Archive for January, 2012

First-timers

January 22, 2012

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.

Last resorts: Izu division

January 16, 2012

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.

Home Truths: property taxes

January 3, 2012

Our Home Truths column this month, which appears in the Japan Times today, is about property taxes, a fact of economic life that is taken for granted. As we imply in the article, most first-time home buyers don’t really take taxes into consideration when they embark on the biggest purchase of their lives, presumably because, like death and…well, taxes, it’s something you can’t avoid so there’s no reason to worry about it. And maybe it isn’t, depending on where you buy property. Outside of large cities and productive suburbs, property taxes can be minimal. What we found troubling, and the reason we decided to write about it, was the frequent looks of bewilderment we received from real estate agents when asked how much a particular property would run a buyer in terms of annual taxes. Some knew approximately, but some said they didn’t know at all and would check at the office (and then never called back because they sensed–rightly, in most cases–that we weren’t that interested in buying in the first place). This was odd in more ways than one. In the most significant way, property tax should be something a realtor knows by heart, since it has a direct bearing on the financial ability of the buyer to maintain whatever loan repayment schedule he or she will be responsible for. In a less signficant but more bizarre way, many real estate companies actually print the annual property tax levy in the ads for properties, so for their agents to profess ignorance is just downright laziness, and also indicates that none of them are ever asked such questions by potential buyers. In other words, the inevitability of property taxes has rendered them a moot concern; maybe people just prefer not knowing. (more…)

Put out

January 2, 2012

We recently received a DVD screener of “Sayonara UR,” a video documentary by Yumiko Hayakawa. The doc chronicles the situation of a group of residents of Bldg. 73 of the Takahamadai apartment complex in Hino, Tokyo, which is run by the semi-public housing concern UR. The structure was built in 1971 and Bldg. 73 did not meet earthquake standards that were made mandatory in 1981. The company was going to carry out reinforcement work, but in 2007 it announced that the work would cost too much and everyone was asked to move out. The company would help residents relocate to other UR apartments if they needed it. They would also compensate them in part if they agreed to move out within two years of the announcement. Nevertheless, some residents refused to move, saying that they were simply being made victims of UR’s well-publicized move toward privatization. Bldg. 73 was not profitable and so UR planned to tear it down and sell the land to a developer. The quake-proofing story, according to these tenants, was merely an excuse, and not a particularly believable one since there was no inspection made by third parties, even though the tenants asked for it.

It was a classic eviction tale, and Hayakawa clearly sided with the tenants. As advocacy journalism goes, “Sayonara UR” has its good points. Throughout the doc, she refers to UR as representing “social housing,” something she believes is essential to the well-being of a well-ordered and responsible society. UR, as noted thoroughly in our blog, is semi-public, which means their obligations as a public housing provider are limited, and Hayakawa is careful about this point. She shows how UR still uses a lot of tax money in its operations, and interviews an outspoken professor who describes how UR is a money sink, more than ¥1 trillion in the red. The government has been trying to find ways of setting the company free. One of the main reasons they can’t, as evidenced by this documentary, is that people who rent UR apartments, especially those who have lived there a long time, don’t want the company to be made 100 percent private. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that UR does not follow the extortionary practices private landlords are known for, such as charging extra fees–gift money and contract renewal fees–that have no purpose. Hayakawa doesn’t address these reasons or the lack of laws that would protect tenants, but she does an excellent job of interviewing all sides of the story and giving equal weight to each. However, viewers not familiar with Japan’s housing situation may mistakenly equate social housing with low-income housing, which it is not. It’s a difference Hayakawa neglects to clarify, and because she doesn’t specify how much rent these people pay some will think they are poor, when actually they are quite middle class. In fact, given their economic status and the superannuated state of their abodes (most public apartments built in the 1970s for families are less than 60 square meters), many viewers may wonder why these holdouts aren’t jumping at the chance to move to newer, cleaner apartments that will cost proportionately about the same. She also doesn’t clarify that only ten of the 250 households asked to leave refused to do so by June of 2010, when the topic was covered by TBS. By April of the next year, the number was down to 7. (more…)


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