Fill ’em up

July 18, 2015 by

DSCF3268The central government is supposedly working on new measures to deal with the ballooning vacant home problem, and it’s no secret they would prefer local governments handle the matter, even though most local governments don’t have any extra money to throw at it. Recent media reports, however, indicate that Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture, is working on a very ambitious program for not only addressing the vacant home problem, but increasing the city population at the same time.

According to a 2013 survey, the vacancy rate in Maebashi is 15.9 percent, which is higher than the national average of 13.5 percent. Officials decided they had to do something about it and boldly earmarked a ¥200 million budget program. The idea is that the owner or purchaser of a vacated property receives subsidies for renovating an existing structure. Under such circumstances, the owner would receive either ¥1 million from the city or one-third of the cost of renovation, whichever is higher.

Other local governments have similar programs, but what makes Maebashi’s different is the “special cases” that offer even more money. For instance, the city will pay a resident of Maebashi ¥200,000 toward the renovation of a vacant home if it is within one kilometer of the person’s parents’ home, thus encouraging the children of elderly or soon-to-be-elderly city residents to be in close proximity so as to be able to take care of them. In the same spirit, ¥200,000 extra will also be given to people who renovate a vacant property into a two-generation abode as well as to extended families who tear down a vacant house and replace it with a new two-generation home. Read the rest of this entry »

Sub Standard

June 20, 2015 by

CIMG3720Last year we wrote a Home Truths column about real estate schemes being promoted to property owners whose legacies would be subjected to higher inheritance taxes under new government rules. Since the government also is in thrall to the construction industry, it offers tax cuts and deductions to people who build on their property or improve it. The focus of our report was on rental apartment buildings that property owners could have built by companies that would then manage them for the owners, thus killing two birds with one loan: greatly reducing the inheritance tax burden for the owners’ children, and bringing in income from the property itself.

However, according to a special report that NHK aired a few months ago, these schemes have turned out to be a great deal of trouble for property owners. Typically, a real estate company gets a landowner to build an apartment building on his piece of land and helps the landowner secure a loan. The company then guarantees a certain amount of “rent” to the landowner for the next thirty years and subleases the apartments. The company does all the work: solicting tenants, maintaining the building, collecting rents, etc. The owner simply pays for the structure and sits back and collects money. Or, at least, that’s how the scheme is sold.

The NHK program profiled an elderly farm couple living in Gunma Prefecture. Though both are in their 70s, they continue to work the land, but don’t have the energy to work all of their land any more. However, if they let part of it go fallow, the property taxes for that portion will go up. And then there was the inheritance taxes to think about when they died. Ten years ago they were approached by a real estate company who had a plan that would solve all their problems and set them up with a monthly income for the rest of their lives. All they had to do was take out a ¥100 million loan to build an apartment building on the unused portion of their land. They took the offer. Read the rest of this entry »

Year zero (1)

April 19, 2015 by

CIMG3311Two weeks ago we received a phone call from N, the salesman at A-1 whom we worked with when we built our house. There was a young couple who were thinking of asking A-1 to build a house for them, but they hadn’t yet secured a piece of land. Apparently, their desires are similar to what ours were: an area that had a bit more nature than your average subdivision. They currently lived in Matsudo, which is about 45 minutes west of us.

The request was a surprise. A-1 doesn’t advertise, since advertising adds to their overhead and thus to the cost of their products. They don’t build model homes for the same reason. When a potential customer wants to get an idea firsthand of what their homes are like, they ask past, presumably satisfied customers if they can bring the potential customers in for an inspection. We did it ourselves when we started looking for homes and read about A-1’s philosophy and design concepts, and were impressed, much more so than with any manufacturer’s model home display. In A-1’s case, you get to see how the owner is actually living in the house designed for them.

However, we thought our home may have been too individualistic for this kind of tour. When N called we had just received the property tax bill for the house and land. Since we moved in after January 1, 2014, we didn’t have to worry about a tax bill for the house until this calendar year, and last summer, when a city official came to assess our property, he almost laughed, implying that what we had wasn’t really worth that much. The tax bill seemed to bear out that implication. The estimate for the house came to less than ¥50,000. Of course, that wasn’t based on an assessment of the market value of the house, but nonetheless, even if you take into account the special deduction that reduces the amount due on a building for tax purposes to one-sixth its assessed value, the assessment was much less than what we paid for it a year ago. We’re not sure what that means, but we do understand that our house is unusual and, perhaps, not the kind of thing that would attract the average buyer: the kitchen and bath are on the second floor, the bedroom on the first; few doors and walls. It was designed to be inexpensive and to satisfy our peculiar needs, so it wasn’t exactly marketable, especially when you compare it to the vast majority of Japanese homes, which, we assume, reflect market demand. We had to assume that N was bringing the couple here because of the environment–the surrounding woods and such–which would give them an idea of what A-1 could accomplish in such a place. Read the rest of this entry »

Home Truths for April 2015

April 5, 2015 by

HereCIMG3976 is our latest Home Truths column, about public housing in Japan and, more specifically, Tokyo. One point inadvertently removed during the editing process is that Tokyo’s public housing system is called toei jutaku. Koei jutaku is a general term for all public housing, anywhere. Kuei jutaku is public housing facilities run by an individual city ward (ku), etc.

Too much sharing

March 20, 2015 by
A share house in Adachi Ward, Tokyo

A share house in Adachi Ward, Tokyo

The Western, or, at least, American, idea of communal living has never caught on in Japan. It’s common for college students in the U.S. to rent a house together and share living expenses, and many continue this sort of living arrangement until they get married or make enough money to live alone. In Japan, it’s more common for college students who live away from home to rent small rooms if they don’t live in dormitories, but in any case, out of school they tend to live with their parents until they marry or may continue renting small apartments by themselves. The concept of small-scale shared abodes is rare, not so much because it’s not popular but because the housing market has never been accepting of such a situation. Landlords tend to be uncomfortable with multiple renters.

But for at least a decade now, something called “share houses” have become more prominent in Tokyo and other major cities. In most cases, they are commercial enterprises, houses built and maintained by companies for the express purpose of making money, and in that regard there’s very little difference between them and traditional Japanese apartments where individual units share toilet and kitchen facilities. What you usually get is a number of bedrooms, a communal living space that includes a kitchen, a communal shower, and a toilet or two. The tenants are coed and may or may not interact with one another. Of course, there has also been an increase in the number of conventional houses renovated so as to accommodate multiple individuals and which are closer to the American “roommate” style living situation, but share houses are more common.

But not common enough. A story that Tokyo Shimbun has been following since last fall shows that the authorities still don’t know what to do about share houses in terms of legal administration. An article that appeared in the paper in January described an anonymous, 41-year-old single woman and her daughter who started living in a share house in Kunitachi, Tokyo, in the spring of 2013. The woman makes a living as a freelance illustrator, but her income is not stable, so she applied for child allowances from the Kunitachi city office and received two payments, the jido fuyo teate, which is provided by the central government, and the jido ikusei teate, which is provided by Tokyo Prefecture. Combined, these two allowances, which in principle go to the children of single parents, amounted to about ¥40,000 a month. The money was approved by Kunitachi, which administers both allowances. Read the rest of this entry »

Passive Houses: A conversation with Kevin Meyerson

October 31, 2014 by

While doing research for our November 2014 Home Truths column in the Japan Times, we talked to Kevin Meyerson, who has lived in Japan for 25 years and recently sold his web design business in Tokyo and moved to Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture, where he built a passive house. Our conversation about his new home lasted more than an hour, and, obviously, only a small part could be used in the article. Here’s a bit more.

-How did you find out about passive houses?

We bought land in Karuizawa in 2010 and I was going to commute to Tokyo. I wanted to build an environmentally friendly house. My company had gotten ISO 14001 certifications several years before and I became more aware of energy efficiency and environmental issues concerning the use of energy, so I wanted to build an energy efficient house and looked at Japanese smart houses. There’s a new Japanese standard being considered for 2020 and I looked into those houses, and then I found out about LEED in the U.S., which is similar to CASBEE here in Japan, and I talked to the LEED architect for a while and found out through him about passive houses and that there was an architect who just brought the standard to Japan. She built the first one in Kamakura in 2009. There’s about ten now in Japan and a bunch more under construction. It’s going really fast, actually.

The LEED architect’s comment sort of blew me away with regard to passive houses. “I could probably build you a house that could be heated by a single candle, but why would you want to do that?” But my thinking was, if you can do that why wouldn’t you? So I contacted the architect who brought the passive house standard to Japan and she was quite busy but we were in a rush, and about nine months later her schedule became open and she decided to take on the project.

-Is LEED a company?

No, it’s a standard in the U.S. In Japan there’s a similar kind of system, though it’s not really a standard. It’s a checklist: Do you have solar panels on your house? Do you eat organic? There’s a whole bunch of stuff indirectly related to environmentally sound living. It’s been adopted by some architects who want to make environmentally friendly structures.

-Is it like LOHAS?

It’s a bit more formal than that. The passive house is a very simple standard in that it’s extremely focused on energy consumption on a per-square-meter-of-floor-space basis. If you have a square meter of floor space in your house you can only use 120 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. There are a couple of other standards besides overall energy consumption, but it’s focused on reducing the amount of energy you use per square meter while maintaining a comfortable living environment. The LEED standard, like CASBEE in Japan, is broader. It’s not just about energy consumption. It’s about a whole bunch of things. Some people think that’s a better way to do it, but if you build a house that’s LEED-certified it still can consume a lot of energy, so some people have been criticizing LEED and CASBEE as being a means of looking environmentally friendly without actually being environmentally friendly.

-When you first decided to build a passive house, did you have a model you looked at?

I looked up a bunch of stuff on the net and found that the passive house standard is quite common in Europe. And it’s becoming more common in the U.S. as well. And in all the cases the comments of people who lived in passive houses was that they never knew how comfortable a house could be, or now that they live in one they couldn’t live anywhere else. Read the rest of this entry »

You Got to Move (2)

July 5, 2014 by

CIMG3375The move was relatively straightforward and painless, and even cleaning up the apartment turned out to be less of a hassle that it’s been at other apartments when we left, mainly due to the fact that we were only there a little more than two-and-a-half years.

CIMG3349But the settling-in has taken time; not so much the arranging of furniture and figuring out storage options, but wondering about all the stuff we told A-1 we didn’t need because we were going to do all that ourselves. As mentioned previously, we had no real idea what the place would look like once it was finished, so we didn’t want to predecorate it and then later find out that it didn’t work; which is the way most people go about building a house. In the weeks leading up to the move we had bought shelves and racks and lights and curtain rods and curtains as we assessed the interior during its evolution into living space. We still needed blinds on all the windows, floor coverings, ceiling fans–not to mention extra counter space, since all we had was the kitchen island on the second floor. Though we aren’t huge fans of Ikea, we decided to do a run on the home furnishings monolith since it would just be easier to order what we needed all in one place and have it delivered all at one time. As usually happens when people go there, we left exhausted, frustrated, and a little abashed at the fact that we had let the place get to us. But we found most of the stuff we needed.

CIMG3275We ordered one set of drapes for the bedroom at Mujirushi, but their blinds were over-priced, we thought, and there wasn’t much of a selection in terms of colors. So we went to Nitori, a home furnishings store that’s a notch or two below Muji in terms of stylistic cachet. We were quite pleasantly surprised with the selection of blinds–about a hundred different colors–and they could custom make each set to the exact specifications of the windows, which were all different sizes. Nine sets came to a little more than ¥100,000. Later we ordered lace curtains for the smaller windows on the north side of the house, 7 in all, and it was less than ¥20,000. For the two square windows in the “living room” (more of a nook) we bought Japanese noren–the curtains that hang at the entrances to restaurants and public baths–and put them over the windows suspended from pipe we bought at our local DIY store. Read the rest of this entry »

You got to move (1)

April 23, 2014 by

CIMG3122As we expected, the builder wasn’t going to finish our house by the original completion date. When they finally gave us a definite date, it turned out to be about five weeks later than the one planned. Since we had never really believed they would be able to finish by that date it wasn’t as if we had to struggle with the news, but we did need some kind of timeframe so that we could plan our move and take care of certain administrative matters.

The most immediate problem was that five extra weeks meant at least another month’s rent, or more than ¥100,000, not to mention associated utility bills. We are supposed to give the management of the building where we live, the semi-public housing authority UR, at least 2 weeks notice, which is actually pretty good. Private landlords usually insist on at least a month’s notice. In any case we were able to coordinate our moving plans with relative ease after A-1 set the completion date.

CIMG3130A stickier issue had to do with the loan we had taken out with JA Bank. As we said in an earlier post, the conditions for the loan and the conditions for payment to A-1 stipulated in the building contract in some ways worked at cross-purposes. Though the loan was approved even before construction started, we wouldn’t receive any money until the house was completed, which is normal policy. However, A-1 insisted on being paid in three installments: one-third upon conclusion of the contract, a second third when the roof beams were raised, and the final third upon completion. So already we had paid for two-thirds of the house out of our own savings, and that doesn’t even include what we paid for the land itself. Altogether, it meant we had put out close to ¥15 million even before the loan money would be ready for transfer to A-1’s account. So we had to bring in some money from our portfolio in the U.S., which wasn’t a problem since that is what that money was for, but until the loan money was made available our cash flow was a bit precarious.

Moreover, there were a bunch of documents we had to submit to JA before the money transfer could be implemented. Some of these had to be completed by A-1, including the invoice, which required some negotiations with young N, who didn’t always seem to know what was needed. Though the house itself was near completion, the septic tank had yet to be sunk into the ground, and that meant the plumbing hadn’t even been started. All these costs were finalized but we needed to give the bank an exact number. We also had to get documents from various public offices about the land transfer and the city inspection, most of which were routine but when we verified it all with the loan officer he said they all would eventually have to indicate our new address, the one we hadn’t moved into yet. And since one of these documents was proof of residency (juminhyo) issued by the city office, if we got it now we would just have to go again in a few weeks to get a new one because in principle you can’t change your resident status until you’ve actually moved. It was a Catch-22 situation: the loan wouldn’t be fully transferable until we were registered at the new address, but we couldn’t register our new address with the city office until the house was finished, and that required transferring the last payment to A-1. We wondered whether or not we were the first homeowners in Japan who ever had to face this dilemma. Read the rest of this entry »

A new reality every day

March 22, 2014 by

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 by

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.


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