Last resorts redux

file_6_18_1Several times on this blog we’ve written about the collapsed market for resort condominiums, which are conveniently called “rizoman” (for “resort mansions”) in Japanese. The majority of these apartments were built during the asset-inflated bubble period of the late 80s and the hangover from that period in the early 90s. Many, but not all, were attendant to the ski boom, and after the bubble burst and people’s interest in skiing deflated, more and more of these condos were abandoned by their owners, the result being thousands of empty units in vacation areas throughout Japan. More importantly, however, it also meant huge losses in property taxes for local governments and the deterioration of condo complexes that were no longer collecting management fees from absent owners, most of whom lived in major cities. These specific circumstances led to an unusual phenomenon. The units themselves dropped dramatically in price on the resale market and could be had for a song (or even a verse), but they could hardly be sold because even if the market price was only a million yen or cheaper, whoever bought them would also have to cover the back taxes owed, not to mention the unpaid management fees, and together these two debts could run into milions and millions of yen.

At the end of last month, Asahi Shimbun ran a series of articles about a turnaround in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, which is the closest town to one of Japan’s most famous ski and hot spring resorts. (It’s also where the Fuji Rock Festival is held in July.) Yuzawa has been for years the poster child for the crippled rizoman market, a place that saw a huge amount of construction in the late 80s/early 90s and which later stood as a symbol of pointless extravagance. According to a realtor quoted in one article, there are some 15,000 empty condo units in Yuzawa, accounting for 20 percent of all the empty resort condos in Japan. During the bubble period, when these units were new, they were so popular they could be sold at auction, and many went for as much at ¥100 million. Now, many are going for less than ¥500,000, depending on the size. Management fees, however, are still high owing to the fact that many buildings have large communal baths, swimming pools, recreation rooms, and exercise facilities. Read More

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Last resorts: Izu division

CI Villa

Last weekend TBS ran a long report on resort condos on the Izu Peninsula, focusing mainly on the Atsukawa Onsen region. The hook for the piece was an advertisement for a ¥20,000 condo. That may not sound like much of a bargain, but we’re talking sale here, not rent. The reporter visited the CI Villa condo, which is only 20 years old and commands a beautiful view of the Pacific. He wasn’t allowed to inspect the unit being advertised but he was able to visit another one of comparable size (43 square meters) and age. In any event, while the sale price turned out to be the real thing there were strings attached. The buyer would also have to pay more than ¥3 million in unpaid management and repair fees that have accumulated during the years since the unit was abandoned by its owner and seized by the authorities. And then, of course, the new owner would have to start paying these fees at a rate of ¥30,000 a month.

As the reporter pointed out after learning all this, the condo is still a bargain. Not only does it come with a view, but the management fees entitle the owner to use the building’s elaborate spa facilities, swimming pools, and other amenities. He thought the place was a steal, but as he started talking to local residents and public officials he came to understand why no one was snatching up these low-priced properties (there were quite a few, and not just in CI Villa). He remembered the TV drama series, “Zeni no Hana,” that aired many years ago and which was set in this particular town. It was a huge hit and sparked a travel boom to Atsukawa and in turn a building craze. About half the residences in the region were built after 1975, with construction peaking during the late 80s bubble period. The average price of a condo in CI Villa when it was new ranged between ¥40 and ¥50 million.

Of course, the end of the bubble also ended all that. One local merchant estimated that the number of tourists who come to the town is about “one-hundredth” of what it was during the peak times. And as more and more businesses who relied on these tourists left, the town fell into disrepair. Many people, it seems, do come down with an eye to buy property, most of which is in good condition, but once they see the boarded up shops and derelict infrastructure they get discouraged. The mayor said that the year-round population has aged even more quickly than the national average, and that welfare costs have increased six-fold since 1990. Because the tax base is so small, the town can’t keep up appearances. It’s a vicious cycle. One solution would be to exploit the region’s hot springs to produce and sell geothermal power. The temperature of the onsen approaches 100 degrees, and since local inns only need 50 degrees, the town thinks it could transform those wasted 50 degrees into revenues. The problem is that inn owners, who constitute the biggest block of business interests, are basically wary of geothermal, mainly because they think, wrongly, that it will sap the long-term onsen capabilities. One told the reporter that he had doubts about the local government’s belief that tourists would flock to the area out of curiosity and a desire to support such an environmentally effective project. Apparently, other onsen regions have had some success with such an endeavor.

Excited about nothing

Sort of exotic

The TBS consumer news variety show Gatchiri Academy is usually pretty thorough about its advice, since it features a panel of economists and financial journalists whose opinions vary widely from one to the other. However, the other night, during a segment about resort condominiums, the information provided was maddeningly incomplete. As described here and here on this blog, resort condos are pretty cheap owing to the simple fact that too many were built and demand isn’t so hot any more. Gatchiri visited several vacation areas, including the Izu Peninsula and the Naeba ski resort in Niigata. The whole point of the segment was to jolt the audience with prices too low to believe. Actually, what was difficult to believe was that people paid so much for these cubbyholes when they were built twenty years ago. In one segment, a talent-reporter, in the company of a local real estate agent, inspected a 60-square meter condo in Izu that originally sold for about ¥25 million, and her jaw dropped when the realtor revealed how it now goes for less than 10. Mandibles literally hit the floor in Naeba, however: one and two-room condos for as low as ¥500,000?! Where do I sign?

That was the general vibe, anyway. What was infuriating was that nobody mentioned the real reason why these places were such bargains. For a split second, each property’s particulars were flashed on the screen, and these particulars may have included the yearly property tax fee you’d have to pay. But I didn’t see or hear any mention of the maintenance (kanri) or common repair (shuzen) fees that a resort condo owner has to pay every month. So when one of the financial writers commented that at such low prices it didn’t really matter whether or not the property continued losing value (which is most certainly would), he was, purposely or not, deceiving viewers who might be considering dropping a mill or two for a nice getaway. Maintenance fees normally run between ¥10,000 and ¥50,000 a month, and repair fees about half that, so the cost of keeping a resort condo could conceivably end up outstripping the value of the property after a few years. That’s fine if you plan to use it often, but the main reason these places are so cheap is that the majority of people don’t have that much free time, something that they realize too late. The financial writer also hinted that, with prices this low, you could just abandon the property without much trouble; but that’s a lie. You still have to pay the fees and the taxes, forever.

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