Space invaders

A few weeks ago we went to an old kodan not far from where we live to inspect an apartment that was on sale. We had never had dealings with this particular real estate company before, and we arrived early to check out the general environment, which was better than it is for most kodan. This one was built in the mid-80s and while the buildings themselves were as dull and utilitarian-looking as any other, the landscaping was impressive: lots of clean, well-maintained mini-parks separating the buildings, which were situated at angles that took advantage of the sunlight. We strolled over to the apartment building where we were to meet the agent and just so happened to run into an agent for a different company setting up a sign outside the same building for an open house. We knew this woman well, having met her numerous times when we inspected other properties in the vicinity. She was open and knowledgeable and knew exactly what we were looking for. It was always a pleasure to talk to her because she didn’t put on the usual salesperson front.

She told us that the apartment she was showing had been badly damaged in a fire. The owners had insurance, which covered the renovations. In fact, they apparently used the opportunity to gut the whole place and completely redo it. It wasn’t clear if the owners had been planning to move beforehand or made the decision after the fire (which is understandable–it might have been difficult for them to face their neighbors after almost burning down the building), but in any case the 70-square meter apartment was being sold for about ¥8 million. We told the agent we’d drop in after we inspected the other place. Read More

Not quite

We’ve always been interested in town houses and are still thinking of dedicating a Japan Times column to them. Town houses were briefly popular in the late 70s and early 80s. Japan has always had an indigenous town house, called nagaya or machiya depending on which part of the country you’re in, but the structures called “town houses” in English (sometimes “terrace houses”) were more like their Western cognates: two-story structures with walls adjoining their neighbors. In urban environments town houses offer more effective utilization of land than normal detached houses while providing a similar level of creature comfort. However, once land prices skyrocketed in the mid-80s town houses were considered economically inefficient, even in the suburbs, which is where you normally found them anyway. Everybody started building condos with boxy floor plans in order to get as much cash out of a block of air as possible. Every so often we come across an old town house on sale and check it out, but because of their relative scarcity they tend to be overpriced. Of course, “overpriced” is all a matter of perception. Because town houses are relatively unusual, owners think that makes them more valuable, but they’re still old and always need a lot of work, as much as a detached house of the same vintage does if it hasn’t been renovated (and usually they haven’t been). A few weeks ago, as a matter of fact, we were amused to see a listing in which town houses were qualified as being “popular.” They aren’t, at least not in the general definition of the word. They are simply “rare,” which means it’s assumed some people will pay a bit more to have one. Read More

Field diary: Izu

Last week we were on the Tokaido Shinkansen early in the morning 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 weren’t, that we had moved a little over a year ago mainly due to the earthquake. He then asked us 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 the Cabinet Office Disaster Council updated its projections for a major earthquake in the Nankai Trough, and Shizuoka Prefecture was deemed the worst in terms of possible 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 on the peninsula. Having been frustrated in our search so far for a home-sweet-home we could afford, we were entertaining the idea of keeping our rental and buying a very cheap old fixer-upper in a place 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 have been (notice we don’t actually think they’ll get better) 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 them livable. And during our search we noticed there were quite a few such places in Izu, too, mainly besso (second homes), which we had avoided so far. Second homes tend to be built in specially designated besso developments managed by companies that charge yearly fees, some of which are pretty high. Also, besso tend to be 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.” Read More

Field diary: Onjuku 2

The entrance to Green Town. Note non-indigenous palm trees.

The last time we inspected some homes in Onjuku, a coastal town in southeastern Chiba famous for its surfing, we went fairly deep into the interior and were disappointed with the quality of the product, which was uniformly cheap, in all definitions of the word. This time we inspected three houses in a large housing development unimaginatively called Green Town. It sits on a hill west of the main train station and overlooks the ocean, which means it has a clear advantage over the rest of the town in this post-311 world: no fear of being swamped by a tsunami. The most popular portion of Onjuku is adjacent to the crescent of beach, which, for what it’s worth, is much cleaner and prettier than any part of Shonan I’ve seen. “Downtown” Onjuku is filled with funky little eateries, surf shops that double as outdoor bars, and lots of tall resort condos that have aged quickly–and badly–thanks to the salt-laden sea breezes. It’s a very attractive place, but it’s also very low and a tidal wave even half the size of the ones that flattened Tohoku would reduce it to sodden rubble rather easily. The reason we kept coming back to Onjuku is the climate. In the summer, it’s on average about 5 degrees cooler than Tokyo. We don’t like air conditioning and one of our priorities is a place where we don’t need it.

Green Town is also at least partially a weekend or summer community, though it’s laid out as a typical cramped Japanese housing development, albeit with more attention paid to the “green” component it promises. The developer is Seibu, and there are altogether about 1,500 lots, one thousand of which have houses on them. Half of these are owned by year-round residents, and thus the normal sterile atmosphere of modern Japanese housing developments is checked by a certain ramshackle quality. Some of the buildings are quite fine–and large–while others are modest and makeshift-looking. But while the stylistic tone is pleasingly varied, the overall feel is almost ominous. The day we visited was a weekday and summer vacation hadn’t begun in earnest yet, but the neighborhoods we visited were quite deserted. The only human activity was workers cutting grass or delivering LPG cannisters (despite the upscale appearance of the area, they don’t have gas lines). The real estate agent who guided us said most of the population was older, not because young people were moving out, but because only older people were moving in. (It’s not a town for commuters–Tokyo is an hour and 30 minutes away by super express) Apparently, older people don’t like to leave their homes in the daytime. Read More

Semi-detached

Though we still look at condos, it’s mostly for academic purposes. We have nothing against condos aesthetically or practically, but collective living automatically brings with it certain restrictions that we don’t really want to buy into. That may sound strange coming from people who still rent, but the responsibilities inherent in owning a property are more pronounced when the property is collective. For one thing, the condominiums we tend to like in terms of layout and design are actually those that were built by the housing authority, now called UR, and most of those still don’t allow pets. (We plan to cover the pet problem in more detail in a later article.) This small but significant restriction is indicative of the condo experience: people who own are understandably more caught up in the collective enterprise and thus pay closer attention to their neighbors. Renters are relatively forgiving, maybe because they tend to think they won’t be staying here forever. Owners have more of a stake and thus there are more rules and the rules are enforced. We’re not against rules, but it seems less stressful to own a house, where you can pretty much do whatever you want, than a condo, where you may not be sure what you can do until you move in. Read More

Field diary: Tomisato

Tomisato is out in the direction of Narita Airport. In fact, according to the real estate agent we talked to when we went there recently, a good portion of the residents of the city make their living off the airport in one way or another, which may explain the density of motor traffic. The nearest train stations are actually in Narita City, which means everyone drives to wherever they have to go, including their workplaces. It would appear there are almost no Tokyo commuters in this stretch of Chiba Prefecture, which is understandable. At some point, you have to reach a distance where people don’t go to Tokyo to work, but the lack of public transportation is notable. Read More

Field diary: Nishi Shiroi

At ¥17.8 million it wasn’t a house we could afford, but we’d been to the city of Shiroi in Chiba Prefecture a number of times–it’s only a few stations from our own–and found its surburban ambience more appealing than most; and the photographs posted on the realtor’s website made it look attractive, at least from the outside: lots of green and the property adjoined a wide promenade on its eastern side. The fact that there were no photos of the interior of the house 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. The shock was compounded when we told him we didn’t own a car. Even more garrulous than the usual salesmen he was open to our questions, even as they became bitter after 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 brown with mildew. The layout wasn’t bad. All the rooms opened up on one another in a way that was well-thought out and provided a lot of light; or, at least, as much light as could be expected given that there was little space between neighboring houses to the south and the north. The kitchen was the best part. It was large and featured a corner counter with an accompanying corner window. Unfortunately, the view from the window was dominated by the neighbor’s ugly makeshift backyard shed, one of the most common blights of suburban living in Japan. The promenade that made an impression in the photos wasn’t quite as wide as we thought, but at least it afforded 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. Read More

Seller beware

Everyone knows that it’s cheaper to buy a property directly from the owner than it is to buy one through a realtor. In Japan, the buyer usually pays a 3 percent commission to the realtor (plus consumption tax plus a ¥60,000 “handling fee” whose purpose has never been sufficiently explained to us), who also gets 3 percent from the seller. Many potential homeowners resent the commission, and for good reason. Often the realtor does nothing for the buyer and everything for the seller. If the price of the property is really low to begin with, it may seem as if the realtor is wasting his time by even showing it to a customer. We don’t know how many times we’ve gotten an agent to come a very long distance to show us a house that we probably knew we weren’t going to buy in the first place, but in any case even if we did buy it his commission would hardly mean much to him. But the main sticking point with regard to the realtor’s actual role in the deal is that, in Japan at least, he doesn’t do much in the way of negotiation.

We’ve heard of cases of real estate companies actually refusing to list a property by someone who wants to sell, for the simple reason that the realtor believes the property is unsellable; or if it is sellable, it would be at a price so low it’s not worth the realtor’s time and effort. But when they do list a property sometimes they will advise the seller of an appropriate price and even suggest remodeling work to make it more presentable. As the market has become glutted over the years such tactics become subject to scrutiny. How much improvement is enough? If the property is so difficult to unload that even extensive remodeling isn’t going to make it any more sellable, is it even worth it? These are considerations the realtor should help the seller understand, but occasionally we’ve met realtors who would just as soon stay out of it. Read More

Soft sell the hard way

The one that got away

Most of the properties we inspect we find over the Internet. Sometimes they’re on real estate portal sites like Suumo, which includes listings of multiple agents, and some are on sites run by individual real estate companies. If we want to inspect a property we find on a portal site, we usually call the real estate agent whose office is closest to the property itself, because we know what a pain it is for an agent to come a long distance just to open a house up for maybe fifteen minutes without much chance of a sale. Remember that real estate agents are salespeople, which means even if they know there isn’t much chance of selling a particular property they have to be polite, and we try to make their job easier.

So we were totally unprepared for the attitude we encountered last week when we called a realtor about a property in central Chiba. The house was 94 square meters on a piece of land covering 191 square meters. It was built in 1980, which is pretty old by Japanese standards, but it only cost ¥6.5 million. The picture of the exterior was impressive enough to make us think that it could be remodeled into something pretty good, since at that price we could afford to put more money into it. We found the property listed four times on one particular portal site and called the realtor whose office was closest to the house. Also, we were planning to be in the area to inspect another property, so thought we’d kill two birds with one stone. This is how the conversation went. Read More

Field diary: Nikko

For a while now we have been looking at properties up near Nikko, though we couldn’t tell you exactly why the area appealed to us. Subconsciously, we may have thought of it as being the poor man’s Kamakura, which is where we would like to live but can’t really afford. Since the quake it’s also been more appealing since it’s obviously very far from the ocean and though it gets quakes itself it seems to be on relatively solid ground. But mainly because we always thought it was a nice town with good people and pleasant scenery. However, any time we’d been there to check out properties it was usually outside Nikko proper, and the houses were the usual suburban-style prefab junk.

This time we went to Nikko proper. In fact, the first place we looked at was a ten-minute walk from Nikko Station. The fact that is was only ¥5 million will give you an idea of the condition it was in, but from the photos on the realtor’s website it looked salvageable. Obviously, at that price we were essentially buying the land. The house was built in the early 70s, though the second floor was a later addition.

We met the agent about a block from the property. He had taken the train up from Tokyo and rented a car, since he would be showing us another property a little further out of town. The house was located next to a makeshift parking lot to the west. To the north there was plenty of space between the house and its neighbor and the garden was located to the east; beyond it was nothing. So on three sides there was a lot more room than you might expect from this part of town, which was residential in a pleasantly diverse way. Unfortunately, as with almost all Japanese buildings, the house “faced” south, and there was barely three meters between it and its neighbor. This is unfortunate because all the windows looked out on the wall of the house next door. Since the kitchen and bathroom are always located in the north portion of a Japanese house there were no windows on that side and for some reason there were no windows to the east either. The genkan was located on the west side. So that meant the only light would come from the south, and it didn’t look like much was going to make it into the house itself.

It was in even worse shape than we thought. The agent told us the owners had only left less than six months ago, but it was difficult to believe anyone could live in such a decrepit building: moldy tatami, peeling laminate floors and paneling, buckled cabinets in the kitchen. The second floor add-on consisted of two rooms that smelled as if someone had died in them. Any renovations would cost upwards of ten million, though the place really needed to be torn down. That would cost about a million, and then a new house would run another 15 probably. The location was good, but that was too much work. Read More