I made me a house in Japan (Part 1)

Two kids, lots of ups and downs and three years in the making -- my house is finally done.  Minus all the remaining DIY stuff and of course the city finishing up their part of what needs to be done -- of course they haven't (because government care about their constituents).

I'll go with making a series of articles describing the journey of building a house in Japan. The ups, downs and difficulties we encountered and all in a possibly watered down, or greatly exaggerated writing.  Still haven't decided on that.


Series Table of Contents

  1. The beginning (current article)


Housing

There are a number of things to understand about the Japanese housing market.

  • Houses depreciate in price from the moment the place is completed.  It's like driving a new car off the lot.
    • This means the house (structure) value will eventually be worth 0.  The remaining value will be for the property only.
  • Land prices are (like everywhere) variable based on what is around it. For example:
    • Proximity to a transportation hub (primarily rail)
    • Proximity to schools, in particular 'good' schools
    • Proximity to convenience (malls, stores, etc) 
    • Reputation of the area (strong emphasis on 'ghetto' areas aka Burakumin)
    • Proximity to unwanted structures (example: factory, directly next to a rail line) or superstitious ones (example: cemetary) 
  • If someone died in the house during the previous ownership (apparently if someone died there two owners back, it doesn't need to be reported)
  • Property sizes in general for their equivalent in the west are small.  This means a suburban house in Japan generally does not have a yard.  Perhaps a small flower garden at best.

In general I find Japanese people's responses to various situations to be uniform and not that interesting (particularly when related to space in Japan).  If you ask about housing prices, or even why houses are so small.. nine out of ten times you'll get the canned response of "Japan is small!".  Also there may be notation of there being many mountains etc.  This is true, Japan does have a large number of mountains.  It does make the flat living spaces a little harder to find -- but Japan is also having a lot of issue with the young running off to live in cities where the employment opportunities are and small towns are even resorting to paying people to live in the country side.  There are a large number of abandoned houses also sitting around.  So the proper answer is.. most people like living like sardines.

Searching

There are two main ways to acquire a house.  Purchase one second hand or have one built.  At first we started by looking at the used market.  We started this quite a number of years ago, but I doubt much has changed.  At that time I did not have permanent residence.  Instead, I had a typical work visa (specifically as an 'Engineer').  I do believe an Engineer visa holds more weight than the one an English teacher holds... but more than likely it is completely subjective based on who is looking at the paperwork at the bank if you apply for a loan.  Either way, getting a loan on on anything short of permanent residence or citizenship is next to nothing.

To illustrate my point: my wife works as a house wife.  Yes, it is time consuming and counts as work.  Even more when children are involved and domestic chores.  She technically does not have external monetary income.  Even so, being a Japanese National will allow her to get a loan while I would not be able to get one.  Since I am a foreigner on a work visa, I am counted as a flight risk.  Japan is extremely risk adverse, but slowly changing with the newer generation.

Regardless, we went to a large run-of-the-mill real estate agency and started our search.  They gave us a questionnaire to get a feel of what kind of property and what area we were looking.  We filled it out, they searched and then they brought up some houses on the market.  We chose a number of them from the list and off we went in the real estate agency's car to check it all out.

In general, custom built houses on the second hand market are generally larger and have a good chance of higher quality builds and options.  At the same time, custom built houses can have some interesting quirks to them, depending on what the original designer was planning.  We found one house that was large, but the upstairs had a weird way to partition off the one large room so that it could be many smaller rooms.  It also was located right next to the rail lines so ... it could get noisy.  We also found one where the kitchen felt more like an afterthought.  It was tucked away in the corner of the living room.  Likely they wanted to create as big a living room as possible.

Other houses, designed by people working for large corporations tended to look nicer... but they also had their down sides.  Usually it was more location than anything else though.  We found one house that was a good size, looked nice, had a nice layout... but, it was located in a harder to access area due to the haphazardly way the roads had been set up.  Across the street from it was a house I would have preferred -- it had a big yard, easily time and a half larger than the rather spacious bungalow occupying the land.  It wasn't for sale though.

In the end we decided we would have to wait... since there was no way I could get a loan on the current visa.  The loan my wife (fiancee at the time) could get also had an upper limit that removed some of our potential housing contenders as well.

A few years down the road, married and with a small child we started again.  This time we went with the in-laws to a large number of show houses as well.  The original idea was to help us find a company that we could purchase from or at least get a better idea of what we actually wanted before hitting up real estate agents.  It's important to know what your priorities are -- as it is nearly impossible to find a house that matches exactly everything you want (unless you are Scrooge McDuck... then you can buy or build it however you want anyway).  Also, knowing what you're willing to flex on.

In our case... a decent size, with lots of light, well placed outlets, as safe as possible during an earthquake... those were all priorities.  After quite a few months of going to various open houses a discussion came up regarding building a house instead of buying a used one.

Searching for a builder

Talking with my father in law and wife, the idea of taking their (in-laws) house and rebuilding it came up.  They purchased it second hand and it was getting old.  The location is good (small river to the side so nobody could actually box us in), good schools, easy access to multiple train stations etc etc.  The idea was to rebuild it as a multi-generation three story house.  The first floor would belong to the in-laws and the remaining two floors for our budding family.

The trouble is, now we need someone to actually build it for us.  So the search for a suitable housing construction company began.  Of course, we're still visiting various open houses to get ideas of what we like and want for our non-existent building plans.

My wife found a few more open houses, and off we all went.  One of those open houses was with a smaller, local builder.  They answered all our questions and they had a few interesting points in the house design we saw.  My wife got their info and we planned to go visit them at their office another time.

The builders

We ended up with three builders we were looking at.  They were all local.  The largest of those three we had already met with a few times and had a simple start of architectural plans going.  We also visited one of their larger housing development sites and were able to see a few houses during the build process.

So the three builders were something along these lines:


BuilderABuilderBBuilderC
LargeMediumSmall
Well establishedEstablished, but not a big playerFairly new, offshoot of a local real estate company (primarily dealing in rented properties)
All workers in-housePrimarily contractorsPrimarily contractors
Western style constructionJapanese style constructionJapanese style construction
Well oiled feeling, big company feeling, push to get things done quickly and efficiently feelingWell oiled feeling, much more personal feeling, flexibility in allowing us to designRough around the edges, aggressive (similar to a real estate agency) feeling
Focus on smooth process and reinsurance ofFocus on customer satisfaction, personalized houseFocus on classy, good looking houses

Of the three builders we decided on BuilderB. 

BuilderA was the safe choice because it was the largest of the three, allowing them to be more accommodating regarding the speed of moving the build process along.  Though there was a feeling of us being just another number.  Also, in true typical Japanese style, the senior individual could openly mock the junior members (in an attempt at humor that is better left until everyone is more familiar) which turned me off.  That and the layout, extra fees for actually less (eg. 'rooftop balcony' costing more than a regular room with a roof over it -- it's an option!) and fast paced schedule didn't sit right with what we were hoping.

Builder C was the riskiest choice, but the model houses we did see were the best looking overall.  They prided themselves on being stylish.  The representative was originally a salesperson for the real estate agency, so that came through when speaking with him.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Japanese real estate agent.. think of a used car salesman stereotype.  They bend the truth if something doesn't sound good, they make it up if they don't know, and they even lie if it's nothing that can land them in court or isn't easily deniable and unprovable. Japanese snake oil.  Anyways.. the straw that broke the camels back here, was their proposed layout.  Due to Japanese law certain rooms are required to have a certain amount of natural lighting.  I mentioned that river along the side of the house earlier -- according to the software they were using that river and the path there, the unimpeded sunlight, simply didn't count towards the natural lighting requirements.  It had to be a road of some sort.  So the layout they gave us, claiming it was not legally changeable, had the living room in the north side of the house and hallways in the south.  The north side is almost completely boxed in by other buildings.  The south side is completely open....  also, they openly mocked Builder A as their chief rival and Builder B as too expensive. * 

Builder B was the best choice.  Not once did they badmouth their competitors - they simply acknowledged we had spoken to others when we told them and continued to focus on what we wanted, and how they could help us achieve it.  They stayed open on their pricing (noting they did not play games by trying to outbid competitors), free with answers to any questions we had along with advice when asked and had a professional, friendly atmosphere.  (for those of you looking to build a house in Osaka, feel free to contact me if you want an introduction to this company)

* Business note:  never bother to badmouth the competition.  Instead, focus on saying what you do well, and what you do better than the competition or how you mitigate where the competition is actually better.  Transparency goes a long ways -- especially when dealing with large sums of money that individuals have to think carefully of who to trust with it.


Having chosen a builder and having a property ready to develop (demolish then rebuild), we were on our way to having our own home.  Not that we were expecting it to take three years from this point until we stepped foot into the house -- but where's the adventure in quick and easy anyway? :)

In the next segment of this series, I will talk about designing the house layout, a big hiccup and finally heading into the real details of building a house.