Simple plans

Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of building a home.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

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The Lie of the Land

Here is another chapter from our unpublished book about housing in Japan based on our own experience of trying to buy a home. This one is about residential land usage.

Example of a private road built for a future fukurokoji housing development

“It’s about the size of a cat’s forehead” – proverbial Japanese rejoinder when asked how much land a person owns

The real estate agent picked us up at the train station in a company car with long scratches on the side, probably inflicted during attempts to park in tight, unfamiliar spaces. We drove to the property through dense suburban sprawl overshadowed by pylons and interrupted by small plots of farmland. 

The two-story house had royal blue siding and was sixteen years old. The owner moved out two years ago. The wallpaper was discolored, the laminate wood floors spongey, the second floor “veranda” filled with debris. The price: ¥5.8 million. We estimated it would take at least ¥6 million to make it livable, but ¥12 million for the whole thing seemed too much. Moreover, anyone who bought the house would have to assume the lease for the land, which was ¥38,000 a month.

The agent explained that the same landlord owned the property under the other four houses on the street. The owners all had them built at the same time and paid the same rent. The leases were 50 years, which meant the owner of the blue house was still paying rent even though he didn’t live there any more, and would continue paying rent until he found someone to buy the house and take over the lease. He originally wanted ¥12 million, but had come down to ¥5.8 million about a year ago. We asked what the options were if he couldn’t find a buyer.

“Oh, he could easily rent this place, depending on how much he asked,” the agent said. “Many people in this situation do that.”

This concept of owning a house on rented land, in Japanese called shakuchiken, isn’t uncommon. According to the land ministry, between 1993 and 2007, 35,492 single-family homes and 18,937 condominium units were built on rented land, a trend that peaked in 2001, when many companies in the Tokyo Metropolitan area starting selling off property, fueling a development boom characterized by cheaper condos. When prices rose after 2005, shakuchiken started becoming popular again. The agent said that the number of people building houses on rented land was increasing, “but you don’t see so many for sale.”

As a rule, the value of homes in Japan depreciates rapidly, but land is still expensive, and not just in urban and suburban areas. Because of usage laws that make it difficult to shift land designated for agriculture to residences, even the countryside can be costly. 

We had decided to check out shakuchiken after talking to a friend, also self-employed, who had a house built on rented land seven years earlier. He and his family wanted to live in Kamakura, the trendy center of traditional culture located on the Miura peninsula just south of Tokyo, but were looking to rent since they didn’t think they could afford to buy a house there. A real estate agent directed him to a plot of land being developed by a housing company. The plot was owned by a local Buddhist temple.

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Last Resorts

Here is another draft chapter from our unpublished book about our house-hunting adventure. This one is about second homes and so-called resort mansions. 

Second-home inspecting in Nikko

One late summer morning in 2012 we were on the Tokaido Shinkansen super express and ran into a friend we hadn’t seen in years. He asked us if we were still living in Tokyo and we said we had moved some time ago because of the earthquake. He then asked what we were doing on the bullet train and we said we were on our way to Atami on the Izu Peninsula to look at some properties we might be interested in buying. He gave us a funny look. “That would seem to be the worst place to live if you’re afraid of earthquakes.”

True. Just the day before Japan’s Cabinet Office Disaster Council had updated its projections for a major earthquake occurring in the Nankai Trough, the deep indentation in the sea bed off the Pacific coast, and Shizuoka Prefecture, which contains Izu, was deemed the worst location in terms of projected casualties, though, technically, most of those casualties would be in the western part of the prefecture, not Izu. In any case, we weren’t completely serious about buying a place there. Having been frustrated in our search for a home we could afford, we were entertaining the idea of keeping our rental and buying a cheap old fixer-upper in a location with cooler summers. If our income situation worsened and we had to give up renting, then we would at least have a roof over our heads, and if things continued as they had been then we’d have a weekend/summer place. There are plenty of old dumps in the highlands of Tochigi and Nagano, or in the wilds of Chiba that can be had for under ¥7 million, though they’d require another ¥3-5 million to make livable. And during our search we noticed there were quite a few such places in Izu, too, mainly besso (separate homes), which we had avoided so far. Second homes tend to be built in specially designated developments managed by companies that charge yearly fees. Also, besso are usually impractical for year-round living, but since we weren’t necessarily going to be living in one year-round we thought we’d see what was available. And Izu is, as they say, the “Riviera of Japan.” More to the point, it’s cooler in the summer.

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Dead houses

In the last year, we’ve seen a lot of headlines on social media about how you can buy a house in Japan for a song. The usual figure quoted is about $500 US, which makes us think that all these articles spring from one source that’s likely American. We haven’t bothered tracing the articles to one source, though we read a few of them and they all say basically the same thing: local governments throughout Japan are promoting the acquisition of abandoned houses in order to get people to move into their regions and lift the tax base. In some cases, they are even giving houses away, but in any situation these structures will need a lot of work before they are at all habitable. We’ve written extensively about the problem of akiya and since you get what you pay for it follows that the lower the price the more work that will need to be done. The worst akiya, it must be said, are not even on the market, meaning they were literally abandoned by the owner for any number of reasons—either because they moved out and couldn’t be bothered to try and sell it, or they did try to sell it with no success, or they simply disappeared in order to avoid having to pay property taxes, which, in all probability, were very low to begin with. Or they died—with or without an heir. There are a lot of akiya whose owners are dead, meaning they never transferred the title to anyone, and though heirs are still legally responsible in Japan they can be difficult to contact if they don’t want to be found. Those houses are probably unihabitable since they’ve been left to rot, and the local government doesn’t want to spend the money to have them demolished.

There are more than 8 million akiya and, not counting dedicated rental units, many are not livable and fewer are even sellable due to other factors such as location. So when you read an article about somebody who bought a house for nothing and fixed it up into a nice place it’s not just an exception to the rule, but almost an anomaly. Anytime a foreign person buys an old farmhouse or kominka and turns it into a monument to traditional Japanese craftsmanship they’re bound to get it featured in the news, but, again, it’s exceedingly rare. Most people prefer new homes, and because government policy has always privileged new house construction, potential buyers can always find something they can afford that’s new; and in many cases it will even be cheaper than an older house that requires extensive renovation, which describes a substantial number of old houses that are on sale. 

The reason these articles about cheap houses have proliferated in the past year is mainly the pandemic, which, for a while, cut into new home construction. People are moving out of the cities because they can now work from home, so used houses starting selling well, but, again, a lot still aren’t selling. We know of several houses in our general vicinity that are in good condition but they’ve been on the market for months, some even years. There are just too many cheap old houses that people want to sell and not enough buyers. Of course, much of it has to do with Japan’s decreasing population, but mainly it has to do with oversupply. When construction resumes apace, those old houses will become even more difficult to sell. 

More to the point, people who do sell their homes almost never make back what they paid for them. The exception is certain areas of big cities, but even in those cases it isn’t guaranteed, and then the seller will be even less likely to see a profit, especially when you factor in the interest they paid on their loan. (You’re more likely to make a small profit if you bought an old condo in a popular area of Tokyo and resell it later.) At this point, we think most Japanese people know this, despite all the talk about “maintaining property values” at all cost. We certainly know it. Almost as soon as we moved into our new house in 2014 the assessed value dropped by almost two-thirds—and that’s for property tax purposes, which tends to be higher than market assessed value. (Assessed value for land is a different matter) So we know we will never be able to make money on this house, which is one of the reasons why we had it built the way we wanted—meaning few other people would probably want it. But the problem as we get older is: What can we do with it when we reach the age where we can no longer live here? There’s a very good chance we won’t even be able to sell it. Since we don’t have children, there’s no one to inherit it. We’ve already brought up the possibility with some younger relatives that any of them can have it for free, and while they sound interested, we’re not sure if the idea of taking on a property is something they have the wherewithal to carry out. We’ve even thought of donating it to some organization, but that might run into problems with neighbors who find out about it beforehand. 

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Big One

To mark the tenth anniversary of the disaster of March 11, 2011, we are posting one of the chapters from the book we are working on about Japanese housing. Some of the following appeared in slightly different form in the anthology known as #quakebook. For those who may be interested, we have been looking for a publisher or agent to handle the book for the last year and so far have had no luck in placing it, so if anyone has advice, connections, etc., let us know. 

On March 11, 2011, the governor of Tokyo was Shintaro Ishihara, who later called the massive earthquake that struck off the coast of northern Japan that day “divine retribution” for some imagined slight to the nation’s soul. Never mind that all of the people who died or were left homeless by the disaster had lived in three northeastern prefectures far from the fleshpots of the capital he oversaw. Ishihara, a popular novelist in addition to being a politician, needed to make some sort of apocalyptic statement. 

No one thought there was anything “divine” about the catastrophe, but we could all appreciate a cosmic joke. The quake hit right in the middle of moving season. The Japanese fiscal year, not to mention the school year, begins April 1, and traditionally many people move house during the month of March because of changing jobs and entering university. Consequently, before, during, and after the quake there were moving trucks parked outside our 38-story apartment building in the Minami Senju area of Tokyo, carrying furniture for people who were settling in. Elevators in Japan are designed to automatically shut down in the event of an earthquake and they can’t be restarted until a technician arrives to turn them on again. Given that the entire city was affected, some buildings had to wait hours or even a day before someone showed up to get the elevators working. Movers were stuck on the street with trucks full of furniture while their customers stood in their new apartments appreciating the view as they swayed back and forth during one of the aftershocks that occurred on an almost hourly basis. Did they regret their decision to move into a high-rise? 

Perhaps not. The disaster helped answer a question: Would all these quake-proofed structures that had been built in the previous decades actually withstand a massive earthquake? Of course, the epicenter of the one we had just experienced was hundreds of kilometers away, but no buildings had collapsed in Sendai, the major city nearest to the quake and one with its own share of high-rises. So the technology seemed to work. But while it saved lives and property, it didn’t solve a more intractable problem: Once you’ve been in a major earthquake in a tall building, you don’t want to be in another one.

We had already been living on the 24th floor of River Harp Tower for more than ten years when the quake struck at 2:46 that afternoon, and had been through a good share of them. They just weren’t as intense. Usually, they started with a jolt followed by a gentle swaying. There are two types of quake-proof technologies for high rises in Japan. One is designed for flexibility: the entire structure absorbs the energy and disperses it more or less evenly throughout the frame, and the higher your floor, the wider and longer the sway. The other type, which is more expensive, involves rubber dampers in the foundation. We lived in the former type. On March 11, we didn’t feel that usual initial jolt but rather a slight rumble from the floor that just kept building until the walls started rattling violently. We knew this was going to be bigger than the usual quake and crouched together under a table. The shaking continued, and then gradually changed to swaying, which was much wider than it had been in the past. But the movement wasn’t as scary as the noise: a massive creaking sound that went on for more than two minutes.

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Go with the flow

Kominka interior. Note roka on the left.

Last week the Wall Street Journal ran a story about how proper ventilation of rooms can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 indoors. Japanese twitter responded in particularly derisive fashion by pointing out that in Japan proper ventilation was considered a pillar of the country’s anti-COVID measures as long ago as February as part of the government’s san-mitsu strategy, which told people to avoid “close” contact with others in “closed” rooms. Generally speaking, this strategy covered commercial, educational, or work spaces, since those were the most problemantic places in terms of keeping people safe from the spread of the virus. The operational logic then and now is that the virus doesn’t survive as long in the open, and so bringing the outdoors inside is a good way of keeping it at bay. For businesses, that means opening windows and/or optimizing ventilation systems to keep air moving through the space.

In Japan, however, greater attention is now being paid to transmission within homes, among family members. Coverage tends toward the inevitability of being infected by a loved one, since there is little you can do about your living situation. However, we would be very interested in seeing a study showing the relationship between intra-household infection rates and specific home layouts and other structural conditions. The first question that comes to mind is whether air conditioning systems help or hinder the spread of the virus. Generally speaking, the virus is in its best element in droplets of saliva expelled while talking or breathing, but scientists also talk about aerosol transmission, meaning the virus itself is carried on air currents. These particles can travel greater distances than droplets because they are much lighter and can still infect others by passing into their lungs when they inhale. Scientists are still debating the scale of infection due to aerosol transmission, but one thing that seems certain is that air currents in closed spaces are instrumental in propelling the virus and keeping it viable for longer periods of time than would happen outdoors or in indoor spaces with air flow passages that connect to the outdoors. Air conditioners are typically heat exchange mechanisms, and the public may misinterpret that to mean they exchange outside air for inside air, but that’s not really the case. Mainly they recirculate inside air and expel the ambient heat through outdoor fans. Consequently, there’s the possibility that if there are virulent particles in the inside air AC units may increase the possibility of causing those particles to enter into the bodies of humans in that space, and this is the main issue, especially in Japan where air conditioning, at least in residences, is a modular affair. Central air conditioning usually comes with filters that may be able to take out virulent particles (though viruses are really, really small). Apparently, some manufacturers have been touting anti-COVID features this summer, but one has to take such claims with a handful of salt. Daikin, to its credit, has been up front about air circulation and says that people should open their windows and use circulators and fans to facilitate ventilation. In other words, don’t count on their air conditioners. Because in the end the cooling efficacy of AC is dependent on how closed the room is and the efficiency of the insulation. That means all windows have to be closed tight and that there be no drafts in order to make full use of your AC. The entire home becomes a closed system, and the potential ventilation advantages of the AC unit-fan relationship is reduced by that much. The thing is, we just don’t really know now how this plays into viral infection rates. Read More

Yen for Living: Houses As (non-)Assets

For sale? Good luck.

The following article was submitted as the July entry in our Yen for Living column for the Japan Times. However, it was rejected by the editors.

One of the issues facing voters in this month’s Upper House election is the national pension system. The government received criticism after the Financial Services Agency announced that a couple would need at least ¥20 million in savings when they retire to supplement their pensions. Opposition parties are using this figure to point out flaws in the pension system, and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is challenging the FSA, saying that current pension benefits are adequate to support people after they retire.

In a letter published in the Asahi Shimbun on July 1, a 63-year-old dentist wrote about the ¥20 million figure, saying that when he was 30 he started saving for his old age. As a self-employed person he knew a public pension would not be enough when he retired, and so he joined a cooperative that, in return for monthly premiums, guaranteed a one-time payment when he reached a certain age. Over the course of 30 years, he paid a total of ¥18 million into the fund in the belief that he would receive ¥40 million in the end. But he received only ¥20 million. He also paid into a private pension plan, convinced that when he turned 60 he would start receiving ¥280,000 a month for a limited time. As it turns out, he is only getting ¥120,000, because interest rates have plummetted since he was 30. When he’s 65, he will start receiving benefits from his national pension, but since he belongs to the kokumin nenkin system for the self-employed and others who weren’t employed by large companies, he will only receive ¥65,000 a month. So even though he basically “invested” in private plans and paid his obligatory national pension premiums, he is not going to have as much income in his retirement as he once thought he would receive. Read More

Inzai as the future of Japan

New housing going up in the Inzai portion of Chiba New Town

It was a little odd to open the Japan Times this morning and find a feature about the city we live in, Inzai; odd in the sense that for as long as we’ve lived here whenever we tell people our address, in almost every case they’ve never heard of Inzai, which is the city just to the west of Narita in Chiba Prefecture. The article, written by Elaine Lies of Reuters, uses Inzai as a model for future growth in Japan, which is seeing its population shrink and age. For this purpose, the article compares Inzai’s situation with that of its neighbor to the south, Sakura, which is aging much more rapidly. The reason for Inzai’s good fortune is what Reuters sees as its aggressively pro-growth outlook. Inzai is one of the three cities that are part of the Chiba New Town development project, while Sakura is a typical suburban bedroom community that was developed in the 70s-80s during the lead-up to the Japanese bubble period. Though it includes some neighborhoods, like Yurigaoka, which was planned around an offshoot of the Keisei Main Line, that continue to attract young families, for the most part Sakura is made up of isolated housing subdivisions that no one is really interested in any more, probably because most of them are far from train lines. Inzai, on the other hand—or, at least, the part of Inzai that Reuters was covering—is built along the Hokuso Line, which also happens to follow Route 464, a major road that goes from the edge of Tokyo almost to Narita airport. In fact, the first item in the article that raised any eyebrows on our part was the factoid that says Inzai is 40 minutes from the airport. Actually, if you take the Airport Access train from either of Inzai’s two express stops, it’s only about 20 minutes, so we suspect the reporter got her information from someone who drives to Narita. As of now, 464 doesn’t reach as far as the airport. After it gets to the town of Sakae, you have to take back roads to get there.

And in a sense, this ironic lack of ready automobile access to the area’s most prominent feature is what makes Inzai less progressive than the article makes it out to be. Interestingly, Lies does not mention one feature of Inzai that the local government plays up constantly—that it has been named multiple times as Japan’s most livable city by the business magazine Toyo Keizai. The reasons have to do with things like affluence, green spaces, and convenience. Inzai’s tax base, as Lies implies, is quite sturdy owing mainly to the fact that new housing developments are booming along the 464 corridor. After we moved here in 2011, much of the land that had been put aside for the Chiba New Town project was opened up for development by UR, the semi-public housing corporation that managed the land. Because the land had been held for so long in the hopes that it would someday regain the value it had at the end of the 1980s (it never did), and UR was losing money in the process, the central government had for years been pressuring the corporation to liquidate it, and finally gave them a deadline. So they mostly sold it to developers and housing companies at prices far below those they’d paid, and all at the same time. The most valuable properties in the New Town area, those immediately adjacent to 464 and the Hokuso Line, were originally slated for commercial development, either for retail businesses or office buildings, and while Inzai did manage to attract a fair amount of commercial interests, it wasn’t nearly as much as Reuters seems to think. There are at least three shopping malls within 15-minute bike rides from our home and two of them are only half-occupied, despite the huge amount of residential development taking place. And as far as office buildings go, most were built two decades ago around the Chiba New Town Chuo Station. For the most part they are data centers for banks and other major financial institutions. Inzai is built on bedrock, so in the event of a major earthquake the records of these companies should be safe. As far as new commercial facilities go, the only things we’ve noticed is more logistics centers, which take advantage of Inzai’s proximity to Narita Airport. Read More

Last resorts redux

file_6_18_1Several times on this blog we’ve written about the collapsed market for resort condominiums, which are conveniently called “rizoman” (for “resort mansions”) in Japanese. The majority of these apartments were built during the asset-inflated bubble period of the late 80s and the hangover from that period in the early 90s. Many, but not all, were attendant to the ski boom, and after the bubble burst and people’s interest in skiing deflated, more and more of these condos were abandoned by their owners, the result being thousands of empty units in vacation areas throughout Japan. More importantly, however, it also meant huge losses in property taxes for local governments and the deterioration of condo complexes that were no longer collecting management fees from absent owners, most of whom lived in major cities. These specific circumstances led to an unusual phenomenon. The units themselves dropped dramatically in price on the resale market and could be had for a song (or even a verse), but they could hardly be sold because even if the market price was only a million yen or cheaper, whoever bought them would also have to cover the back taxes owed, not to mention the unpaid management fees, and together these two debts could run into milions and millions of yen.

At the end of last month, Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles about a turnaround in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, which is the closest town to one of Japan’s most famous ski and hot spring resorts. (It’s also where the Fuji Rock Festival is held in July.) Yuzawa has been for years the poster child for the crippled rizoman market, a place that saw a huge amount of construction in the late 80s/early 90s and which later stood as a symbol of pointless extravagance. According to a realtor quoted in one article, there are some 15,000 empty condo units in Yuzawa, accounting for 20 percent of all the empty resort condos in Japan. During the bubble period, when these units were new, they were so popular they could be sold at auction, and many went for as much at ¥100 million. Now, many are going for less than ¥500,000, depending on the size. Management fees, however, are still high owing to the fact that many buildings have large communal baths, swimming pools, recreation rooms, and exercise facilities. Read More