The right thing

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The blur of memory: After the cleanup in Tokyo

In the last few posts we’ve ragged a bit on UR, specifically their dodgy ties to outside providers like Tokyo Gas and local cable outfits, but that shouldn’t be interpreted as disillusionment. For all its anal bureaucratic culture and general air of mismanagement, Japan’s only national semi-public housing corporation is also the only place in Japan where renters get a fair shake. We found that out when we received the refund for our security deposit a few days ago.

We moved from a UR high-rise in Tokyo to a low-rise UR complex in northern Chiba Prefecture. UR makes it relatively easy to move from one of its buildings to another one. The tenant doesn’t have to go through the screening process again (unless he/she is moving to a decidedly more expensive residence), and the security deposit (shikikin) that was paid for the former apartment is transferred to the new one, with the difference either being made up by the tenant or refunded to him/her. In our case it was the latter. Though the new apartment is the same size as the one we rented in Tokyo, it is almost ¥70,000 cheaper per month. The security deposits for UR typically amount to the equivalent of three months’ rent, which is a bit higher at the moment than security deposits for private rentals, but the important thing to remember about UR is that they don’t charge “gift money” (reikin) or contract renewal fees (koshinryo), and also don’t require guarantors or co-signers.

Of course, security deposits being what they are and Japanese renter protection laws being what they are (i.e., virtually non-existent) you can’t expect to get your deposit back when you move out. And while we’ve heard lots of horror stories about landlords simply keeping the security deposit with no real explanation, our limited experience has been that most are up front about it. But that means the tenant should be up front as well. Unlike in the West, where tenants basically rent the right to reside in an apartment or house and the owner has the responsibility of maintaining the property, in Japan normal wear-and-tear is the “responsibility” of the tenant. So if an apartment has to be repainted or repapered after a tenant leaves–and in most cases it does because that’s what time does to an apartment–the landlord feels it is within his right to charge that expense to the tenant. Twice in the past, we’ve had landlords who tried to charge us for “damage” that had more to do with the age of the structure or poor design choices (applying kurosu, or wallpaper, directly to concrete walls) than with our neglect, and because we resisted we got out of paying for it. (In at least one of these cases, our success had something to do with the fact that one of us is a foreigner–you can bet that landlord will never rent to one again) Even normal repairs are the responsibility of the tenant. In our UR apartment in Tokyo, the toilet started leaking slightly about a year ago. It’s a common problem, but when we reported it to the building management they said we should contract with a plumber ourselves, which meant they expected us to pay for it.

It was therefore something of a shock–albeit a pleasant one–when we received the breakdown of the charges for “cleaning and repair” for the Tokyo apartment. It came to a mere ¥8,049. This was surprising because we had lived in that apartment eleven years and moved in right after the building was finished. And while we cleaned the place thoroughly when we left, there was some notable damage that was definitely our responsibility. In particular, because many of the electrical outlets were positioned in inconvenient locations (a frustrating UR habit) we attached cable tubes along the tops of the baseboards to hide electrical cables. Our mistake was attaching the tubes, which are adhesive, to the tops of the baseboards and against the wallpaper rather than to the bottom of the baseboards. Consequently, when we removed the tubing (since, according to the UR lease, the tenant must leave the apartment exactly the way he/she found it) it took a noticeable portion of wallpaper with it. We assumed they would have to replace all the wallpaper on that particular wall, but though this damage affected two rooms, they only charged us ¥3,500. The other ¥4,500 was for cleaning the hood fan in the kitchen (which we tried to do, but after 11 years you needed a sand blaster to get the grease off).

So because of the difference between the security deposit we paid for the Tokyo apartment and the nominal security deposit we owe for the new apartment, we got money back–enough to pay for the move and still have a sizable chunk left over. UR rules.

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17 Responses to “The right thing”

  1. Miko Says:

    Yep, the UR offers a pretty good deal all right. I don’t live in UR, but in a neighbourhood heavily dominated by UR apartment blocks, and I walk through them on my way to the station. It always strikes me how well-maintained they are. This morning I walked past one on the way to the supermarket, and noticed a patch of vomit in the courtyard (tut, tut!). On my way home 20 minutes later, a uniformed cleaner was already hard at work scrubbing the pavement clean. On a Saturday morning, no less! Yet the maintenance fees are really quite low, aren’t they?

    By the way Philip, can you tell me what “URライト” means? I see it on the Kansai UR site, and it seems to refer to a three-year contract or something.

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    • catforehead Says:

      Yes, UR Light is a limited contract. When you sign up for a UR LIght unit it’s for a limited amount of time and is therefore a bit cheaper than a normal unit. The reason seems to be that UR or the building owner (many UR “properties” are not owned by UR but only managed by UR) plans to tear down the building in the near future but still wants tenants until then.

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  2. Miko Says:

    Ah, got it. The “UR Light” in my city (Kobe) seems to apply only to really nasty looking buildings that appear to approaching their sell-by date (interestingly, they survived the Kobe quake of ’95 even when many buildings around them were flattened). Also, it appears that the ground floors are rented out to shops and businesses, and any potential tenant is advised to avoid being a nuisance to those tenants. None of the apartments have balconies, by the way.

    Still, 30,000 yen for a one-room apartment with a bath, toilet and kitchen is a real bargain in this town, especially when it’s located only five minutes from the main station! I’m surprised that there isn’t a stampede.

    By the way, this is off-topic but one of my favourite restaurants was force to move on the grounds that the building it was located in was fifty years old, and the owners had decided to tear it down. Is there an official age limit on buildings in Japan?

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  3. B Says:

    I ran into your blog and enjoy the articles. I too agree that one has to be VERY careful before buying land in Japan. Landfill –> houses…not only quakes but I mean…chemicals?!?!?

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  4. Alex Says:

    Congratulations Philip and Masako on the new regular column in the Japan Times. As with your blog, always clear, concise, valuable and eye-opening information – much appreciated.

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  5. lecadidupe Says:

    Greetings Philip and Masako,
    Great blog! I’ve checked the JT religiously every Monday or Tuesday just in case one or both of you guys posted a new article over the weekend. In the aftermath of 3/11, P and M were one of the only English-language sources of information on liquefaction damage in the Kanto region. I’d been extremely wary of liquefaction since seeing the devastation it wrought during the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and, since coming to Japan, thought the idea of buying a house or condo on reclaimed land was nothing short of insane. Liquefaction danger aside, the depreciation rate of housing units in reclaimed-land neighborhoods is greater than the already scarily-high Japanese norm: the supply of housing units is elastic, as economists say. Developers keeping plopping down buildings on swathes of reclaimed land in places like Kaihinmakuhari and Odaiba faster than people can buy them. By way of example, we rented a condo in Makuhari Baytown from 2004 to 2007. The rent was dear (200,000/mo plus parking, but the owner had to pay the extortionate 35,000/mo condo assn. fees), but less dear than the loss the owner is taking: the place sold new in 2003 for about 750,000, and by 2005 the same unit on other floors was going for 500,000, ie a 33% loss in two years. I mentioned the fact to other owners, and they shrugged fatalistically and said, well, guess we’ll have to live here forever. Can’t imagine how much more the value has fallen since 3/11 caused spooky-looking fissures to erupt all over the neighborhood. A large number of condos and houses, even relatively new ones, would be unsalvageable after a strong Kanto-area quake, and the losses to the owners would be total.

    Stick with renting, guys! Buying a fast-food, scrap-and-build claptrap house or condo in Japan merely supports the trading-company/general-contractor industrial complex anyway.

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  6. lecadidupe Says:

    D’oh, the value of the Makuhari Baytown place we rented depreciated from 75 million yen to 50 million yen, not 750,000 yen to 500,000 yen.

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  7. Nell Says:

    We had a similar pleasant experience with deposit refund through Abel believe it or not. We had lived in the apartment for 8 years (brand new when we moved in) and got about 2/3 of our deposit back. Every charge was detailed and was VERY reasonable (considering there were 3 or 4 places of damage that would have taken quite a bit to repair). We were very pleasantly surprised.

    As for buying vs renting, not sure I agree with the comment above.. we purchased a house 4 years ago. Nice stable land, not too far from Tokyo, sturdy construction – and came through 3-11 admirably (considering there was a reasonable amount of damage to some houses and shopping centers in our vicinity). I would never buy a condo here (I see absolutely no benefit over renting..) but with a house, at least I own the land it is on, so if the whole thing did fall or burn down at least all I need is a good tent to suffice till insurance kicks in. Plus if/when you go to sell, at leas there is something of value there.

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  8. lecadidupe Says:

    Right you are, Nell! If you must buy, a house is much better than a condo because it will always have _some_ residual resale value due to the land. The value of the structure depreciates to zero in twenty years, though. This isn’t the West, where prewar houses with their plaster walls and hardwood floors command a premium.

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  9. Shinjukuboy Says:

    I bought a condo here in Shinjuku, and each of us owners own a piece of the land under the building. So each of us condo owners own land to (i.e., our condo includes land ownership – about half the price of the condo in my case). I prefer a condo because someone takes care of the place. And who is going to be my guarantor when I’m 80? Owning is better — for me. I buy a place to live in until I die, so I don’t care about price fluctuations. I was more concerned about buying the perfect place, not the perfect price (but a reasonable price for me). “Market price” is a price for people not interested in the place I want. Different people have different needs. There is no such thing as “it is always better to buy” or “it is always better to rent”.

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  10. lecadidupe Says:

    Shinjukuboy, it’s nice to have a place to live until you die (a lot of old people wouldn’t have a place to live if they didn’t own their own residence), but what if the place dies before you – ie, needs to be rebuilt? This is Japan, after all.

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  11. Hime Says:

    You are very mistaken when you say that renters don’t have rights. That has changed since 2001 and the tenant has specific and very well listed rights that almost insures all deposit money to be returned as long as the renter has been renting for three of more years. After staying for five years, the entire deposit must be returned and no payment is needed for anything such as wall paper, paint, carpet, flooring or anything of that sort.

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  12. ermintrude Says:

    Wondering if you know if there is a minimum term one must stay in a UR place before moving to another? i.e. is it permitted to move before 2 year contract is up? Thank you!

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    • catforehead Says:

      Generally speaking, the rental agreements for UR apartments do not have time limits, though we have heard of exceptions. Are you presently in a UR apartment with a limited-term rental agreement? In any case, it shouldn’t have any bearing on your moving to another UR apartment. It’s our understanding that they would prefer you to continue renting with them. It doesn’t really matter which apartment it is.

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      • ermintrude Says:

        Thank you for replying so quickly :) Not in a UR apartment yet but have one reserved (not limited-term as far as I know) and should be moving in soon – only one income at present so fairly restricted choice-wise but hopefully that’ll be changing soon, and will be looking for somewhere larger. Thanks for the reassurance that moving to another one should be ok, it does make sense they’d want to keep tenants.

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      • catforehead Says:

        Keep in mind that if you trade up to a more expensive unit you may be asked to resubmit financial information, depending on how much more the unit costs than your present one.

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      • ermintrude Says:

        Thanks, that’d be fine – we’d be moving due to change in income -> bigger place, so would expect that : -)

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