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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The burden of expectations (1)

What we have to work with

What we have to work with

Once you embark on a certain course of action, even if the motivation is basically speculative, matters often progress of their own accord. Though we hadn’t yet secured the plot of land we liked, the fact that for a month it was ours for the taking made us feel strangely possessive of it. It is only a ten-minute bike ride from our apartment, and in the weeks after our visit to A-1 we would drop by just to have a look at it and imagine what a house might look like sitting on it. Sometimes we would address a pressing consideration, such as: What is the Internet capability in this leafy corner of the city? It was a real consideration since our work depends on online access, and one day we asked the carpenter next door, who just happened to be outside puttering around, what sort of access he had. He didn’t, and didn’t seem to know anything about it since he didn’t need the Internet for his work and wasn’t a technophile. While we admired his resistance to the irresistible pull of modern life we also felt slightly taken aback. Were we thinking of moving into the Ozarks?

Later, we met another neighbor who assured us that optical fiber connections were available in the area, but the seed had already been planted. What about the water we’d be consuming from the well we’d have to dig? The carpenter said it tasted terrible and that he only used it for washing, while the other neighbor thought it tasted better than the city water he used to drink. We knew there was no accounting for taste, but that’s quite a gap in perception. The realtor said something about the depth of the wells: that the carpenter’s was shallow and the other neighbor’s much deeper, but that information only made us more confused and obligated to do even more research into the matter. In other words, coming to a decision about the land was going to be even more complicated than we’d thought. Read More

Back to the land (3)

CIMG2494Having lost interest in the land in Makinosato, we felt as if we’d retreated to square one. There was still that lot near Shimosa-Manzaki station, but besides being really cheap it didn’t offer anything we could get excited about. Our disinterest was rooted in the same feeling that made it easy to drop the Makinosato plan: We didn’t really want to live in a subdivision, though we also understood that if we wanted to remain in this particular stretch of Chiba Prefecture and weren’t going to pay more than ¥5 million, the only lots we could afford were in subdivisions. This feeling turned to something like despair when several large tracts of land close to our train station were suddenly opened for development. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, we live in what is called Chiba New Town, which stretches across parts of three cities in northern Chiba Prefecture. As a housing and commercial project developed by the government housing authority in the 1960s and 70s, management eventually fell to the authority’s semi-private successor, UR, which was stuck with a lot of land that was never developed because Chiba New Town didn’t attract residents and businesses in the numbers the government originally envisioned. But the government has also given UR a deadline to get out of the land development business and that deadline is next March. So suddenly, all these overgrown fields bordering the Hokuso Line are being bulldozed and subdivided, and several weeks ago housing companies and real estate agents started advertising the plots, which start at about ¥11 million for 200 square meters. So even though there will be hundreds of plots made available soon in subdivisions we would probably prefer not living in, we at least have to double our land purchase budget in order to buy one.

So after a short respite we resumed our seemingly endless Internet search, checking portal sites for anything–land, condos, used houses–that might offer us something appealing. In terms of land, we increased the budget to see what was available. Portal sites have series of buttons you check to narrow the search, and land prices are normally tiered in multiples of ¥5 million. In the past we’d input the very smallest amount, but now we broadened the search to ¥10 million in the areas we were interested in. There was a lot more available, obviously, and since we’ve been at this thing a while we’ve become better at rejecting properties without looking too closely at them. Read More

Back to the land (2)

CIMG1994For a short time we were very interested in a small piece of land in Abiko along the Narita line near Kohoku Station. It was in a tightly packed subdivision called Nakabyo surrounded by older neighborhoods whose winding streets and oddly shaped plots of land indicated it had once been an agricultural community. Nakabyo itself was not as distinctive. It was a typical subdivision of the late 80s, with large houses in varying degrees of disrepair situated on lots that were a little too small for them. The community was laid out on a gentle, long slope that ascended south to north, so that houses positioned on the north sides of the parallel streets had a slight advantage over the ones positioned on the south sides, whose own southern exposures were quite close to their southern neighbors. The land that interested us was at the bottom of the slope and positioned on the south side of a street but its own southern exposure faced a large park. Moreover it was on the corner of an intersection, meaning streets bordered the land to the east and the north, not buildings. Only to the west was there another house.

And it was cheap–¥4.3 million. In fact, the realtor implied that we could probably get it down to an even ¥4 million if we paid cash. Apparently, the owner was desperate to unload it, and we wondered why it was so difficult to do so. Abiko is quite popular owing to the many train lines that run through it and the fact that Ueno is a little more than 30 minutes away by express. This was not in central Abiko, but it was close enough. Moreover, the clear prospect on three sides, including a park to the south, made it one of the few truly attractive lots we’d found in a conventional subdivision. The only reason we could see for its relative unpopularity was its size, slightly less than 100 square meters. Since the occupancy rate was 50 percent and the capacity rate 100, it still meant you could build a two-story house of up to 100 square meters, but because the shape of the land was slightly trapezoidal, the orientation of the house was limited. Read More

Unsellable

usuidai

A room with a sorta view

Several months ago we looked at house in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture that was built in the early 90s. It was on the side of a fairly steep hill and commanded a view of Inba Marsh to the northeast; or, at least, that was what the info at various real estate portal sites implied. The place had already been on the market for almost six months, and when we noticed that the price had been cut for the second time we thought we might take a look at it. 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. Inspecting properties where people still live isn’t much fun and usually not very helpful. Though you can get some idea of the functionality of a place by seeing how people live in it, those people’s mode of living is always very different from our own, so there’s nothing to gain from it. We have to imagine ourselves in this place without all their stuff.

This particular house was even worse than we could imagine, since the photos on the web didn’t include interior shots. The residents didn’t even bother to clean up and we walked through bedrooms (they have two kids) with laundry thrown on the floor and a kitchen so cramped and cluttered there didn’t seem to be anywhere to stand. Even the “view” that 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.

We promptly 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 we checked regularly. Last week we noticed that the owner had decreased the price again, this time to ¥8.9 million, which is quite a drop. That means the asking price is now about half what it was when it first went on sale. The agent let on that the family couldn’t move until they sold this house, but if that’s the case they are going to have to do something more than just keep cutting the price. Maybe the house is unsellable anyway, but in this market, which is filling up with older homes all the time, a low price isn’t enough. This particular house isn’t that close to the station. Would a better “presentation” help? It couldn’t hurt, but in any case it’s hard to imagine that there is a buyer out there who would want to buy such a place.

Move on up

CIMG2287Of the three prefectures adjoining Tokyo, Chiba is by far the cheapest in terms of real estate. It tends to rate on the dowdy end of the desirability index. Kanagawa remains the hippest because of places like Kamakura, Shonan, Yokohama; while Saitama, though often derided in popular culture as a suburban backwater (“Dasaitama”), was developed rather quickly owing to its size and convenient proximity to the capital. In fact, property values in northern Chiba along the Noda and Joban lines are comparable to Saitama’s. It’s when you get farther out on the Keisei and Sotobo/Uchibo lines that the suburbs become sparser and less expensive. Chiba is viewed as the sticks, which is just as well for us because it offers more affordable places within striking distance of where we live now.

Interestingly, one of the most expensive housing developments in Japan is in a relatively remote corner of Chiba. The Azumigaoka New Town is part of Chiba City’s Midori Ward, but the nearest train station is Toke on JR’s Sotobo Line, which means it’s practically in Ichihara. The exclusivity of portions of the new town development, coupled with the unusually large plots of land contained therein, have earned at least two subdivisions in the area–Prestige and One Hundred Hills–the nickname Chibaley Hills, a takeoff on Beverley Hills. We’ve never seen this neighborhood with our own eyes since, as with the real Beverley Hills, the residents discourage tourists and gawkers by restricting access. When it first opened the development got a lot of media attention, which in turn attracted motorcycle gangs, so now they have a patrol that politely keeps out pedestrians who have no business there. Nevertheless, you can find properties in the area on sale at almost any real estate portal site, and they remain pretty expensive, though certainly not as high as they were when they were first built during the bubble era. What’s considered a super luxury in Japan would be more or less upper middle class in the U.S., essentially backyards big enough to provide privacy, two or more bathrooms, and lots of windows and open floor plans. We even saw one property at a realtor’s site with a swimming pool. Read More

Cheaper than dirt

shiroi4A few weeks ago we learned that a house we had been interested in was sold. We had first seen the house last fall and wrote about it here, and then did some research because the realtor who showed it to us couldn’t answer our questions about the structure and the land. Obviously, other people looking to buy were less apprehensive about the property. Another reason we hesitated for so long was the price. When we first inspected the house we thought ¥15 million was reasonable considering the size, the layout, and the unobstructed view to the south, but then we noticed that in the same general vicinity a developer was selling brand new houses of a comparable size for only ¥16 million, and some were even closer to the train station. Looking at these houses on the web we realized that the reason they were so cheap was because the developer had bought a tract of land in an undeveloped corner of town and just filled it with as many structures as it could. These were not houses ordered by people who first chose a plot and then a model from a list of designs to build on the plot. The developer divided up the tract and went ahead and constructed identical houses on all of the plots, with perhaps minor differences determined by light exposure or shape of the land. By doing it in a mass way, the developer could save money. Though we could tell by just looking at the photos on the web they were not for us, we also thought it would appeal to a lot of potential buyers simply because the houses were brand new, and thus it would be much more difficult for the realtor selling the house we’d been interested in to unload it, but we were wrong.

The existence of such new homes made ¥15 million seem like a lot for the house we had been interested in, so we did a search and found several developments in northern Chiba where brand new homes were being sold at prices below what we had come to think was the average for used homes. Two were in Shiroi on the Hokuso Line, each about 15-20 minutes from the nearest station. In one development they were going for as low as ¥13.7 million and the other as low as ¥14.8 million, which is dirt cheap considering that new homes in the same area with the same floor space and land area, and probably less in terms of fixtures and amenities, were likely going for ¥30-40 in the early 1990s. Of course, comparing anything real estate-wise to the late 80s/early 90s in Japan is a chump’s game, but it does provide a perspective that’s instructive when it comes to making priorities. Read More

Back to the land

CIMG1953During the New Years break our house-hunting ambitions flagged a bit, and we started reassessing our priorities: What would happen if we went back to zero? In other words, we thought carefully about building our own house. The last time we did that, almost 20 years ago, we got burned, more because of our own ignorance than due to any concerted effort on the part of the real estate and construction industries. But we know more now and feel that we should at least explore the idea. For instance, we like the small houses built by A1 and they’re pretty cheap, so we could talk to them about our needs and what they can do to satisfy them. But first we would need to find a piece of land.

Though land prices have fallen since the bubble period, it’s still pretty expensive anywhere within, say, two hours of Tokyo. We’re not commuters so we don’t need to be on a main train line, but we do need to be on some train line. We started our search at the bottom, in two areas not that far from where we live and which we’ve come to know through our house-hunting inspections in the past year-and-a-half: northern Chiba along the Narita line, and south of where we live now, along the Keisei Hon-sen through Sakura. As it turned out there were more than a few very cheap properties that were still large enough for our purposes. By cheap, we’re talking ¥5 million or less, and for that price you definitely have to give up something. In some cases, the plot isn’t properly developed, meaning it may not have sewage or gas lines extended into the property itself. Also, cheap plots tend to be holdouts in sub-divisions that are already mostly filled, meaning no one wants them but the developer is desperate. The lot might be stuck in a dark corner of the neighborhood or have problems with access, which isn’t a concern for us because we don’t have a car, but sunlight is one of our priorities. Then there’s the state of the lot itself. Some appear to require a great deal of “preparation” before they could have a house constructed on them, and we have no idea how much that would cost. Read More

Something to think about (2)

Sakura city office

Sakura city office

In the weeks since we visited the house in Usui we have, indeed, thought a lot about it, and our interest has blown hot and cold. Though we like the layout and the unblocked view to the south, we’re still not sold on the location. Keisei Usui Station is 20-25 minutes away on foot, and the train takes about an hour and fifteen minutes to get to central Tokyo. It’s considerably cheaper than the Hokuso Line, which we use now, and there are more trains per hour, but the Hokuso Line gets directly to the heart of Tokyo in about an hour and is never very crowded, even during rush hour. And it only takes us about 7 minutes to get from our front door to the platform. Of course, the train isn’t a monumental consideration since neither of us goes into Tokyo more than twice a week. Then there’s Usui itself, which as a bedroom town is older than Inzai and experienced the kind of suburban sprawl that plagued most Tokyo bedroom towns developed in the 60s and 70s, while Inzai was better planned and has more parks and open spaces. That said, Inzai is also somewhat antiseptic and lacks the kind of character older Japanese communities offer. Usui was incorporated into the larger city of Sakura some years ago and Sakura is one of the great castle towns of the Kanto region. Parts of it are quite beautiful and well-preserved, it’s just that those parts are not in Usui.

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