Suburban blight, Japanese-style

img_20161223_114702In our latest housing column for the Japan Times we talk about a new book by Chie Nozawa that explains in simple, clear terms why more and more abandoned homes, both houses and condos, will litter the landscape in coming years. She gives a lot of good examples of the kind of city planning, or, more precisely, lack of city planning, that has given rise to over-production of housing even as the population in general is shrinking and homes are left vacant.

Last week, she published an article in Gendai Business that summarizes and elaborates on the book. (Gendai is published by Kodansha, which also published her book) Her main thesis is that housing is “no longer” a financial asset, though we would probably argue that it never really has been. She points out that by 2033 one out of every three homes in Japan will be vacant, and that if nothing is done–either through demolition or some program to make more effective use of existing housing–there will be 21.5 million vacant homes in Japan. She give two reasons based on the fact that the huge boomer generation will be dying out in large numbers: 1) the homes the boomers have inherited from their own parents will be empty; 2) the homes the boomers built themselves will be empty because their own children built their own homes and thus have no reason to take those homes over. It seems almost redundant for her to mention that these homes, unless they are located in major cities on desirable land, have no value whatsoever. The homes that boomers now live in are old, and so their heirs cannot possibly move in or sell or rent them without extensive renovations, which is not liely to happen given the nature of the housing market, which is all about new things, as we pointed out in our column.

img_20161223_114841Thus, these properties have “negative value,” meaning regardless of whether the heirs tear them down or improve them, they will have to spend money that they will never see again because it will become increasingly difficult to sell or otherwise liquidate these properties, most of which are in the suburbs. And the more there are, the worse this problem gets.

This vacant house problem brings about what Nozawa calls the “sponge phenomenon.” In English parlance we might refer to it as the Swiss cheese effect: The suburbs of major cities, and even the cities themselves, become pocked with holes of vacancies that further erode surrounding property values and scare off younger potential homeowners, who gravitate instead to the nearest brand new ultra-cheap, ultra-cramped subdivision. Nozawa gives examples of regional capitals where this effect is already in full swing: 20.8 percent of the homes in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, are vacant.

img_20161223_114030Vacant housing comes in four types: rental housing that is presently uninhabited, vacant houses on sale, secondary housing (vacation homes, etc.) that is unoccupied almost all of the time, and abandoned housing, meaning not for rent or sale, merely empty. Nozawa provides statistics showing that of these four type, the last, abandoned housing, is increasing at the fastest rate. She also shows the direct relationship between the amount of new housing being built in a town or city, and that locality’s portion of vacant housing. In most cases the more building that’s happening, the higher the number of vacant homes. A few enterprising spirits are trying to address this problem. One local real estate company in Higashi Matsuyama, about 50 kilomters north of Tokyo, is actively buying up small lots in these sponge-like neighborhoods and combining adjacent ones to make larger lots that can accommodate larger houses, but in order to do that effectively the realtor has to locate the owners of land that in many cases has been abandoned for a long time, and often that means negotiating with more than one reluctant heir.

It’s not a problem that is going away any time soon, or even later.img_20161223_115303


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

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

The burden of expectations (4)

CIMG2562As quickly as we could we collected the necessary documents for JA. Since they asked for three years’ worth of tax information we not only had to go back to the Narita tax bureau, we had to go into Tokyo to ask for proof of local taxes that we paid to Arakawa Ward for the first half of 2011, since that’s where we were living. Also proof of health insurance payments. We wondered what we would have had to do if we’d moved much farther away. As it was, going into Tokyo was enough of a pain in the ass since the different offices always seem to be crowded.

We submitted all the documents to the loan officer, who said it would take a few weeks for them to look through them but he had already assured us we were good. At this point a curious thought occurred to us. We had told A-1 that we were going to borrow money from JA. We expected N to act put out since he had gone to the trouble of introducing us to SBI, but in the end he didn’t really care. As long as we had the money he couldn’t complain. But, in actuality, we didn’t have the money, and wouldn’t for a long time. A lending institution won’t transfer the funds attached to a loan for a new home, meaning one that is being occupied for the first time, until the home is ready to be occupied, and in our case that wouldn’t be until Christmas at the earliest. In fact, we hadn’t signed the contract with A-1 yet, though it had been drawn up. The sticking point for us was the payment schedule. First we had to pay the design fee up front, which was about half a million yen. Then when we sign the contract, we pay a portion of the construction cost, almost a third. And then, when the roof beams have been completed, about two months into contruction, we pay another third. The last payment is made when the house is completed. So that means before the money for the loan is transferred into our account, we have to pay two-thirds of the cost of the house on top of the money we had to shell out for the land. If we had bought a house already completed, then it would be no problem, but we’re having it built. In our case it isn’t that bad because we had initially planned to pay cash for everything, land and house, until we realized that we would have to increase our budget if we wanted to own a place that fit our minimum conditions and needs. So we do have enough cash to make all the payments. It’s just that we will be broke until the loan comes through. But what about people who don’t have that much cash on hand, people who are borrowing almost all of the money needed to build their houses? What if they’re buying a condo based on a design, meaning the actual structure won’t be completed for another year or two? Again, if you’re working with a developer or a builder, they will make everything as smooth as possible, since they will likely be working hand-in-hand with a lending institution. For people like us who are doing everything themselves, there are special intermediary loans called tsunagi-yushi that you can take out to make the initial and mid-term payments, but they require another screening process and often have higher interest rates. Since they’re usually paid back when the housing loan comes through the payments don’t last long, but during that period if the borrower is, say, paying rent, it could be a real burden, depending on how long it takes to put up the house or condo. So that’s another expense you might have to deal with if you’re building a house. Read More

The burden of expectations (3)

What we're trying to avoid

What we’re trying to avoid

We went to Tsukuba on a Friday, and the following Monday the woman from SBI Mortgage called and said we had cleared the preliminary screening. She had already given us a checklist of the documents we would need to submit for the final screening and so we started to collect them. It’s a time-consuming process because many documents are required and you have to go to different government offices to get them. The woman had already photocopied our drivers licenses, national health cards, and three years worth of tax returns. Now we had to get real proof of our worth, so to speak. The easiest to obtain was proof of residence (juminhyo) from the local city office. The checklist still had gaikokujin toroku shomeisho, meaning proof of an alien registration card, but the Foreign Ministry had phased out registration cards last year. We could also pick up inkan shomeisho, meaning proof of registered seals, at city hall. In bureaucracy-obsessed Japan, seals remain the looniest relic, since anyone could go to the store and buy one with another person’s name on it and use it in that person’s stead. Signatures are still not commonly used for purposes of witness and certification, though they’re obviously more individual. In order to somehow safeguard the seal as a means of certification you are supposed to register yours at your local government office, and then when called upon by a party with whom you are drawing up a contract you bring that party “proof” from the local government office that the seal you are using is kosher, though I have no idea how counterpart parties check this evidence unless they’re experts in wood-block printing.

A bit more difficult to secure was proof of our income for the last two years. The copies of our joint tax return were used for the preliminary screening but for the next phase they needed actual documents from both the national and local tax bureaus where we lived, which meant taking a trip to Narita as well as a trip into Tokyo, since we lived in Arakawa Ward for the first six months of 2011. In Narita we could also go to the local branch office of the Justice Ministry to obtain records on the land we were planning to buy–history of ownership as well as the official registered survey map of the plot, or, in our case, plots, since the land we were buying was actually two adjoining lots, one about 200 square meters and the other a mere 20 square meters. This smaller plot would prove to be a hassle, but more on that in a later post. On Tuesday we took a trip to Narita to get the documents we could. Read More

Easy go

New housing will always be a prime economic mover in Japan even as the population drops, so the sector needs all the help it can get. Right now new housing is seeing a boost due to the expected consumption tax increase next year. Buyers are trying to make deals before the tax goes into effect, but what happens afterwards? Real estate and housing companies are worried there will be an even bigger slump once that happens, so the government says it plans to allow financing rates of up to 100 percent for long-term fixed rate loans, or so-called Flat 35 mortgages. That means borrowers who qualify don’t have to put any money down. At present, a borrower has to put at least 10 percent down.

This happened once before. In 2009, when the recession was at its worst, the government allowed no-down-payment loans but it was a temporary measure and ended in March 2012. Of course, some people are worried since such loans are considered risky, so as part of the proposal screening of applicants will be made stricter, though the details have yet to be worked out. In addition, some of the Liberal Democratic Party’s ruling coalition partners want to provide handouts of up to ¥300,000 to people who are approved for housing loans but whose income is less than ¥5.1 million a year. This handout would offset the effect of the consumption tax increase. Read More

Home Truths, August 2013

CIMG2664Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about the Chiba New Town development project, where we happen to live. To clarify something that may not be apparent in the article, it’s a very nice place to live. As pointed out, the people who reside here enjoy a mix of urban convenience and unspoiled nature, though one of the points we tried to make is that if the New Town scheme had gone ahead as originally planned, it might have been more congested and less attractive, but it was never going to happen that way because of the area and the way it was developed. As it is, the urban sectors have plenty of well laid-out parks, the roads are all lined with wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes (which few people use since everyone drives), there are plenty of retail outlets offering a wide variety of very cheap merchandise, and just minutes’ walk from any station in the NT area you are in deep countryside: rice paddies surrounded by well-kept forests. And while the Hokuso Line is expensive, it is extremely convenient to both central Tokyo (one hour to Nihohbashi without transfer) and Narita Airport (20 minutes), and, probably because it is expensive, it’s never crowded.

Based on a rough survey of the land being developed now for residential homes, lots of approximately 200 square meters will be going for ¥10-15 million, or about ¥50,000 per square meter. So far, tracts being prepared are located 10 to 25 minutes by foot from Inzai Makinohara Station. We haven’t seen too much land being prepared near other stations. When the project started in the 70s, condominiums were promoted, and there are still some large condo complexes near the various stations in the NT area that have vacant units. One, called Doors near Inzai Makinohara Station (five minutes), is only about half filled. Apartments were first put on sale more than two years ago, and since then the developer has decreased the price at least twice, which probably upsets people who already bought. You can get a brand new condo of 70 square meters for only ¥19 million, but if you go a little farther from the station you can probably have a house built for less than ¥10 million more than that. UR, who will be selling most of these plots to real estate and housing companies, will want to get as much money as possible in order to pay down its debt, but with so much being developed at one time and demand unknown, it’s likely that those prices will come down in a short period of time. Chiba, of course, is the cheapest place to live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and since its population decreases every year, it will become even cheaper just for that reason. Though the New Town has been a failure in terms of what a New Town is supposed to accomplish fiscally, Chiba New Town is a reasonably priced, attractive alternative to its counterparts in other places in the Kanto area. And now that we think about it, maybe that’s the reason Inzai was selected as the most comfortable city in Japan.