The burden of expectations (1)

August 17, 2013 by
What we have to work with

What we have to work with

Once you embark on a certain course of action, even if the motivation is basically speculative, matters often progress of their own accord. Though we hadn’t yet secured the plot of land we liked, the fact that for a month it was ours for the taking made us feel strangely possessive of it. It is only a ten-minute bike ride from our apartment, and in the weeks after our visit to A-1 we would drop by just to have a look at it and imagine what a house might look like sitting on it. Sometimes we would address a pressing consideration, such as: What is the Internet capability in this leafy corner of the city? It was a real consideration since our work depends on online access, and one day we asked the carpenter next door, who just happened to be outside puttering around, what sort of access he had. He didn’t, and didn’t seem to know anything about it since he didn’t need the Internet for his work and wasn’t a technophile. While we admired his resistance to the irresistible pull of modern life we also felt slightly taken aback. Were we thinking of moving into the Ozarks?

Later, we met another neighbor who assured us that optical fiber connections were available in the area, but the seed had already been planted. What about the water we’d be consuming from the well we’d have to dig? The carpenter said it tasted terrible and that he only used it for washing, while the other neighbor thought it tasted better than the city water he used to drink. We knew there was no accounting for taste, but that’s quite a gap in perception. The realtor said something about the depth of the wells: that the carpenter’s was shallow and the other neighbor’s much deeper, but that information only made us more confused and obligated to do even more research into the matter. In other words, coming to a decision about the land was going to be even more complicated than we’d thought. Read the rest of this entry »

Easy go

August 16, 2013 by

New housing will always be a prime economic mover in Japan even as the population drops, so the sector needs all the help it can get. Right now new housing is seeing a boost due to the expected consumption tax increase next year. Buyers are trying to make deals before the tax goes into effect, but what happens afterwards? Real estate and housing companies are worried there will be an even bigger slump once that happens, so the government says it plans to allow financing rates of up to 100 percent for long-term fixed rate loans, or so-called Flat 35 mortgages. That means borrowers who qualify don’t have to put any money down. At present, a borrower has to put at least 10 percent down.

This happened once before. In 2009, when the recession was at its worst, the government allowed no-down-payment loans but it was a temporary measure and ended in March 2012. Of course, some people are worried since such loans are considered risky, so as part of the proposal screening of applicants will be made stricter, though the details have yet to be worked out. In addition, some of the Liberal Democratic Party’s ruling coalition partners want to provide handouts of up to ¥300,000 to people who are approved for housing loans but whose income is less than ¥5.1 million a year. This handout would offset the effect of the consumption tax increase. Read the rest of this entry »

Home Truths, August 2013

August 6, 2013 by

CIMG2664Here’s this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about the Chiba New Town development project, where we happen to live. To clarify something that may not be apparent in the article, it’s a very nice place to live. As pointed out, the people who reside here enjoy a mix of urban convenience and unspoiled nature, though one of the points we tried to make is that if the New Town scheme had gone ahead as originally planned, it might have been more congested and less attractive, but it was never going to happen that way because of the area and the way it was developed. As it is, the urban sectors have plenty of well laid-out parks, the roads are all lined with wide sidewalks and bicycle lanes (which few people use since everyone drives), there are plenty of retail outlets offering a wide variety of very cheap merchandise, and just minutes’ walk from any station in the NT area you are in deep countryside: rice paddies surrounded by well-kept forests. And while the Hokuso Line is expensive, it is extremely convenient to both central Tokyo (one hour to Nihohbashi without transfer) and Narita Airport (20 minutes), and, probably because it is expensive, it’s never crowded.

Based on a rough survey of the land being developed now for residential homes, lots of approximately 200 square meters will be going for ¥10-15 million, or about ¥50,000 per square meter. So far, tracts being prepared are located 10 to 25 minutes by foot from Inzai Makinohara Station. We haven’t seen too much land being prepared near other stations. When the project started in the 70s, condominiums were promoted, and there are still some large condo complexes near the various stations in the NT area that have vacant units. One, called Doors near Inzai Makinohara Station (five minutes), is only about half filled. Apartments were first put on sale more than two years ago, and since then the developer has decreased the price at least twice, which probably upsets people who already bought. You can get a brand new condo of 70 square meters for only ¥19 million, but if you go a little farther from the station you can probably have a house built for less than ¥10 million more than that. UR, who will be selling most of these plots to real estate and housing companies, will want to get as much money as possible in order to pay down its debt, but with so much being developed at one time and demand unknown, it’s likely that those prices will come down in a short period of time. Chiba, of course, is the cheapest place to live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, and since its population decreases every year, it will become even cheaper just for that reason. Though the New Town has been a failure in terms of what a New Town is supposed to accomplish fiscally, Chiba New Town is a reasonably priced, attractive alternative to its counterparts in other places in the Kanto area. And now that we think about it, maybe that’s the reason Inzai was selected as the most comfortable city in Japan.

Dancing to architecture

July 21, 2013 by
Kazumi Arai

Kazumi Arai

When we first met the realtor who was selling the land we were interested in at the actual lot, he brought with him a rough visual of the sort of house that could be built on it, along with a mock loan repayment scheme to show how cheap the monthly payments could be. At that point we hadn’t talked about our financial situation or what sort of house we wanted to build, and if we were impressed by the agent’s proactive salesmanship we were also leery of what it might lead to. Of course he wanted a sale on the land, but at ¥5.3 million his company wasn’t going to make a whole lot of money on the deal. What they wanted was also to build our house for us, and help us secure a mortgage. They were basically acting as developers, and had purchased this tract of land (relatively cheaply, because it was still being “adjusted for urban zoning”) with the idea that they could broker deals for houses and make even more money. Later, we would find out that of the five houses already constructed in the subdivision, only one had been built through the realtor. What impressed us about their offer wasn’t the forward thinking but rather the price. The agent said they could build us a house for ¥300,000 per tsubo (3.3 square meters) of floor area. In our mind we estimated that we wouldn’t need more than 30 tsubo, which means they could build us a house for ¥9 million, which was well within our budget. So while we didn’t say we would work with his company, we didn’t say we wouldn’t either.

We were still interested in using a housing company headquartered in Ibaraki called A-1, which we wrote about here in early 2012. Last winter, in fact, after we abandoned our plans to buy a used house or condo and renovate it, we rented a car and drove to their offices near Kasumigaura and interviewed the company president. Kazumi Arai comes across as more of a business philosopher than a businessman, someone with a vision who has assembled a staff that can realize his vision in a practical way. (Later, we learned that Arai has an architect’s license) The explanation he gave us of his company was almost identical to the one he gave to The Japan Times, which is where we first learned about A-1, and, frankly, it was the philosophy that attracted us. Arai’s position is that owning a house should not be an impossible dream, but because of the cost of land in Japan and the way the housing industry is structured, the average person looks upon it as an almost insurmountable financial undertaking. He believes people pay way too much for homes. A-1 keeps costs down in a variety of ways, mainly by cutting promotional budgets. The company does not advertise. It does not build model homes. Also, it is mainly a design company. It offers several basic floor plans that range in price from ¥9 to ¥11 million, and the customer then tells the architect what he/she wants. The architect amends the basic design accordingly, which means A-1 makes money on the design aspects, but it also helps the customer save money on materials. For instance, most major home builders’ designs have lots of rooms and walls, which add to the cost of a house, but A-1 points out that hallways are often unnecessary, and if the layout is carefully considered fewer walls can be built without any loss of privacy. In addition, their workers are trained in a variety of skills to save on labor costs. For each job, a builder usually has to hire someone skilled in that particular trade, be it plumbing, dry wall, whatever. A-1 tries to hire as few people as possible. Read the rest of this entry »

Back to the land (3)

July 15, 2013 by

CIMG2494Having lost interest in the land in Makinosato, we felt as if we’d retreated to square one. There was still that lot near Shimosa-Manzaki station, but besides being really cheap it didn’t offer anything we could get excited about. Our disinterest was rooted in the same feeling that made it easy to drop the Makinosato plan: We didn’t really want to live in a subdivision, though we also understood that if we wanted to remain in this particular stretch of Chiba Prefecture and weren’t going to pay more than ¥5 million, the only lots we could afford were in subdivisions. This feeling turned to something like despair when several large tracts of land close to our train station were suddenly opened for development. As mentioned elsewhere in this blog, we live in what is called Chiba New Town, which stretches across parts of three cities in northern Chiba Prefecture. As a housing and commercial project developed by the government housing authority in the 1960s and 70s, management eventually fell to the authority’s semi-private successor, UR, which was stuck with a lot of land that was never developed because Chiba New Town didn’t attract residents and businesses in the numbers the government originally envisioned. But the government has also given UR a deadline to get out of the land development business and that deadline is next March. So suddenly, all these overgrown fields bordering the Hokuso Line are being bulldozed and subdivided, and several weeks ago housing companies and real estate agents started advertising the plots, which start at about ¥11 million for 200 square meters. So even though there will be hundreds of plots made available soon in subdivisions we would probably prefer not living in, we at least have to double our land purchase budget in order to buy one.

So after a short respite we resumed our seemingly endless Internet search, checking portal sites for anything–land, condos, used houses–that might offer us something appealing. In terms of land, we increased the budget to see what was available. Portal sites have series of buttons you check to narrow the search, and land prices are normally tiered in multiples of ¥5 million. In the past we’d input the very smallest amount, but now we broadened the search to ¥10 million in the areas we were interested in. There was a lot more available, obviously, and since we’ve been at this thing a while we’ve become better at rejecting properties without looking too closely at them. Read the rest of this entry »

New values

July 4, 2013 by

CIMG2031Earlier this week the national tax agency announced that, on average, land values throughout Japan went down 1.8 percent, raising hopes in financial circles since it’s the lowest drop in a long time. Any sign that the economy is improving is given a lot of play in the media, though a closer reading of the statistics indicates it may not be what it seems. As almost all the stories point out, the main brake on the drop in property values was the sudden surge in sales of luxury condos in the major cities. If you discount those sales, much of which is being spurred by overseas investors, the drop in value is pretty much the same as it’s been for the past decade or so. In Asahi Shimbun’s coverage, a reporter talked to a 37-year-old salaried worker who was looking to buy a used condominium in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. He found one that was very cheap and only 10 minutes from Motoyawara Station, but was disappointed by the “undeveloped” quality of the neighborhood. A local realtor told the reporter that his business has not changed at all. Property values in the area are 4.7 percent less than they were a year ago, when the values were 4.4 percent less than they were in 2011. “The only place that’s any good is the center of Tokyo,” he said.

Another realtor in Kofu, Yamanashi Prefecture, told the paper that the value of properties near the main train station declined 3.8 percent over the previous year, and he didn’t sound hopeful, citing the fact that there has been no increase in the last year of “inquiries for home remodelings” that actually lead to contracts for work. “That’s because nobody’s income has increased.” The media was expecting a rush on home sales prior to the increase in the consumption tax next April, and until May, housing starts rose year-on-year for nine months straight. That statistic may go south, however, since there is a suspicion that interest rates will also go up in line with the government’s monetary easing policy, thus discouraging some potential new homeowners. Almost everyone Asahi talked to, from realtors to securities analysts, believe that the situation won’t change significantly unless average people start making more money.

Home Truths, July 2013

July 2, 2013 by

DSCF4478 Here is our latest Home Truths column in the Japan Times, about mobile homes in Japan.

Back to the land (2)

June 15, 2013 by

CIMG1994For a short time we were very interested in a small piece of land in Abiko along the Narita line near Kohoku Station. It was in a tightly packed subdivision called Nakabyo surrounded by older neighborhoods whose winding streets and oddly shaped plots of land indicated it had once been an agricultural community. Nakabyo itself was not as distinctive. It was a typical subdivision of the late 80s, with large houses in varying degrees of disrepair situated on lots that were a little too small for them. The community was laid out on a gentle, long slope that ascended south to north, so that houses positioned on the north sides of the parallel streets had a slight advantage over the ones positioned on the south sides, whose own southern exposures were quite close to their southern neighbors. The land that interested us was at the bottom of the slope and positioned on the south side of a street but its own southern exposure faced a large park. Moreover it was on the corner of an intersection, meaning streets bordered the land to the east and the north, not buildings. Only to the west was there another house.

And it was cheap–¥4.3 million. In fact, the realtor implied that we could probably get it down to an even ¥4 million if we paid cash. Apparently, the owner was desperate to unload it, and we wondered why it was so difficult to do so. Abiko is quite popular owing to the many train lines that run through it and the fact that Ueno is a little more than 30 minutes away by express. This was not in central Abiko, but it was close enough. Moreover, the clear prospect on three sides, including a park to the south, made it one of the few truly attractive lots we’d found in a conventional subdivision. The only reason we could see for its relative unpopularity was its size, slightly less than 100 square meters. Since the occupancy rate was 50 percent and the capacity rate 100, it still meant you could build a two-story house of up to 100 square meters, but because the shape of the land was slightly trapezoidal, the orientation of the house was limited. Read the rest of this entry »

Home Truths, May 2013

May 14, 2013 by

CIMG2235Here is this month’s Home Truths column in the Japan Times, which is about land stability, a topic we’ve discussed only in passing in this blog.

Unsellable

May 3, 2013 by
usuidai

A room with a sorta view

Several months ago we looked at house in Sakura, Chiba Prefecture that was built in the early 90s. It was on the side of a fairly steep hill and commanded a view of Inba Marsh to the northeast; or, at least, that was what the info at various real estate portal sites implied. The place had already been on the market for almost six months, and when we noticed that the price had been cut for the second time we thought we might take a look at it. Originally, it was about ¥18 million and now it was ¥13 million.

The owners were still living there, but the agent said it would be no problem to look at it. Inspecting properties where people still live isn’t much fun and usually not very helpful. Though you can get some idea of the functionality of a place by seeing how people live in it, those people’s mode of living is always very different from our own, so there’s nothing to gain from it. We have to imagine ourselves in this place without all their stuff.

This particular house was even worse than we could imagine, since the photos on the web didn’t include interior shots. The residents didn’t even bother to clean up and we walked through bedrooms (they have two kids) with laundry thrown on the floor and a kitchen so cramped and cluttered there didn’t seem to be anywhere to stand. Even the “view” that the portal site had publicized turned out to be nothing. The only vista was from one of the bedrooms. It was impossible to tell how much work the place would need since it was difficult to see the floors and walls.

We promptly crossed it off our list and would have forgotten about it completely but it remained on the market and thus on all the portal sites we checked regularly. Last week we noticed that the owner had decreased the price again, this time to ¥8.9 million, which is quite a drop. That means the asking price is now about half what it was when it first went on sale. The agent let on that the family couldn’t move until they sold this house, but if that’s the case they are going to have to do something more than just keep cutting the price. Maybe the house is unsellable anyway, but in this market, which is filling up with older homes all the time, a low price isn’t enough. This particular house isn’t that close to the station. Would a better “presentation” help? It couldn’t hurt, but in any case it’s hard to imagine that there is a buyer out there who would want to buy such a place.


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