Genesis

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Original plan for the Ikeda Muromachi housing development

Because Japan as a country didn’t make housing starts an integral part of its economy until after World War II, we’ve tended to believe that housing developments didn’t exist before the war, but, of course, that isn’t true. Recently we came across a 2009 article by a professor named Ken Shibata who teaches at Kyushu University’s graduate school. In it he describes several prewar housing developments.

Shibata writes from the standpoint that “suburbs in Japan are in trouble,” meaning that they are increasingly filled with vacant properties and are losing value along with residents. He blames the policy–which we’ve mentioned many times in our own blog–of focusing on new developments rather than maintaining existing ones, and he cites three prewar housing developments that today have good value even though they are quite old.

One is Denenchofu in Ota Ward, Tokyo, which sounds like a ringer. Denenchofu is famously upscale, with large, extremely expensive properties. Celebrities and rich executives live there. Though it’s not exactly Beverly Hills, it is as close to a Japanese cognate as you’re going to get. Another, more down-to-earth housing development is Tokiwadai in Itabashi Ward, which was first developed more than 80 years ago. Both these neighborhoods are in Tokyo proper, and even though they were relatively rural areas at the time they were first built, right now they have high property values simply because of their location and not so much because of the quality of their housing stock. Read More

Year Zero (2)

CIMG3303The landscaping took more than two weeks. It rained off and on, thus making work a bit difficult. We were surprised at how much equipment was needed to do what we had assumed was a fairly simply job, and wondered how they could charge so little when they were using backhoes, steam shovels, and cranes installed on the beds of large trucks. One of the reasons we didn’t order any concrete work was because we didn’t think it was worth the expense, the reason being that you had to hire an outside company with a cement mixer regardless of how much cement you were going to pour, but in any case on a few days there was quite a bit of equipment on the property.

CIMG3478The first order of business was moving the huge mound of dirt displaced by the septic tank. An older man did that and it wasn’t until the second day or so that we realized he was the father of the huge guy in charge of the project. It turned out to be a fairly tedious task. Since carting the dirt away would have cost us more money we asked if he could distribute it evenly along the akamichi–the strip of city-owned dirt road that bordered the southeast side of our property. We didn’t bother asking for permission from the city since it was obvious no public vehicle was ever going to use it. The old guy did as we asked for no extra fee, though to us it looked like extra work, since after depositing the dirt on the road he had to spread it around. In the end he did quite a good job of making it look inconspicuous–except that at the far end of the dirt road, just after it reached past the end of our property, there was a noticeable dip. Read More

More Than Enough

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

Pamphlet from local government explaining how property is assessed

We’ve written about Japanese property taxes a few times and in our JT column we once mentioned that the system for assessing property values and calculating the amount owed is complicated. Consequently, local governments, who do all this work based on laws implemented at the national level, sometimes make mistakes.

Apparently, the problem is even more widespread than we thought. According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, between 2009 and 2011, 97 percent of local governments reported at least one case of overcharging for property taxes, though, of course, that would indicate there are probably many more cases. A recent issue of the tabloid-style weekly Friday interviewed an official from a support network for “asset preservation” who pointed out that property taxes are very different from income taxes in that they are completely determined by the authorities. With income taxes, at least the taxpayer can see how his taxes are calculated since he has the documents with all the pertinent information. But property taxes are determined by the local tax office and the property owner simply receives a bill every year saying how much he owes without any explanation of how the bill was calculated, and unless the taxpayer has knowledge about the property tax laws and how they may apply to his particular circumstances, he won’t know whether or not the amount charged might be wrong.

The extent of the problem was illustrated in a feature in the Oct. 5 Asahi Shimbun, which cited a number of recent high-profile cases. Last May, the owners of apartments in a complex in Isehara, Kanagawa Prefecture, found out that they have been paying too much property tax for their units since the complex was built in 1972 by the then national housing corporation. Condominium values are assessed according to floor area, and almost all of the 600 units in the complex are about 63 square meters, but they also have verandas. The city tax office was including the verandas, which are about 8 square meters, into the assessment, but verandas are considered kyoyo, or common property, meaning they don’t belong to individual owners, but rather to all the owners, just like corridors and building foyers. The assessment for common property in a condo is divided up among all the owners but taxed at a much lower rate than property that is owned individually. Read More

Sub Standard

CIMG3720Last year we wrote a Home Truths column about real estate schemes being promoted to property owners whose legacies would be subjected to higher inheritance taxes under new government rules. Since the government also is in thrall to the construction industry, it offers tax cuts and deductions to people who build on their property or improve it. The focus of our report was on rental apartment buildings that property owners could have built by companies that would then manage them for the owners, thus killing two birds with one loan: greatly reducing the inheritance tax burden for the owners’ children, and bringing in income from the property itself.

However, according to a special report that NHK aired a few months ago, these schemes have turned out to be a great deal of trouble for property owners. Typically, a real estate company gets a landowner to build an apartment building on his piece of land and helps the landowner secure a loan. The company then guarantees a certain amount of “rent” to the landowner for the next thirty years and subleases the apartments. The company does all the work: solicting tenants, maintaining the building, collecting rents, etc. The owner simply pays for the structure and sits back and collects money. Or, at least, that’s how the scheme is sold.

The NHK program profiled an elderly farm couple living in Gunma Prefecture. Though both are in their 70s, they continue to work the land, but don’t have the energy to work all of their land any more. However, if they let part of it go fallow, the property taxes for that portion will go up. And then there was the inheritance taxes to think about when they died. Ten years ago they were approached by a real estate company who had a plan that would solve all their problems and set them up with a monthly income for the rest of their lives. All they had to do was take out a ¥100 million loan to build an apartment building on the unused portion of their land. They took the offer. Read More

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. Read More

Passive Houses: A conversation with Kevin Meyerson

While doing research for our November 2014 Home Truths column in the Japan Times, we talked to Kevin Meyerson, who has lived in Japan for 25 years and recently sold his web design business in Tokyo and moved to Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, where he built a passive house. Our conversation about his new home lasted more than an hour, and, obviously, only a small part could be used in the article. Here’s a bit more.

-How did you find out about passive houses?

We bought land in Karuizawa in 2010 and I was going to commute to Tokyo. I wanted to build an environmentally friendly house. My company had gotten ISO 14001 certifications several years before and I became more aware of energy efficiency and environmental issues concerning the use of energy, so I wanted to build an energy efficient house and looked at Japanese smart houses. There’s a new Japanese standard being considered for 2020 and I looked into those houses, and then I found out about LEED in the U.S., which is similar to CASBEE here in Japan, and I talked to the LEED architect for a while and found out through him about passive houses and that there was an architect who just brought the standard to Japan. She built the first one in Kamakura in 2009. There’s about ten now in Japan and a bunch more under construction. It’s going really fast, actually.

The LEED architect’s comment sort of blew me away with regard to passive houses. “I could probably build you a house that could be heated by a single candle, but why would you want to do that?” But my thinking was, if you can do that why wouldn’t you? So I contacted the architect who brought the passive house standard to Japan and she was quite busy but we were in a rush, and about nine months later her schedule became open and she decided to take on the project.

-Is LEED a company?

No, it’s a standard in the U.S. In Japan there’s a similar kind of system, though it’s not really a standard. It’s a checklist: Do you have solar panels on your house? Do you eat organic? There’s a whole bunch of stuff indirectly related to environmentally sound living. It’s been adopted by some architects who want to make environmentally friendly structures.

-Is it like LOHAS?

It’s a bit more formal than that. The passive house is a very simple standard in that it’s extremely focused on energy consumption on a per-square-meter-of-floor-space basis. If you have a square meter of floor space in your house you can only use 120 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. There are a couple of other standards besides overall energy consumption, but it’s focused on reducing the amount of energy you use per square meter while maintaining a comfortable living environment. The LEED standard, like CASBEE in Japan, is broader. It’s not just about energy consumption. It’s about a whole bunch of things. Some people think that’s a better way to do it, but if you build a house that’s LEED-certified it still can consume a lot of energy, so some people have been criticizing LEED and CASBEE as being a means of looking environmentally friendly without actually being environmentally friendly.

-When you first decided to build a passive house, did you have a model you looked at?

I looked up a bunch of stuff on the net and found that the passive house standard is quite common in Europe. And it’s becoming more common in the U.S. as well. And in all the cases the comments of people who lived in passive houses was that they never knew how comfortable a house could be, or now that they live in one they couldn’t live anywhere else. Read More

You Got to Move (2)

CIMG3375The move was relatively straightforward and painless, and even cleaning up the apartment turned out to be less of a hassle that it’s been at other apartments when we left, mainly due to the fact that we were only there a little more than two-and-a-half years.

CIMG3349But the settling-in has taken time; not so much the arranging of furniture and figuring out storage options, but wondering about all the stuff we told A-1 we didn’t need because we were going to do all that ourselves. As mentioned previously, we had no real idea what the place would look like once it was finished, so we didn’t want to predecorate it and then later find out that it didn’t work; which is the way most people go about building a house. In the weeks leading up to the move we had bought shelves and racks and lights and curtain rods and curtains as we assessed the interior during its evolution into living space. We still needed blinds on all the windows, floor coverings, ceiling fans–not to mention extra counter space, since all we had was the kitchen island on the second floor. Though we aren’t huge fans of Ikea, we decided to do a run on the home furnishings monolith since it would just be easier to order what we needed all in one place and have it delivered all at one time. As usually happens when people go there, we left exhausted, frustrated, and a little abashed at the fact that we had let the place get to us. But we found most of the stuff we needed.

CIMG3275We ordered one set of drapes for the bedroom at Mujirushi, but their blinds were over-priced, we thought, and there wasn’t much of a selection in terms of colors. So we went to Nitori, a home furnishings store that’s a notch or two below Muji in terms of stylistic cachet. We were quite pleasantly surprised with the selection of blinds–about a hundred different colors–and they could custom make each set to the exact specifications of the windows, which were all different sizes. Nine sets came to a little more than ¥100,000. Later we ordered lace curtains for the smaller windows on the north side of the house, 7 in all, and it was less than ¥20,000. For the two square windows in the “living room” (more of a nook) we bought Japanese noren–the curtains that hang at the entrances to restaurants and public baths–and put them over the windows suspended from pipe we bought at our local DIY store. Read More