Sunday, October 29, 2006

House hunting

After 5 years here doing our best to blend in with the locals :-) our innate British nature is coming to the fore and we've been spending some time house-hunting. I can't help but think it's a bit crazy to consider buying, as we have no job security and currently live almost rent-free in a very nice house in a beautiful neighbourhood (technically, our employer rents the house and sublets to us at a massive discount through a rather Byzantine scheme). On top of the job situation we don't even have the right of permanent residency in Japan (nor any chance of getting this within the next 5 years, unless we take the drastic step of actually trying to take Japanese nationality). However, living in a rented house has its drawbacks, and it looks like we might well spend the next 5 years here - and that's not saying that we would necessarily wish to leave at that time, merely that we've never found it worthwhile looking any further ahead than that. Our current house has no fewer than 5 sets of single glazed French windows, no real heating, and a northerly aspect, which makes it rather chilly (as low as 3C indoors) all through the winter. Moreoever, although our landlady is very nice, the fussy rules (no pets, no decoration, not even a nail in the wall to hang a picture) are a bit wearing.

In contrast to the UK, renting here is common and buying is relatively rare. In fact it seems like most Japanese basically live at home until they are about 35, perhaps renting a shoe-box to live in during the weeks if their job is far away from home. I think many of them pretty much wait to inherit rather than trying to buy by themselves - and the paternalistic behaviour of Japanese companies (many of which have subsidised rental schemes like ours) helps to discourage buying, as does the high price of property.

Being rather eccentric cyclists (even by Japanese standards) we don't have quite the same requirements as most Japanese, which means there are actually some reasonable bargains to be had - being a 5 minute walk from the station is a drawback, not a selling point for us (been there, done that, suffered the sleepless nights from trains passing the window every 3 mins for 20 hours of the day).

We even got as far as putting in a derisory informal offer on a rather nice new home last week. By the time we had convinced the estate agent that we really were offering that sum of money for that particular house, rather than asking to see cheaper properties, it had been sold to someone else. Most recently, we looked at one that is 6 flights of steps up a steep hillside from the nearest road, with an astonishing (by local standards) 800m2 of land included (mostly a steep hill side). I'm not sure that we could ever re-sell it but it is only money, after all. It would almost be worth it just to see the removals men struggling to get our furniture up the hill...


Hank Roberts said...

>six flights of steps up

Definitely would be worth building a little rail- or cable-car for a slope like that, controlled by a cog gear or a counterweight (not human-rated, but to carry bicycles and groceries and such).

Is that area measured on a flat map, or are they calculating the surface area on the slope?

James Annan said...

Yes, I've already been having all sorts of little fantasies about how to arrange things - fortunately, the house itself is in great condition (a little-used holiday home, less than 10 years old) but the surrounding land is completely wild with plenty of scope for "improvement".

I'm pretty sure the area quoted will be that of a flat map, although in reality there isn't much difference anyway for a slope of up to 30 degrees or so (which is probably about what the hillside is). The house itself is right on the top of a ridge in a flat ~300m^2 clearing.

jules said...

>Definitely would be worth building a little rail- or cable-car for a slope like that, controlled by a cog gear or a counterweight (not human-rated, but to carry bicycles and groceries and such).

And pizza? The pizza delivery guy puts the pizza on the trolley. We click a button and a minute later it trundles into our kitchen, and then we send down the cash. :-)


Anonymous said...

When I was a kid, we lived in Japan (my dad was a housing architect in the US Navy.) I remember the three or four houses we lived in as all having thin uninsulated walls and the floors in many rooms were tatami mats above bare dirt. It got cold in the winter.

One house we lived in was a three story affair up the side of a hill. (We had occasional great views of Mount Fuji from Hayama.) My dad had (still has) a coffee table he built in college: the surface is two inches of stone. It's heavy. It was interesting watching the movers get that into the house and back out a couple of years later. My dad still tells the story.

James Annan said...


Sounds like building codes have changed little since then :-)

A big attraction of the house we previously looked at was that it had double glazing throughout - just about the only time we have ever seen this in Japan. We mentioned this to a Japanese colleague, which got the reply "what is that for?"

Anonymous said...

>In contrast to the UK, renting here is common and buying is relatively rare.

I do not know the situation of UK, but the situation of Japan is not simple.

Your statement is true if "buying" does not include buying an apartment
and if "here" means the area around Tokyo.
(I consider that Kamakura is now a part of suburb of Tokyo,
even though in the 15th century, when Kamakura was one of the political
centers of Japan, Edo (Tokyo) was just a new outpost in its hinterland.)

It seems that renting was really common and buying was relatively rare
before industrialization.

Probably since 1960s, the idea of owning a house became popular.
I suspect that the idea is deliberately promoted by the government
for the sake of growth of economy whether or not it results in welfare.
(Inheritance is not usually expected for many reasons, one of which
is that the lifetime of a typical house in Japan has been short.)
But, in the areas of high population density, ordinary people can afford
to buy only apartments (which are hyperbolically called "mansions").
Only in the areas of lower population density --at the fringe of suburbs
and in rural areas-- buying stand-alone houses is common.

On the other hand, since the early 20th century, many companies, especially
large manufacturing companies which had factories in various parts of
the country, built houses (usually row houses or flats) for their workers
and provided nearly free of charge. The companies wanted to keep their
workers near the factories, and they also wanted to ease transfer of
workers from one factory to another.

But this scheme is not popular in urban areas.
It is difficult to find good places to build.
Also, many white-collar workers do not like to live surrounded by
people of the same company both day and night.
Urban families usually either rent or buy apartments individually.

When JAMSTEC was established it was not allowed to have corporate houses
(except in remote locations where there were no adequate housing).
But it must satisfy workers transferred from manufacturing companies.
They usually go back to the companies after several years, so they do not
want to own their houses near JAMSTEC just for the limited period.
Thus the strange ("Byzantine" in your word) scheme was made.
(This is just my guess, but I think it probable.)
I do not think this is typical of Japanese corporations.

James Annan said...


Thanks for the clarification. I had basically assumed that the JAMSTEC system was intended as a sort of analogue of the dormitory system.

I found some (perhaps imperfect) statistics and my comment "buying is rare in Japan" is certainly wrong in general, with a home ownership rate of 60% here, not all that far below 71% in UK. However, in the UK, 2/3 of renting is public housing (that means poor people) leaving only about 10% private tenants. In Japan that latter figure is over 25%, and it seems to me that in my age and social (employment) group in particular the difference is very marked, even for Japanese let alone temporary residents. In fact I only know one of my colleagues in my age group who definitely owns their own house (of course I guess there may be a few more, but I know for sure that many people rent), whereas almost everyone at my former workplace in the UK bought a house within about 2 years of starting work, even when 5 years younger and without a tenured position.

There also appears to be a good range of property available to rent here, including several nice houses in my neighbourhood. Apparently a large proportion of it is not accessible to foreigners, but that is a separate issue.