of tradesmen here in the magic land of Oz is astronomical. For example, plumbers get about A$125 an hour in Melbourne. Companies that send out people have a call out charge and then so many dollars every 15 minutes. Common call out charges are in the A$200 range and around $40 for every 15 minutes of work. No wonder that these people live in huge, expensive houses.

    2. I don’t know what the average size of houses was here in Australia in the 80’s, but now it really depends on the area. It also depends on if the property is a townhouse or a freestanding house.

    In my area a 3000 square foot house (about 280 square meters) is about average , however, if you are talking about a townhouse, the square footage will be all over the place depending on the age and if it has been built in one of the so called “luxury” type developments.

    Land area for houses in the older part of the village is around 800 -1000 square meters and the newer areas about half that at around 4 00- 500 square meters. The super duper luxury areas have houses on lot sizes ranging from 1 acre up. These luxury houses start with a price tag of around A$3 million or so. IIRC the most recent house that sold in the village had 1347 square meters of land, a main house, and what we call a “granny flat” for A$2 million. The most expensive expensive house sold within the recent past was A$12 million.

    With townhouses what you will generally get is a small lot less than 300 square meters of land including the common areas, and two storeys.

    Lots of the new townhouses are on even smaller lot sizes including the common area land and I really wonder how they were able to development approval. IIRC the last development built here put 5 double storey townhouses on a 1000 square meter block of land.

    As far as condos (mansions) are concerned, our first condo has been completed this year and people have moved into it with a second one just around the corner now under construction. Both are 3 storey buildings and the price runs about the A$1 million mark for the cheapest unit..

    3. Just wondering at which price point for houses in Japan you think that they change from being one that very little upkeep and maintenance is done to one that is maintained to keep its value? Do you think that the price point is say 100 million yen?


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