Negative legacies

We’ve often talked about how the media has glossed over the worsening housing crisis. Though newspapers, magazines, and TV will occasionally run stories about specific cases of foreclosure in order to illustrate structual economic problems, they almost never connect these examples to the structural problems inherent in the nation’s housing policy, which hasn’t really changed for forty years. Our feeling is that the media itself has too much at stake in terms of advertising to point out these structural problems and that, fundamentally, the idea that new housing fuels the economy as a whole is so unassailable that it doesn’t even occur to many reporters that problems related to housing could be systemic and related to other social problems. But a few weeks ago, Shukan Bunshun ran an article that reflected, at least in part, much of what we’ve been trying to explain on this blog.

The article was about properties as legacies, which most people tend to view as “assets.” However, the reporter discovered that in many cases properties have turned out to be considerable liabilities for heirs, some of whom would prefer not inheriting them at all. The first illustration they give is the most potent. A 53-year-old man who lives and works in Tokyo recently traveled to his home town in Hiroshima Prefecture to dispose of his parents’ house, a 50-year-old wooden structure built on a steep grade. His father died six years ago and his mother, who suffers from dementia, entered a nursing home two years ago. The house is in disrepair and the small piece of land around it is overgrown with vegetation. The neighbors have repeatedly complained to local authorities, and the son understands that he has to do something. He decided to tear the structure down, but the lowest demolition estimate he could get was ¥2 million, owing to the fact that access to the property is difficult. Since he had no intention of using the land and couldn’t afford the demolition, he put it off. One could reasonably assume the cost might have been covered by selling the land, but that was another problem. The title was still under his father’s name, which meant, according to the law, it belonged to his mother. Since she was not legally competent to handle the matter, it fell to the next in line, his older brother, who had been estranged from the family for many years. No one knew how to get in touch with him. So in order for the second son to dispose of the property, he would first have to go to court to assume title, a process that would require a great deal of time and money, neither of which he had. Meanwhile, the neighbors become more angry, but the local authorities can’t do anything. Read More

On home ownership

Yesterday Dr. Christian Dimmer tweeted about a Bloomberg article that covered Japan’s housing market, specifically the boost to the Japanese economy that will be brought about by sales of new homes to “echo boomers” (or “junior boomers,” as some in the Japanese media refer to them), the children of the baby boom generation. It’s a good article in that it contains lots of helpful statistics in one place. However, one number stuck out for its incongruity, at least as far as we’re concerned. In the middle of the article, the reporters state that, according to a survey taken by the housing research company Zentakuren, “about 86 percent of Japanese own their own home.” First of all, the diction is imprecise: Does this mean that 86 percent of every single person in Japan owns a home? Of course not. So what does it mean? We assume it means that the home ownership “rate” is 86 percent, but in that regard one has to understand how such a figure is reached. Most likely it means: What percentage of homes are owned by the people who live in them? If that’s what the sentence is saying, it’s a shock to us. We have been working under the assumption that Japan’s home ownership rate has been in the low 60-percentile ranks for decades, and so we double checked. Japanese reports tend to cite the Ministry of Internal Affairs surveys and the most recent one we could find, for 2006, put Japan’s home ownership rate at 61 percent. This sounds about right. Toyama’s, the prefecture with the highest home ownership rate, is 79 percent, while Tokyo’s is about 44 percent. So we looked up Zentakuren’s survey (7,145 respondents) and found that it did not register home ownership but rather how many people “wanted” to own a home.

This is very different from what the Bloomberg article implied, and doesn’t make any sense anyway. If 86 percent of Japanese people owned their own homes, that would probably mean almost all the “echo boomers” already do, so one wouldn’t be able to expect any related economic boost. But in any case, it’s a small error on the part of the writers in relation to the whole article, whose tone is upbeat in that, since housing plays such a huge role in GDP, Japan’s economy will be better off, at least in the short run. What the article doesn’t touch on at all is the previously-owned housing market. As always in financial reports having to do with housing, “house starts” are the main indicator of fiscal health, because new housing spurs construction and sales of more products. Such a statistic is only hopeful in certain contexts, such as the United States, where the population continues to grow thanks to influx of new immigrants and the families they are raising. Japan’s population is shrinking, and every new house that’s built for an echo boomer is one less older house that gets sold, and thus one less opportunity for a current homeowner to capitalize on his or her investment. Unfortunately, these sorts of statistics never figure in most financial reporting about housing in Japan, mainly because no one really knows what sort of impact it will have in the long run, but as we’ve stated many times on this blog, there are millions of vacant homes in Japan that will never be sold, and the number is growing every day. The generation after the echo boomers is already famous as a “lost generation,” meaning a good portion of them have never secured the kind of long-term employment that sustains a country which was once the second biggest economy in the world. Ten years from now, when they come of home-buying age, they probably won’t be able to afford new homes. Maybe they’ll buy older homes, which will definitely be very cheap, in every sense of the word.


In real estate parlance, there is a term for people who are buying a home for the first time: ichiji shutokusha. In fact, there are homes that are specially designated for these buyers. Almost all are condominiums, and to qualify for the ichiji shutokusha designation they have to have at least 60 square meters of floor area and cost less than ¥35 million. To put it succinctly, they are designed for families and are cheap.

According to the Asahi Shimbun, in 2010 80,204 brand new condominiums designated for ichiji shotuksha were put on sale in the Tokyo metropolitan area. That’s a little more than 18 percent of all the new condos that went on sale in the area that year and a little more than one percent less than the number put on sale in 2009. In fact, the share of new first-time condos among all new condos in Tokyo and its environs has been dropping since the turn of the millennium. In 2001, they accounted for 38 percent of all new condos, and for the next five years the share remained in the 30 percentile range. In 2007, the share dropped to about 25 percent and has been steadily dropping ever since.

The Asahi article doesn’t analyze why this is happening, though one could get a fairly good idea of why such condominiums would become less popular. The above-mentioned criteria would exclude the vast majority of new condos built within Tokyo proper, which is where most people in the region work. The majority of first-time condos are probably located in the far suburbs on inconvenient train lines, which means that their value depreciates even more quickly than condos in Tokyo or other major cities. They are also more difficult to sell, thus contradicting one of the salient features of a first home–it’s appeal as an investment, as a stepping stone to a larger house down the line. The standard middle class narrative says you buy a first house young and then trade up to something better and larger as your family grows. But if the value of your property shrinks over time, that sort of upward mobility is difficult to achieve, since you’re not going to get as much money as you paid for it; and the longer you hold on to the property, the less it’s worth and the less likely you can use the sale money to buy a “better” place. At least with a detached home, the land value may at least stay the same, but there is very little land value involved in condo sales. And since developers are always building new first-time condos that are more appealing than used ones, it becomes almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The farther Japan gets from the bubble period of the late 1980s–the last time when condo owners believed the value of their homes would increase–the more likely first-time condo buyers will opt for something that they think they can live in their whole lives, and that doesn’t necessarily include condos designated for ichiji shutokusha. Or, at least, that’s our analysis.

Now on sale

It’s fairly well-known that Japanese people like new things, and if their budget allows they prefer buying a brand new house or condo rather than one that’s already been lived in. Half of the almost six million condominiums in Japan were built within the last 15 years, and reportedly the pace of construction is slowing due to the ongoing recession. According to statistics recently released by Reins Tower (East Japan Real Estate), sales of older condos also went down over the past year. Sales contracts were concluded for 1,943 used condos in August in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. That’s a 6 percent drop from the same month last year. However, the 920 sales in Tokyo alone represented a 0.9 percent increase over last year. The suburbs were a bit different, with Chiba seeing a 6.8 percent drop and Kanagawa a whopping 14.1 percent decline.

But that isn’t the whole story. While sales on the whole have gone down slightly, the average prices of the condos sold have gone up, as much as 4.6 percent in Saitama, for instance. What this would seem to indicate is that more newer used condos are being sold, since condominiums lose their value with time on a pretty consistent basis. In Tokyo, the trend is more localized. Sales of used condos in the three central wards (Chiyoda, Chuo, Minato) decreased by 15.4 percent, while those in the eastern portion of the city increased by 8.6 percent. Condos in the center of the capital are, of course, much more expensive that those in the eastern part, even though prices in central Tokyo have dropped 6 percent while those in eastern Tokyo declined only 1.4 percent (for comparison’s sake, prices in the western wards dropped the most, 8.2 percent, while those in the southwest–Meguro, Shinagawa, Ota–lost only 0.6 percent).

All indications point to a buyers market for used condos, which is hardly surprising. The stock is increasing. For the entire Tokyo metropolitan area, the available stock of used condos is 52 percent higher than it was last year, and in central Tokyo it’s gone up by 25 percent (all Tokyo by 35 percent). What this means is that it’s becoming more difficult to sell older condos, even in those areas like central Tokyo where it used to be considered easy to do so.

Cheap fix

Here is a housing-related article we wrote for our sister blog at the Japan Times about a recent government study about reserve funds for condo repairs. It relates to a lot of the themes we have covered in this blog.

Vacancy rate to soar

This baby’s only 40 years old!

Japan will shortly start paying for its shortsighted housing policy with a depressed real estate market that will probably never recover, according to findings by Nomura Research Institute. If the depreciation of home values continues at its current rate and the number of new home construction is the same as it was in 2003 (1.2 million units), then the vacancy rate for all dwellings in Japan will be 43 percent in 2040. And even if new home construction is halved over this period of time, the vacancy rate in 2040 will be 36 percent.

Of course, that’s a completely hypothetical situation and probably doesn’t reflect what will really happen since in 2015 it’s projected that the total number of households in Japan will start to decline. In 2008 there were 50 million households in Japan and 57.5 million housing units, meaning that the vacancy rate in that year was 13 percent. Read More

The single life

Statistics recently released by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry show that the number of single parents is on the increase, and has been since 2006. This makes sense since the divorce rate is also rising, but what’s makes the statistics noteworthy is that more and more single mothers are women who have either never been married or were married but gave birth after their marriage ended.

Right now, the ministry estimates there are about 1,520,000 households in Japan headed by single monthers, and about 200,000 headed by single fathers. Though the statistics are a bit old, the Ministry of Internal Affairs conducted surveys of “never-married” single mothers in 2000 and 2005, and between those two years the number of single mothers between the ages of 15 and 49 increased by 39 percent. However, when you break this number down by age groups, you find that the biggest increases are among women over 30: 57 percent for 30-34; 45 percent for 35-39; and 56 percent for 40-44. In terms of real numbers these increases don’t represent very much since the portion of children born out of wedlock in Japan is only about 1 percent. Read More