Author Archive

A new reality every day

March 22, 2014

CIMG3041As construction proceeded we looked forward to observing the progress, so much so that we didn’t necessarily want it to be done that quickly. It was only going to happen once in our life so it seemed like something we should savor. Our apartment was only a 5-10 minute bike ride away from the property, so we could visit it every day and see what had been done, what small increment toward a full realization of our image had been accomplished since yesterday. By the same token, we knew we might be disappointed in the changes taking place, since we’d never done this before and so far weren’t convinced that there was a meeting of minds between us and A-1 as to the final results. Would we have the courage and wherewithal to rectify quickly something we weren’t happy with? Was the house’s fate already set in stone, its future manifestation irrevocable?

CIMG2975As it turns out it wasn’t quite that momentous. Though we had reluctantly gone along with the ritual of feting the carpentry crew to lunch and gifts, they didn’t show up every day, and never in the numbers initially reported. Sometimes nobody appeared for five straight days, and when someone did it was usually either the head carpenter or his main assistant, and rarely both. We knew from media reports that Japan is suffering a serious shortage of construction labor owing to various factors, not the least of which was the building rush to head off the consumption tax rise in April, but A-1 never admitted to that and when we timidly queried if the original completion date could be met at this pace young N hinted that it probably wouldn’t but still tried to avoid anything definite. At first we took his reticence as a way of avoiding the issue, but we soon came to realize that he actually didn’t know. As the architect he was nominally in charge of the building process, but he seemed to have no control over the activities of the people who were doing the actual building. If there was rain or strong winds, he had an excuse, but otherwise he didn’t explain these lacunae of absences, and we assumed it was because he couldn’t. It became something of a joke. After having scoffed at the whole custom of gifting the carpenty crew, we automatically bought snacks for the workers in that time-worn tradition whenever we went over to check on things only to discover no one there or only one person, who, as a result, could feast on a whole package of dango that was supposed to feed five. Eventually, we wised up and brought less and less to the worksite, until we arrived where we started and stopped bringing anything.

CIMG3009But that isn’t to say progress wasn’t being made, only that it wasn’t going ahead at anything that could be called a stready rate. Sometimes two weeks would pass without any visible changes, and then in the course of a day or two the whole place seemed transformed. It was almost surreal. Another factor that sometimes made it difficult to gauge how far along things were was that we didn’t have access to the house. For insurance purposes we probably shouldn’t have been allowed inside during construction, but in any case once the frame was finished the front door was the first thing installed, which meant the place was locked when there was no one there. We didn’t have a key. There was a box attached to the utility pole on the property with a combination lock, and we correctly assumed that the key to the front door was inside it, but young N didn’t give us the combination. Nevertheless, when either of the two main carpenters was working he would allow us inside to look around, and though our main excuse for snooping was to measure nooks and crannies so that we could start ordering those things that we declined to pay for through A-1, we simply just wanted to see what the place looked like. Once the walls were up we’d never see the insulation again, or the ceiling beams, or the space underneath the floors. This was going to be our home. We wanted to know as much about it as possible. Like any potential lover we wanted to see it naked. Sometimes the carpenter would explain a point of design to us, but everything was startlingly simple, a realization that prompted second thoughts. Should we have spent more money on the windows? Was this insulation really the best that money could buy? Should we have opted, at much greater expense, for a metal staircase rather than the wooden one that seemed bulkier-looking that we expected? Would we be able to get the refrigerator and the washing machine up the stairs to the second floor?

CIMG3008These second thoughts hit a peak when they finally put up the siding. A-1 had to hire a specialty company to do the job, and it took them three days. After they finished we inspected the results and at first were disappointed. When we had discussed siding at our first meeting with A-1 after deciding to build the house with them, we struggled with the choices. We didn’t want conventional compound siding, which tends to mimic natural materials like brick or wood and, thus, looks doubly fake. Real wood would have been preferable but besides being very expensive and not necessarily a wise choice (termites, fire, humidity), Chiba Prefecture had regulations that would have made a wood exterior even more expensive. For that matter, our first siding choice was enameled galvanium, but metal exteriors were also regulated in Chiba, meaning specially treated boards had to be affixed between the frame and the siding, thus making it cost more. At the time we were fretting about every additional cost and opted for regular compound siding but in the corrugated style of the galvanium kind–alternating dark gray and dark blue–which was cheaper and looked the same, at least from afar. What we didn’t know was that this kind of siding was attached with nails, and it looked cheap, at least when you walked up to it. Should we have ordered the galvanium, which, on second thought, wasn’t really that much more expensive? (When we voiced our concern about cost during that first meeting, the salesman, N, laughed derisively: “It’s not that expensive.”) It was the first thing about the house we felt was a mistake, though the feeling passed a week or so later when the siders completed the sealing of the  panels and spackled over the nail heads. You could still see them but they weren’t as prominent.

CIMG3002But those rare times we gained access were pretty thrilling, and it was because it wasn’t what we expected or imagined. The OSB we chose for the walls of the office and the walk-in closet went up before the rest of the walls did, and the crazed randomness of the pressed-wood fiber pattern was startling: Who had walls like that. We had been told we could easily paint over the OSB but the pattern was beautiful. And while at first we had worried that we got carried away with the windows, when we stood in the middle of the unfinished rooms and looked out at all that bamboo and, on the second floor, all that sky, we felt a thrill of accomplishment. It was OK to be extravagant with choices that didn’t have to do with money.

CIMG3063But many of the times  we visited we had to be content with peering in through the windows to see what had been done since the last time we visited. Often enough it seemed nothing had been done, but we stood there and looked and looked, climbing up on the scaffolding to make sure we didn’t miss a thing, as if we still couldn’t believe that the people who would be living in this place were us.CIMG3059

Addendum to March 2014 Home Truths column

March 4, 2014

DSCF2401Here is this month’s Home Truths column, which is about moving house. Yesterday, we read in the newspaper an item that would have been suitable for the column but it was too late to include it. The Japan Trucking Association has issued a press release warning consumers that from mid-March to early April, moving companies are expecting a huge amount of demand–one-third of demand for the full year, in fact–and urges anyone who is thinking of moving during that time to put off the move until later. In our experience, people usually move house because they have to, and have to move during a certain period of time due to specific circumstances, such as a new job, new school year, or the availability of a rental or purchased residence.  In any case, March 3 seems way too late to make such a warning, but, then again, anyone who is planning to move during the period described and  hasn’t made arrangements yet probably deserves whatever difficulties arise when they finally do try to make arrangements. But in the end, you can always rent a truck and do it yourself, which we’ve done many times.

Getting warm

February 17, 2014

CIMG3110Because we are building a house from nothing, basically, the number of choices we were forced to make was sometimes overwhelming. If we had bought a house already built, we would have simply looked at what was there, decided what we didn’t like, and then replace it all. If the house was being built according to a builder’s plan we would have seen what was available and haggled over what we did want and what we didn’t. In a sense, A-1 was close to this model, but the main reason we chose them is because there were many more options involved, and not just in terms of design. But our salesman, N, did try to push certain items on us, presumably because he and and A-1 would get a cut of anything they sold. We’ve already talked about the visit to House Tec, the housing supply and service company that A-1 deals with, and how because of our budget we were limited to certain fixtures and facilities we didn’t really care for. Fortunately, we held our ground on the bathroom sink (no plastic vanity, which is A-1′s default), but were not as forthright with the bathtub and the kitchen cabinets. We ended up getting a unit bath, which we don’t like, but that probably couldn’t be helped because the custom made baths we checked out were very expensive, and we’re not really bath people, anyway. The cabinets may have been a mistake, though. When we went to House Tec to pick them out, because of our budget we were shown only the cheapest line, and we took it without really asking. Had we spent a little more we could have gotten better stuff–i.e., drawer cabinets instead of the conventional door types.

But for other fixtures we decided to tell A-1 that we would go about it ourselves, and not just because we thought it would be cheaper. For instance, the initial estimate included all lighting fixtures, which A-1 would purchase through its agent and then pass on to us. They told us outright that they could buy these fixtures cheaper and we believed them, but we have some lighting fixtures already that work fine and look OK, so it seemed like a redundant expense. In any case, we don’t like the kind of garishly bright overhead lights that Japanese people favor, so while we did have rosettes installed in the ceiling, most will be equipped with fans, not lights. A-1 gave us a catalogue of one of their lighting suppliers and we looked through that and then went on line and purchased the fixtures that we needed ourselves. They were sent to our apartment so we will just bring them over to the new house to have them installed when the electrical work is done. (more…)

Rituals

January 4, 2014

CIMG2839During the negotiations with the builder, we were asked, several times but mostly in passing, whether or not we wanted to hold the various ceremonies associated with building a house. Understanding marginally that this would involve hiring a kanushi (shinto priest) to perform a jichinsai (rite of purifying the land) before construction could begin in earnest, we said no. Neither of us is religious in any denominational sense and regard shintoism as a convenient instrument of the state for propping up emperor worship, but in any case we have no desire to pay for something that is superstitious in essence. N-san, the salesman, said he understood and we assumed that was the end of it.

But after the foundation was poured and carpenters started erecting the frame, young N, the architect, who was now nominally in charge of the project and would be our sole liaison with the building side, sent us an email saying that the workers would be carrying out a jotoshiki, the ceremony to mark the raising of the roofbeam, which is a big deal and, since it involves the people who are actually building our house, seemed more momentous than the jichinsai, though initially we looked upon it as no more relevant. The idea is to give thanks for the successful completion of the house thus far, which seems sort of premature since only the frame has been finished, but we’re sure the ritual has somehow been streamlined over the centuries and, in any case, it’s entirely symbolic. We can appreciate that if it’s something the carpenters value, but from the way it was presented to us it sounded like yet another expense, an obligation that the builder was passing on to us for our approval, as if we were being asked to confirm something that had already been decided anyway. We knew that the carpenters would, however perfunctorily, carry out the jotoshiki and since we were the end beneficiaries of this gesture it would be considered cold of us not to participate–or so we were led to believe by the purport of the email. Upon further interrogation young N said we would be responsible for the refreshments for the ceremony. He also said it was customary to present go-shugi (gifts) to all the carpenters in the form of cash, usually ¥10,000-¥20,000 to the chief carpenter (toryo), and ¥5,000-¥10,000 to each of the others. After studying the matter on the Internet we came to the conclusion that, while the ritual did have the effect of bringing the house owners and work crew closer together, it was mostly a racket and could become quite expensive depending on how many contractors showed up for the ceremony–and that included the building company itself. (more…)

Low priorities

December 15, 2013

DSCF2013It’s become an almost trite litany in the media: the poor become poorer and the rich richer, with the middle class mostly shrinking and absorbed by the former. The conventional narrative says that free market capitalism makes this so, as governments in the free world become “smaller” and thus less likely to regulate economic functions. But more fundamental to the issue is the idea that priorities are shifting away from the poor.

An article in the Dec. 3 Nihon Keizai Shimbun reports on a survey completed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications in September and just released to the public. The survey collected data from local governments regarding public buildings, including apartments and schools. One of the more startling statistics is 12,251, which represents the total number of these buildings that local governments throughout Japan, both prefectural and municipal, want to tear down. The estimated cost of this mass demolition would be ¥403.9 billion, a huge burden for municipalities, most of which are cash-strapped anyway. But the cost of maintaining these buildings is probably higher, since it’s an ongoing expense. The reasons local governments want to tear down these buildings is simple: they’re old–the average age is 41 years–and the population is expected to continue decreasing. This number doesn’t include buildings that will be renovated or replaced after they are destroyed. It’s only buildings that will be gone for good. At the time the survey was conducted, 40 percent of these buildings were in use, while 47 percent were not in use at all and were thus shuttered. As far as plans for demolition go, 32 percent will be torn down “within a year or two” while the fate of 41 percent was “not known” at the time.

It’s a huge number, but if you’re at all familiar with construction trends in Japan it’s probably not shocking. Just walk through any business district in Tokyo and marvel at how many new skyscrapers are going up, replacing other buildings that were put up only thirty or so years ago. Buildings in Japan are notoriously short-lived, and, of course, outside of the large cities there is even less reason for keeping buildings that no longer serve a function. Populations and tax bases continue to shrink, so there is no need to maintain a school that has no students, or a public housing project that’s only 30 percent full. (more…)

Pump it up

December 1, 2013
All's well that ends with a well

All’s well that ends with a well

Before construction could start we had to dig a well. Though our land was nominally within a housing development, it was a rather small one; basically a piece of wooded property surrounded by farmland that had been sold to a real estate company, which had divided it up for sale. But calling it a “housing development” is pushing it, since the usual infrastructure wasn’t available: no waterworks, sewerage, or gas lines. Technically, the land isn’t zoned for residences. It exists in that bureaucratic limbo known as shigaika chosei kuiki, which means an “area being adjusted for urban use,” but for all intents and purposes it’s land that does not have infrastructure but nevertheless is being sold for a profit. We cannot actually build on the land until the local land authority gives us permission, so buying it before the fact would seem to entail a risk, but these kinds of sales happen all the time and are always approved. We could see that for ourselves, since there were already five finished houses in this development and they had gone through the same thing. Over the past three years we had looked at many properties that were also classified as shigaika chosei kuiki, and in many ways they were more to our liking since lots that were already approved for residential construction tended to be in housing developments built by developers, meaning they were densely populated, and we wanted more breathing room. The thing about infrastructure is that most of it is built by private or semi-private entities who aren’t going to extend utilities to areas where they won’t see a profit, and a dinky little housing development of eight homes in an agricultural area where farming families have been living for generations without infrastructure isn’t worth it. Interestingly, the border of Chiba New Town is only a 10-minute walk from our property, and anything within that massive, 40-year-old development project, which incorporates portions of three cities, has access to all the usual infrastructure. But proximity means nothing. We might as well be living on the moon. Though we had already paid for the land and gave the go ahead to have the well dug, we called up the semi-public water authority whose bailiwick was closest to our property and asked about future prospects of waterworks being extended to our neck of the woods. We were essentially told that it would never happen. A little more research revealed that water usage throughout Japan peaked around 2001 and has been dropping ever since, and because local water authorities’ funding comes from customer billing and not from any public outlay they have less money with which to lay new pipe than they had in the past, so there’s absolutely no incentive to extend waterworks to any areas except those that guarantee a large customer base. (more…)

Simple plans

November 18, 2013
Exterior images

Exterior images

The design for our house came together quickly, because it was so simple. In fact, we kept thinking that whatever form it took the house would never be simple enough. Each item that went into the house was going to cost us, so we didn’t want a wall or a door or even an electrical outlet that we didn’t need. It’s one of the reasons we chose A-1, because every plank and screw is subject to our approval, and while the simplicity of our basic idea made it quick and easy to plan, refining the design took a bit more time.

The initial estimate was close to ¥14 million, which is reasonable but more than we originally wanted to pay given what the land had cost us. The basic A-1 design our plan was based on was less than ¥11 million. Most of the difference was taken up by the design fee and some custom add-ons, like the extra toilet. So we scrutinized the plans. Did we really need a door to the office on the first floor? Would a mail slot be cheaper than a mailbox? Could we find less expensive lighting fixtures on our own than the ones that A-1 would purchase through its usual supplier? Note that we weren’t being cheap for the sake of being cheap. Several decisions actually cost us more than if we had let A-1 go its normal route. The bathroom on the second floor did not have a standard vanity unit, which would have been cheaper than the built-in sink and mirror combo we demanded. We hate bathroom vanities, but essentially it was keeping things simple that made us chose the combo. We gave in to the unit bath because on further inspection we didn’t think we could find a reasonably priced tradesman who could build the kind of Western bathroom we preferred. As antiseptic as we found unit baths, they tend to have more structural integrity and are longer-lasting than custom-made bathrooms, at least in Japan. And though we weren’t crazy about the standard system kitchen we felt we’d been forced to choose at Housetec, we didn’t need to buy overhead cabinets since it’s an open-style kitchen. We also opted for sliding doors for the upstairs bathroom and the downstairs toilet, and they are more expensive than conventional hinged doors. Sliding doors take up less room, and at 89 square meters comprising two floors the house doesn’t have any extra room to spare. We had already eliminated the usually requisite “balcony,” which in Japanese homes mainly functions as a clothes-hanging platform, and it saved us a lot. And since our house is essentially a big box there were fewer angles and thus less surface area. With A-1, real wood panel walls are standard, but for a bit extra you can have conventional white sheetrock walls, and for a bit less you can have OSB (oriented strand board), which we chose for the walls of the office, since they would eventually be covered by bookcases, so the look wasn’t going to be important. Originally, we opted to leave out a UHF-BS antenna unit on the roof, thinking we’d get cable or Internet TV, but after calling around to various cable and IPS companies discovered that such services weren’t yet available in our neck of the woods, which is slightly outside the Chiba New Town zone. In fact, they might not be available for some time, so we opted back in for the antenna unit, which may look sort of precarious on that nice, angled roof A-1 is building. In the name of simplicity again we asked them not to tile the genkan (foyer), but just leave it as bare concrete, and not just because it’s less money. We like bare concrete and since we included in the design a small recessed storage area just to the right of the genkan it would all be of a piece. We also wanted a lot of windows, which costs more than having less windows, though due to the usual “modular” Japanese design methodology, which bases all measurements on ikken multiples or portions of the length of a tatami (182 cm), we had to chose window sizes accordingly. Any other sizes would require custom work, which would mean going outside the modular parameters and thus cost a lot more. We’re fine with standard windows. (more…)

The burden of expectations (4)

October 19, 2013

CIMG2562As quickly as we could we collected the necessary documents for JA. Since they asked for three years’ worth of tax information we not only had to go back to the Narita tax bureau, we had to go into Tokyo to ask for proof of local taxes that we paid to Arakawa Ward for the first half of 2011, since that’s where we were living. Also proof of health insurance payments. We wondered what we would have had to do if we’d moved much farther away. As it was, going into Tokyo was enough of a pain in the ass since the different offices always seem to be crowded.

We submitted all the documents to the loan officer, who said it would take a few weeks for them to look through them but he had already assured us we were good. At this point a curious thought occurred to us. We had told A-1 that we were going to borrow money from JA. We expected N to act put out since he had gone to the trouble of introducing us to SBI, but in the end he didn’t really care. As long as we had the money he couldn’t complain. But, in actuality, we didn’t have the money, and wouldn’t for a long time. A lending institution won’t transfer the funds attached to a loan for a new home, meaning one that is being occupied for the first time, until the home is ready to be occupied, and in our case that wouldn’t be until Christmas at the earliest. In fact, we hadn’t signed the contract with A-1 yet, though it had been drawn up. The sticking point for us was the payment schedule. First we had to pay the design fee up front, which was about half a million yen. Then when we sign the contract, we pay a portion of the construction cost, almost a third. And then, when the roof beams have been completed, about two months into contruction, we pay another third. The last payment is made when the house is completed. So that means before the money for the loan is transferred into our account, we have to pay two-thirds of the cost of the house on top of the money we had to shell out for the land. If we had bought a house already completed, then it would be no problem, but we’re having it built. In our case it isn’t that bad because we had initially planned to pay cash for everything, land and house, until we realized that we would have to increase our budget if we wanted to own a place that fit our minimum conditions and needs. So we do have enough cash to make all the payments. It’s just that we will be broke until the loan comes through. But what about people who don’t have that much cash on hand, people who are borrowing almost all of the money needed to build their houses? What if they’re buying a condo based on a design, meaning the actual structure won’t be completed for another year or two? Again, if you’re working with a developer or a builder, they will make everything as smooth as possible, since they will likely be working hand-in-hand with a lending institution. For people like us who are doing everything themselves, there are special intermediary loans called tsunagi-yushi that you can take out to make the initial and mid-term payments, but they require another screening process and often have higher interest rates. Since they’re usually paid back when the housing loan comes through the payments don’t last long, but during that period if the borrower is, say, paying rent, it could be a real burden, depending on how long it takes to put up the house or condo. So that’s another expense you might have to deal with if you’re building a house. (more…)

The burden of expectations (3)

September 15, 2013
What we're trying to avoid

What we’re trying to avoid

We went to Tsukuba on a Friday, and the following Monday the woman from SBI Mortgage called and said we had cleared the preliminary screening. She had already given us a checklist of the documents we would need to submit for the final screening and so we started to collect them. It’s a time-consuming process because many documents are required and you have to go to different government offices to get them. The woman had already photocopied our drivers licenses, national health cards, and three years worth of tax returns. Now we had to get real proof of our worth, so to speak. The easiest to obtain was proof of residence (juminhyo) from the local city office. The checklist still had gaikokujin toroku shomeisho, meaning proof of an alien registration card, but the Foreign Ministry had phased out registration cards last year. We could also pick up inkan shomeisho, meaning proof of registered seals, at city hall. In bureaucracy-obsessed Japan, seals remain the looniest relic, since anyone could go to the store and buy one with another person’s name on it and use it in that person’s stead. Signatures are still not commonly used for purposes of witness and certification, though they’re obviously more individual. In order to somehow safeguard the seal as a means of certification you are supposed to register yours at your local government office, and then when called upon by a party with whom you are drawing up a contract you bring that party “proof” from the local government office that the seal you are using is kosher, though I have no idea how counterpart parties check this evidence unless they’re experts in wood-block printing.

A bit more difficult to secure was proof of our income for the last two years. The copies of our joint tax return were used for the preliminary screening but for the next phase they needed actual documents from both the national and local tax bureaus where we lived, which meant taking a trip to Narita as well as a trip into Tokyo, since we lived in Arakawa Ward for the first six months of 2011. In Narita we could also go to the local branch office of the Justice Ministry to obtain records on the land we were planning to buy–history of ownership as well as the official registered survey map of the plot, or, in our case, plots, since the land we were buying was actually two adjoining lots, one about 200 square meters and the other a mere 20 square meters. This smaller plot would prove to be a hassle, but more on that in a later post. On Tuesday we took a trip to Narita to get the documents we could. (more…)

The burden of expectations (2)

September 2, 2013
JA, as in "Just ask!"

JA, as in “Just ask!”

Since the local branch of JA Bank is close to where we live, we decided to drop in and see what they could offer before setting out for Tsukuba and our rendezvous with SBI Mortgage. Though we had been virtually assured by N that SBI would lend us the money we needed, we wondered if we could get better terms at JA. Perhaps more significantly, we wanted to keep matters close to home. If we were going to borrow money we preferred it be from someone we could interact with whenever we needed to. We also liked the idea of doing business with people in our own community, especially now that we were thinking of planting roots in that community. SBI Mortgage, by virtue of its “money store” image, seemed more like a chain outlet.

The loan officer who met with us at JA was an efficient, overly friendly man in his late 30s. He listened patiently to our singular tale, a streamlined version of the one we related in our last post. When we pretended to be interested in Tama Home’s products two years ago we were honest about our income because we felt it was a good way of exiting the conversation after getting the information we sought, but the salesman had called our bluff (in a manner of speaking; there was no reason to think he didn’t believe we were sincere) by telling us that our budget was unrealistic, even though Tama Home did sell houses that were less than ¥10 million. As for our ¥2 million annual salary issue, he said it was not a problem, which is why he suggested JA Bank, and that’s why we were here.

Though we had brought along tax documents we weren’t quite expecting to make a formal application. We simply wanted to know what our chances were of getting a loan and what the terms would be if approved. To the JA loan officer it was pointless to explain what could happen; better to just apply and see how things turned out. In fact, he made copies of every document we had with us. He was careful to stress what we would eventually come to understand was the most important aspect of getting a home loan, which is that the lending institution needs to see what it was you were buying. They were not interested in hypotheticals. Ideally, we had thought that if you were going to borrow money, you should find out what the bank was willing to lend you, but that’s not how it works. You had to bring them something. It was as central to their decision as your income or credit history. (more…)


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