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

First-timers

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.

All fall down

In the months after the March 11 earthquake, a condominium management association conducted a survey of the Tohoku region to find out the damage sustained by multi-resident buildings. Almost all those that were built since 1981, when stricter earthquake-proofing codes went into effect, survived with minimal damage, but there were quite a few built before 1981that didn’t do as well. In fact, the survey found that about 60 structures in Sendai alone had been declared zenkai (“completely damaged”; in other words, legally uninhabitable).

The Asahi Shimbun looked at several of these buildings. One, the somewhat optimistically named Sunny Heights Takasago, was built in 1976 and was actually damaged in 1978 during a large earthquake that struck Sendai. However, the damage wasn’t “complete” and repairs were made. The building was not so lucky this time. The condominium is actually two 14-story buildings positioned in an L-shape. During the initital earthquake the two structures knocked against each other, but afterward inspectors declared them yochui–residents should take caution but they could keep living there. But the condos sustained further damage in the aftershock of April 7: window and door frames deformed, cracks appeared on outside corridors, steel beams were exposed. Even worse, the ground itself was “damaged.” Consequently, the properties were condemned. Read More

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.

High anxiety

You can’t get there from here

Since the earthquake of Mar. 11, I have been extra sensitive to stories of people living in Tokyo high-rises and have expected to see more dispatches like the one I wrote above. Interestingly, they’ve been few and far between, and mostly dwell on how well these high-rises performed during the earthquake. I said as much in my blog post, but that’s not the most salient observation I took away from the experience and I doubt if others who live in tall buildings did as well. Then, last week Asahi Shimbun printed an article relating the experiences of two koso mansion owners. Unfortunately, since then the story is gone from the Asahi.com site, either locked behind a pay wall or taken off completely. I doubt the latter, but M. says she read a few tweets from people who thought Asahi might have been pressured by developers or real estate companies, who are big advertisers. That seems a fairly conspiratorial take on the matter, but one thing’s for sure: New high-rise luxury condos have been one of the few reliable success stories in the Tokyo real estate market in the past few years.

In the article, a 32-year-old full-time housewife was in her 55th floor apartment in Chuo Ward when the quake struck. She ducked under a table. The swaying lasted for a full five minutes. Terrified, she remained under the table during the subsequent aftershocks while she tried to call her husband, a doctor, and the day care center where her two children were. (M.: “She’s a full-time housewife. Why are her two kids in day care?”) She couldn’t get through to either. Read More

High-rise haters

The famous Senso Temple, located in one of Tokyo’s oldest residential neighborhoods, Asakusa, and five residents of the area are suing the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Tokyo District Court in regards to a 37-story condominium being built about 400 meters west of the temple.

Except for a hotel closer to the station, there are no high rises in Asakusa, and the plaintiffs are claiming that the condo will destroy the neighborhood’s unique atmosphere, not to mention the special character of its skyline. The reason they are suing the government rather than the developer is that Tokyo eased regulations in the Construction Law that allows a builder to make a structure higher than that normally allowed if the builder maintains a certain amount of empty land on the property where the building is located. Basically, Senso Temple is saying that the law is such that it can be manipulated so that any sort of building can be constructed. Height restrictions are meaningless.

It’s not the first time a community group has brought a suit against a building that takes advantage of loopholes in the building laws–the infamous “capacity rate” exceptions are usually the culprit–but once a building is started it’s very difficult to get is stopped, and construction of the Asakusa condo commenced earlier this month.

Living on the edge

condoAn article in Shukan Gendai states that according to the real estate industry about one-fifth of all condominiums throughout Japan “probably” violate current local building codes. The vast majority of these violations are time specific, meaning that they didn’t violate codes when they were built. Laws were changed after they were constructed, and while there is no requirement that the condos have to be rebuilt to adhere to the new codes, the situation is still bothersome for those who live in them. Basically, it makes it even more difficult for the current owners to ever sell them. Read More