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Why don't more people renovate homes in Japan?

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There's rarely a day that goes by where I don't come home to find leaflets crammed into my letter box offering the latest plots of land or new housing developments near my apartment. So a few months ago I decided to spend some of my free time really looking into the housing market in my current area. It was more for curiosity than genuine interest as I plan on moving to a completely different city in a few years anyway, but I am still interested in what you can get for your money here.


I found a few blogs detailing the experiences of a couple of foreigners and their experiences of contracting an agency or an independent builder to build their own houses here, but I have yet to come across a blog where someone has renovated an older Japanese house. I, for the life of me, cannot figure out why some of the older houses I come across are being not renovated, but torn down and having a new house built in its place. It seems logical that houses which are falling apart be demolished, but there are plenty of houses here that were only built in the 80's or 90's being torn down. Most of them just need to be modernized and renovated.


I came saw a house near my apartment a few months ago that was being sold. The plot of land was pretty big, and the house was built in the early 90's, but the asking price was just a few million ¥, whereas that same house in the UK would be 20 times the price. Then right around the corner there was an house built on a plot about half that of the first one, and the price there was close to ¥30m. After a bit of research I figured that with some renovation, structural work and maintenance, the house could be as good as new with about half the budget of the newer but smaller house. I get that Japanese people love 'new' things, but surely the massive difference in price would encourage more people to renovate instead of rebuild, right?


There are also a few home improvement shows here, so there is obviously some interest that people have in renovation.


Also, earthquake regulations count for part of the reason, but there are still houses that could pass the inspections here which are still torn down. Even many older houses only need to be updated with minor improvements to pass most inspections, so what is it? Are people really keen on renovating houses and I just am not able to hear about it, or is there some regulation or issue that I am missing that makes it impossible to do so?


I am genuinely curious as it seems like such an obvious idea to me, yet most people are choosing to build new houses instead. If anyone has any information or opinions they want to share, that would be great.
 
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I think the renovations would be more costly than you might imagine. If memory serves, there were some scandals about substandard building including insulation and wiring, so that would add to the costs. Also, many people just can't imagine living in a place where others have been for such a long time (don't ask me how they reconcile that fact when it comes to renting apartments).
 

Mike Cash

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The use of insulation is a relatively recent thing in Japanese houses. There used to be an aversion to it, with people thinking it would make the houses smotheringly hot in the summer. I seriously doubt many of those houses you see from the 80s and 90s have any insulation in them at all. Perhaps a bit in the ceiling, if that.

If you're watching the same home renovation show I watch, surely you must have noticed that ripping out the walls often reveals some incredibly shoddy materials and/or dubious workmanship. Sometimes things are so bad that it would make far more sense to just go ahead and tear the whole building down and start over, but since it is a renovation show they keep a few columns or something in place, brace the hell out of it, and keep on with the project.

I haven't bothered googling it, but I'm pretty sure a search would reveal various tax incentives, subsidies, etc for new construction which aren't available to people doing renovations.

Just because you haven't noticed it doesn't mean there isn't that much renovation going on, though. Many people will install a "system kitchen" (in place of the old standard dreadful thing which always struck me as an afterthought once the house was built) or perhaps modernize their bath area. There are lots of businesses catering to the "reform" (リフォーム) trade. In fact, I would say that there has been quite a noticeable increase in them compared to just a few years ago. (Same with funeral halls). If anything, renovations are perhaps undergoing a boom.

You may not have noticed blogs for a few reasons:

  • There aren't as many foreigners here as we all think there are
  • Most of them don't buy houses at all, new or old
  • Lots of the old-timers who are more likely to have bought houses and done renovations have little to no online presence
  • Not everybody who does have an online presence necessarily has a blog
So the potential pool of foreigners you're going to find blogging about fixing up an old house is, I would believe, really quite small. Have you tried looking on Japanese people's blogs? They own most of the houses here and account for most of the renovations...by a very large margin.

There are Japanese companies which buy old houses, completely renovate them, and "flip" them for a profit, by the way.

A couple of perhaps unrelated points about existing housing:

Japan currently has a tremendous oversupply of existing homes. Tons and tons of homes are sitting empty. Some have been empty a decade or more.

Property tax on an empty lot is about six times higher than on a lot with a house on it, so people will frequently leave worthless (unsaleable) homes standing until such time as the property can be sold. It doesn't matter how decrepit the house is or if it is vacant; the tax break remains. So the houses you see being torn down could be "placeholder" houses for tax purposes or it could be that the buyer wanted that particular area, but not that particular house.

By the way, if you read Japanese real estate listings on very low priced properties you will sometimes see listed how much extra the price will be to tear down the house/foundation and haul it away, leaving the lot ready for new construction.
 
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We've owned for maybe 23 years now. Here are a few tibits.

We've never done anything to the outside of the house (or the tile roof), tho there are plenty of offers to clad a house in a new layer of siding as a supposed "reform".

We've had windows replaced. This includes the framing that the new ones glide back and forth in. In our living room, which has one wall of windows, we went from four panels each to two panels each (new ones are pair glass).

We had our kitchen redone maybe 12-15 years ago. Kind of a combo of system and non-system kitchen. I did the cushion floor and some of the walls, they put in more wall surface and custom counter, sink, dishwasher, all new wiring, some gas plumbing, of course new burners & gas oven, etc. Cost about ¥2.5M, and well worth it over the years. (Since then, we're on our second new dishwasher, and maybe third set of burners/grill. Also had a solenoid in the oven replaced instead of buying a new oven--cooking in a gas oven is just sooooo nice.)

I've done some other work on the place. About the same time as we did the kitchen, I rebuilt a porch off that same kitchen (in US parlance, a non-permitted, illegal structure). I also added on a similarly illegal 2x3.5 meter extension to expand another room in the house.

All in all, at this point in our lives, it's fine. It was comparatively cheap and paid off long ago. But we're getting older, approaching retirement, and so we've discussed whether to TOTALLY reform this place, or just sell it and buy something new.

The total reform: They take the place down to the barest sticks/skeleton--there's some legal limit about the degree of this, and I'm sure they go right up to the line. They even replacing what's rotted or termite-damaged about that skeleton. Then they build you a new house from there. Yes, there are conditions--the new place cannot exceen the size of the old, footprint cannot change, etc., but you basically get a new house.

But it's also not a brand new house. An advantage to this is that taxes remain as they were before. You have reformed, but you have not rebuilt--your structure it is still classed as a 30-40+ year old house. Taxes are low, but someone who wanted to buy it from you would have trouble at the loan window. It's effectively new, but it's officially old, so good luck getting a loan on it.

If you simply sell and move, you'll just move one time. If you do this kind of reform, you'll have to move away for maybe five-six months, and then move back when it's done.

Doing this costs at least as much as buying a new house. So if you like your location, maybe something sentimental about it, or if money is not a problem, this kind of reform could be okay. And over the years, if you stay, the tax savings can add up. We've checked, and they will not rebuild our porch or that other room extension--I would have to do that after the fact. We've got a good location, but we're not sure if it's good enough to go the total reform route vs. just moving and buying something new.

And just to be clear, the total reform route would not really buy us any resale value. That would probably be negative. People who do this do it for themselves, not as an investment tactic.
 
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I am sure there are many blogs out there written by Japanese people. Sadly, while I understand a little Japanese, it is nowhere near good enough to read those kinds of blogs. I am always keeping my eyes out for them though. I'm glad to hear the reform business is in a kind of boom here. That'll make it easier to go out and get new information.

Depending on how old a house is I would assume that there would need to be some work done with the wiring, insulation, roof and the frame of a house, but if you can find someone worth their salt, they should be able to give you a decent rundown of what areas need work before you make any decisions to buy a used house. So you should have a pretty decent idea of rough costs before you even buy a used house.

So, let's say you find a decent plot of land with a house that is made in the 80's. You will have to modernize it, maybe replace the roof and some of the wiring and plumbing. Do you still think it would come close to the price of buying/building a brand new house? I guess it depends on the person too, but for me most of the modernizing aspects like painting, installing new fixtures and fittings etc. I could do myself, to my specs too. And I wouldn't have to pay it all out at once, but could take my time doing it when and how I want. While ¥2.5 million is a lot of money, a kitchen is one of, if not the, most expensive parts of a house to renovate.

I was listening to a Freakanomics podcast a few months back, and they mentioned that almost 50% of houses in Japan are demolished within 38 years, and 60% of all house here were built after 1980. On top of this, Japanese houses are almost worthless after 30 years.

So let's say you find a decent house to rent out for ¥70,000 a month. Over 38 years, that would mean you will spend a little over ¥31 million yen on rent for a house. If you can find a house/apartment for ¥60,000 that would be around ¥27 million. Let's say you take a similar amount of money and buy a house instead, then after 30 years it is literally worthless, in fact, because the land has some value, you may to reduce the price a little to conpensate for the price of getting a bulldozer in, so at this point you can choose to continue as normal, renovate or rebuild. Now, I understand that not everyone does this. There are always going to be people who take care of their houses and make then last a long-time, but judging my the state of a lot of the houses I see here, I don't think that is too many.

You know, writing this all out has got me thinking, maybe not buying a house at all is the better option; flexibility to move anytime you want, never have to worry about the cost of repairing a house, you can move to a newer house when the one you have starts to look a little hagard etc.

I guess considering that from everything I have heard and read, it seems that you should only really buy a new house here if you want to have something that is built exactly to your specifications and design. Somewhere that is all tailed to you and your family. There is no investment in it, so financially you will never make money, but something you can say was designed and 'built' by you. That being said, refurbishing an older house is no different, as you most likely be unable to sell it on later, however, because it is assumed that the house itself will be torn down, you can get 8LDK houses for just a few million yen. And then decide how much you really want to improve it. And because older houses are literally worthless, you are basically just paying for the land.

This is just my perspective though. I love hearing from other people who have a lot of information on this too.

JohhnyG, seeing as you have bought a house, but also done revonations on it too, all things being equal, what would be your overall recommendation to someone like myself who is decided between buying new or renovating an older house (that has been inspected to make sure it isn't completely decrepit)?
 
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Another point to keep in mind is that many businessmen and their families have to uproot and move every 2-3 years because the businessman is forced to transfer. That kind of makes keeping a house moot. In many cases, the husband alone will move and end up staying in company-provided dorms, so that his kids have a stable situation in school. My wife and her parents shuffled all across the country, and she never made any friends or claimed a hometown all her life for this reason. Even now, her brother (who is around 40 and works for Hokuden) has this happen, and he's lucky that his wife can easily find work anywhere and they don't have any kids.
 
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... It was more for curiosity than genuine interest as I plan on moving to a completely different city in a few years anyway, ...
If you're going to move, even if you might move, then don't buy. Wait until you are comfortably permanent to do so. Your 38-year math seems correct, given that you will not move...

Houses here are not investments--new, old, or anything in between. New/newer would be nicer to live in, but if you are the handyman type (or willing to try), you could try an older place. You might get it for "the value of the land" or a little more, and perhaps be able to sell it for about the same money.

It has been a while, but I think it is still the case that a new house that's up to 12 yrs old qualifies for a mortgage deduction on your taxes (a reason to buy new). So when a new house hits its 13th year and that disappears, that's a disincentive for any prospective buyer. Possibly not make-or-break, but still a factor, and resale value will take a step down at that point.

Also, the predicted population collapse in Japan could eventually have a big impact on land/housing prices. Directly, since the pool of probable buyers will shrink, and indirectly, since that will have other effects thru the economy that will affect how buyers/sellers deal with property. In the late 80s it was Japan As Number One, China had only just begun to wake up, and now look at the world today. Yes, there can be other factors--the olympics boom, new shinkansen service, and maybe Abe-nomics will really result in 2% inflation (including rising land prices). Who knows?
 
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Mike Cash

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52 used homes in Tochigi Prefecture priced under five million yen

If you're looking at staying here for decades...which is the vibe I get...please allow me to strongly encourage you to as quickly as possible develop your Japanese skills, especially literacy. It is the best gift you could possibly give yourself if you're going to stay here.
 
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I think for myself it is the lack of permanency that is the biggest hurdle I have against buying anything right now. I guess for me the truth is that unless something drastic changes I don't think I will ever really be in a position where I wouldn't have to worry about work etc. But living like that is hard, so eventually there are decisions that need to be made, which is why I am spending so much time right now trying to look at the best way forward with a lot of aspect of my life. However, one perk to being an English teacher is that no matter where I end up, I am pretty confident that I would at least be able to pick up private students if I couldn't get a FT position. It is a silver lining to what might otherwise be a difficult situation to be in.

My Brother-in-law has a job where he always has that threat of having to move to the other side of Japan for work hanging over his head. He finally decided to buy his own house recently, because he basically had the same opinion that he would rather his wife and children have some stability in their lives even if he had to move by himself. Luckily, his company hasn’t told him to move yet, but the possibility has been real a few times. I would really hate to live like that personally. I can't imagine anything more frustrating than being forced to live away from your family. I wish more people would stand against this practice here, for the sake of their families.

I think in terms of housing, it's better not to think of it has an investment (which is really isn't) and instead think of it like a canvas that you can do what you want with. Some people prefer to have a completely blank canvas and decide every little thing about it, and then have someone else paint it; whereas there are other people who can see the value in someone else's old canvas and feel that they can touch it up and then add their own paint to it. Then there are other people who happy enough to look at other people's canvases knowing that they can't change it in anyway, and then get another canvas whenever they want to. OK. I'm done with this metaphor. I didn't realize that there were such tax breaks for new houses. This kind of information makes me wonder just want else I don't know about the potential benefits to buying a new house vs renovating.

You know, learning Japanese is one of my top priorities right now. My only regret coming to Japan is that I didn't take any classes before coming here. I can have a relatively simple conversation with someone, no problem, but anything more advanced than that becomes a struggle. I started taking it seriously about a year ago, and I have come a long way since then, but I still have a long way to go. Self-studying is great, especially as my wife can help me out when I get stuck, but I think I would do so much better with classes, which at the moment near me they are only offered during the daytime Monday to Friday. I am much more motivated when I work with other people, not just with studying, but with sports, working out etc. Also, I kind of wish I was more of a Japanophile. Don't get me wrong, I really like living in Japan, but I don't really like Manga, anime or all that fun stuff, so my drive to study Japanese comes more from being able to communicate with my wife's family, and less about the fun of studying Japanese. The more I study the easier it gets though. Anyway...
 
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I kind of wish I was more of a Japanophile. Don't get me wrong, I really like living in Japan, but I don't really like Manga, anime or all that fun stuff
Is that all the reason you can think of for a person being a Japanophile? Pretty limited thinking, if you ask me.
 
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Is that all the reason you can think of for a person being a Japanophile? Pretty limited thinking, if you ask me.
If you are talking about the broad definition, then of course not. I am simply stating that from the perspective of someone trying to find some motivation to study Japanese more, I wish I had more interest in manga and anime, both of which use a lot of written and spoken Japanese. It would give me more incentive to study harder because then I would have a more tangible goal to aim towards, instead of having such an open goal of 'know Japanese'.

Of course knowing Japanese would help if you were interested in other cultural aspects of Japan, like it's foods, history etc. but being able to understand manga and anime is a pretty common reason people study Japanese, right?
 

Mike Cash

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It's not about being a Japanophile. It's not about being able to enjoy mass-produced pop culture bubble gum for the brain like cartoons and comic books. It's about being able to wipe your own figurative a$$ in your daily life and have the dignity that goes with it. It's about not having to be led around by the hand like a small child by a spouse, Japanese coworker, or even your own kid every time you need to transact some of the plain mundane affairs of life such as going to the doctor, taking care of things at city hall, looking up something on the internet, reading your own mail, making your own phone calls, reading things from your kid's school, talking to the teachers, and all the other things that lack of Japanese ability and illiteracy cause you to have to lean on others to do for you because you haven't a prayer of doing them yourself.

It's about escaping the limited world of the gaijin bubble, where everybody lives in a state of profound ignorance and dependence. It's about expanding your circle of Japanese acquaintances beyond the self-selecting group which seeks you out just because you're a gaijin and being able to interact with people who will include you in things even though you're a gaijin (and finding out that they are usually far more pleasant company, those people who don't give a sh!t that you're a gaijin). It's about discovering for yourself that all the talk gaijins love to talk among themselves about how Japanese are racist and exclude gaijins and how no matter how long you're here you'll never be accepted, and other such rot is just slander and ridiculous self-serving bullsh!t from people who never made the effort to break out of the gaijin bubble and haven't the slightest clue (nor can you convince them) that 90% of their isolation and segregation is self-imposed.

It's about discovering that Japan is an entirely different country when you don't have to make being a gaijin the central theme of your existence here. It's about discovering that people are willing to overlook your gaijinity as being just a sort of skin condition if you have some common reason for interacting and they don't have to constantly worry about translating for you or dumbing everything down for you.

Japanese for me is just a tool of daily life. I didn't study it because of an interest in cartoons or comic books. I studied it because I didn't want to be eternally dependent on others and because the prospect of decades stuck in the farcical world of English teaching was enough to make me want to slit my throat. Japanese ability got me out of that. I had to show I was literate and thank God I had bothered to learn to read Japanese or I would be one of those pathetic miserable middle-aged guys stuck in eikaiwa hell.

There's more to read than comic books. You have no idea how much of the flood of information around you that you're missing just going through daily life even if you never pick up a book. And you have no idea what a wealth of stuff there is out there in Japanese books, lots of interesting things which remain totally beyond the reach of 99% of the gaijins here who will never bother to learn how to read them....and who largely won't bother to read them even if they do learn how to read. Plenty of informative non-fiction on all sorts of subjects (I've read extensively on all aspects of the Japanese criminal justice system...info which just simply isn't available in English books, at least none aimed at the layman). There is plenty of good fiction available, novels and short stories. And I'm here to tell you that reading any of it you want to doesn't have to be a chore and that none of it has to be inaccessible to you.

Quite frankly, the people whose motivation is to learn Japanese for cartoons and comic books never seem to show that much meaningful progress, from what I've seen. Maybe it is because they tend to be outside Japan and have no real need for it. You can choose to live inside the gaijin bubble and have no need for it yourself if you wish. Japan will certainly go out of its way to accommodate you on that. Or you can choose to work toward being able to conduct your own affairs and do things for yourself with the dignity of an intelligent, literate, adult the same way you would take for granted doing in your own country and in the way I would suspect you would wish immigrants to your own country to do. You might have to wake up and go to bed every day as a gaijin, but that doesn't mean you have to spend the time in between being one.

Japanese proficiency and literacy will open doors to opportunities you would otherwise never have, which will open opportunities for even greater proficiency and even more opportunities.....or you can sit pat and fester in the bubble with the rest of the masses who are very skilled at excusing themselves from learning Japanese and walking through life on their own two feet like grown men. In the end it is a personal choice.
 
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You have a tangible, practical goal, though, right here in this thread. You haven't been able to find much about house renovation in English, but there's certainly plenty in Japanese. Being able to read about/discuss renovation/DIY requires a specific subset of vocabulary which you can focus on. It's a different subset of vocab than you'd pick up reading manga (unless it's manga about house renovation).

Here are some relevant subtopics on blogmura (popular blog accumulator) under the housing section:
セルフリフォーム
リフォーム(施主)
リフォーム(業者)
リノベーション
DIY
 
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In regards to what was said about insulation, the great one is absolutely correct. I had a hell of a time trying to convince the builder that built my house that insulation is a good thing. Things got so bad that I had to take time off from work so I could make sure the interior walls were being insulated. The builder didn't want to do it, the wall board dudes didn't want to be bothered, and everybody involved thought I was crazy, and if they throw things up really quickly, I won't be able to tell.

The joke is on them because now when my wife bellows my name from downstairs, I can't hear a thing.

As to your question, the reason people rebuild rather than remodel is because Japanese wives like new things.

My advice is to find a suitable house that is vacant, and talk to the owner. There's a good chance you can rent it for almost nothing and a promise to maintain the yard. Sure, it'll be a bit cold in the winter and the water in the sink will freeze, and the toilet will look and smell more like an open septic tank, rather than Captain Kirk's command chair, but you won't be stuck living there for the rest of your life.

Just don't expect your Japanese wife to be very happy living in the totoro house.
 

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Any foreigner who thinks the hardest thing to explain to a Japanese person is the distinction between "a" and "the" is cordially invited to try explaining the benefits of insulation or the function and nature of a thermostat.
 
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I think the outer walls, floors, and ceilings of any new construction is insulated today. I've regularly seen 4cm of styro sheathing being placed over walls that already have glass wool in them. Tho it may depend on prefectural regs, all new construction here also has double-glazed windows. Tyvek or the equivalent is also everywhere.

They're expensive, but this outfit supposedly offers well-insulated homes: スウェーデンハウス|高気密高断熱の輸入住宅|住宅メーカー|スウェーデン住宅

This is just the intro: cost | Building a House In Japan
(click at the top "Building a House..." for the full story)
 
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