Flipping Japan’s Depreciating Houses

Japan Cash Flow Properties

Japan Real Estate Investment

02 Oct, 2018 –

In the suburban neighbourhood of Midorigaoka, about an hour by train outside Kobe, Japan, all the houses were built by the same company in the same factory. Steel frames fitted out with panel walls and ceilings, these homes were clustered by the hundreds into what was once a brand new commuter town. But they weren’t built to last.

Daiwa House, one of the biggest prefabricated housing manufacturers in Japan, built this town in the 60s during a postwar housing boom. It’s not unlike the suburban subdivisions of the western world, with porches, balconies and rooflines that shift and repeat up and down blocks of gently curving roads. Most of those houses built in the 60s are no longer standing, having long since been replaced by newer models, finished with fake brick ceramic siding in beiges, pinks and browns. In the end, most of these prefabricated houses – and indeed most houses in Japan – have a lifespan of only about 30 years.

Unlike in other countries, Japanese homes gradually depreciate over time, becoming completely valueless within 20 or 30 years. When someone moves out of a home or dies, the house, unlike the land it sits on, has no resale value and is typically demolished. This scrap-and-build approach is a quirk of the Japanese housing market that can be explained variously by low-quality construction to quickly meet demand after the second world war, repeated building code revisions to improve earthquake resilience and a cycle of poor maintenance due to the lack of any incentive to make homes marketable for resale.

In Midorigaoka, even the newer homes built in the 80s and 90s are nearing the end of their expected lifespan. Under normal circumstances, their days might be numbered. But down at the end of one block, there’s a sign things are changing. Scaffolding surrounds a vacant house on a corner and workers from Daiwa House are clanging away inside. They’re not demolishing the house but refurbishing it – reorganising the floor plan, knocking down walls, opening up the kitchen and enhancing the insulation. Rather than tear down the house so the next buyer can build something new, they’re rebuilding it from the inside and putting it back on the market. It’s a relatively rare commodity, but something that is increasingly common across Japan: a secondhand home. “For the first time, Japanese people are beginning to appreciate living in older homes,” says Noboru Kaihou, a Daiwa House public information officer.

Shifting citizenry

Everywhere from major metropolitan areas such as Tokyo and Osaka to struggling mid-size cities to suburban housing estates, renovated buildings are an evolving niche in the property market, emblematic of the dramatic transformation under way in Japan. The country is shrinking, with a negative growth rate that’s expected to bring its current population of about 127 million down to 88 million by 2065. It’s also an ageing society, and within 20 years over a third of its inhabitants will be 65 or older. As the population shrinks and ages, it is also concentrating into metropolitan areas, leaving millions of suburban and rural homes vacant. The current vacancy rate nationwide is about 13%, according to the Nomura Research Institute, and that figure is expected to rise above 30% by 2033.

Coupled with Japan’s stagnant economy, these statistics have many convinced that the market for new buildings will begin to dry. Like Daiwa House, many other big housing manufacturers are getting into the refurbishing business. A 45-minute drive north of Tokyo, the country’s largest prefab builder, Sekisui House, operates a home park featuring its newest models. Most cater to the high end of the market, with large multistorey layouts and luxury finishings, but tucked in a corner is a more modest two-storey house. The first floor is furnished like a typical home built in the 80s: small rooms, highly compartmentalised spaces and even a recliner in the living room. Upstairs, the same floorplan has been updated so that the kitchen opens out onto the dining area and walls are pushed back or removed altogether. A traditional tatami mat sitting room in the old layout becomes a media room, with a low couch and a flatscreen television.

For the company, these simple renovations can turn a vacant home into a new sale. “If we can remodel these old houses, their value will not decrease to zero and we won’t have to demolish them,” says Kenichi Ishida, a managing officer at Sekisui House. “Nowadays young people don’t have much money, so they won’t hesitate to buy older buildings.” In Takatsuki, halfway between Osaka and Kyoto, that economic reality is evident. “Many of the younger generation around my neighbourhood live in renovated homes,” says one 39-year-old resident. He himself lives in a renovated Sekisui House with his wife and two young children, and notes that the price of a renovated home was much lower than that of a new one. “We want to save money for taking care of our kids and parents,” he says. “For us, the renovated home located close to my parents’ home has much higher value than a newly built home that is far away.”

It’s not just the big housing manufacturers that are catching on. Zoe Ward is a Tokyo real estate agent and CEO of Japan Property Central, which specialises in finding homes for expats, and she says buyers are starting to reconsider the value of older buildings. New companies have opened in recent years that focus specifically on refreshing old spaces. “Sometimes they’ll gut the entire building to its concrete shell,” she says. “The outside won’t look any different from the buildings around it, but inside it’ll look like a brand new house.” As demand for housing grows in Tokyo, renovation companies are on the lookout for people ready to sell. “We get them calling every day,” Ward says.

‘A new lifestyle’

Renovation isn’t always an option. In the Tokyo suburb of Tachikawa, Shiro Kawashima and his wife, both middle-aged, are walking through a faux neighbourhood lined with model homes. Built by prefabricated-housing manufacturers and local carpenters, the homes are on display and available for tours guided by eager salespeople. The couple, who live nearby, are here shopping for a new home, albeit reluctantly. “I’m really proud of my old house,” he says. “It’s regrettable but I have to tear it down.”The house is 70 years old he says – a rarity – and suffering from structural damage that is prohibitively expensive to fix. Moving is also out of the budget, so his only option is to tear the old house down and build anew. The houses on display here don’t appeal to him. “Not at all,” he says, disappointed. “I just want a simple, basic structure,” he says. Like his current home.

Younger people, particularly in urban areas, have more flexible options. To accommodate them, new companies are looking beyond conventional housing. In recent years, a number of small development companies have been buying up older buildings and giving them new uses. The Tokyo-based company ReBITA has been converting apartment buildings, offices and company dormitories into shared live-work spaces – affordable rental units with common kitchens and work areas. Such spaces were uncommon in Japan just five years ago, says Azby Brown, director of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology’s Future Design Institute in Tokyo. “It’s a new lifestyle and I don’t think a lot of the big housing companies have picked up on it yet.” He says it’s as much about reducing the cost of housing as embracing a more community-oriented form of living. Some even see these types of social space as a roundabout way to reverse the country’s low birth rate. 

In the face of Japan’s demographic trends, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government is doing its own bit of social engineering as it focuses on refurbishing the mid- and high-rise apartment buildings that rose across the city during the 60s and early 70s. To give new life to these buildings, the capital is encouraging families with small children to move in by prioritising their applications. It is also helping people to qualify for housing slots if they choose to live close to their elderly parents. “All of these efforts are related to dealing with our ageing society,” says Hiroyuki Ebina, a director of planning and housing in the Bureau of Urban Development.

But it’s not just about freshening up the resident pool. The buildings in question are often maintained through tenant associations, and as older tenants die, there’s less money for upkeep and earthquake retrofits. To inject more contributions to those efforts, the national government’s Urban Renaissance Agency is trying to lure younger people into these buildings. One approach is by partnering with the minimalist retailer Muji. As well as being a global presence, the Japanese brand retains considerable cachet in its home country, where its simple, utilitarian products are widely popular. Through its association with the Urban Renaissance Agency, Muji has begun renovating and redecorating units in public housing blocks to attract younger tenants – tearing out walls, replacing clunky kitchen cabinets with open storage spaces and racks, clearing space for bicycle storage.“The old design doesn’t fit with younger people’s tastes,” says Koji Kawachi, director of Muji’s dwelling space operation, noting that many of the buildings have a cramped, overly partitioned layout. “The renovation is based on the idea that small, separated rooms can be integrated into larger spaces,” he says. The company strips the rooms of excessive finishes and replaces them with clean white surfaces and spare wood furnishings. Kawachi says the Muji units receive five to seven times as many applications as typical units.

The company has completed more than 500 renovations so far, and plans to continue with 150 to 200 units per year. With more than 750,000 housing units under its purview, the Urban Renaissance Agency has scope to experiment.

A new urban landscape

As Japan’s population shrinks and shifts, the demand for space has become increasingly uneven, which has left many small and mid-sized cities in a state of slow decline. The southern city of Kitakyushu, a former steel city, has seen its population growth rate fall to -1.5%. It’s just an hour by train from Fukuoka, the startup capital of Japan and the fifth largest city in the country, which has seen a population influx due to strategic tax incentives and foreign resident immigration reforms. But while Fukuoka is booming, Kitakyushu is emptying out.

For Mitsuhiro Tokuda, the decline was particularly evident in the city’s downtown area, a compact network of narrow commercial streets and large shopping arcades. Tokuda, a professor of architecture at the Kyushu Institute of Technology, launched a study of downtown Kitakyushu to quantify how much of the city had become vacant. With a team of students, he conducted a detailed survey to identify which buildings were partially or completely vacant and which could be reused. “But thinking can’t change anything,” he says. So he started a small business to work with property owners to renovate vacant spaces for new uses. Their first product took a vacant 5th floor and converted it into shared office spaces now used by graphics designers and video editors. Tokuda walks through the ground floor of a mid-rise building near the centre of Kitakyushu’s downtown. A former clothes factory, it had long been empty. Tokuda and his team converted it into a hodgepodge of new spaces – a community room, small offices, creative work spaces for local craftspeople, a cafe and various boutiques. One features vintage paperback books. Another display window holds a pair of leopard-print loafers. Almost all of the spaces are now rented out.

Nearby is Mizutama Shokudo, a restaurant in a renovated space. “We like old buildings, so when we started our business, we looked for an old property from the beginning,” says co-owner Yuka Ishikawa. “We liked the fact that this building is not facing a busy main street and it’s in the peaceful, old-style shopping neighbourhood. She admits there are some downsides to older buildings. Rain sometimes leaks through its old roof and a recent fire next door partially burned some of the wood structure. But it’s part of the character of the space, she says, and works alongside the theme of the restaurant, which serves “mother’s home cooking-style” meals. “By serving that kind of meal in this old building, we would like to keep conveying the beauty of old things that have been cherished by people for a long time.”

Tokuda says he saw a bigger potential for this type of building reuse and wanted to teach others to try it for themselves. In 2011 he launched what he calls a Renovation School in which students – architects, designers and businesspeople, mostly – develop business plans for reusing vacant space. It’s a crash course, and over one week teams identify vacant spaces, survey local needs and create plans. On the final day, they pitch their plans to the property owners. Tokuda says the school has resulted in dozens of projects. Renovation Schools have now been conducted in cities across Japan, creating new retail spaces, hotels, cafes and apartments out of once-vacant buildings.

The impact is easy to see in Kitakyushu. Walking down a commercial street, Tokuda points to four different buildings on one block that have been reused or redeveloped through the Renovation School. The property owners and businesspeople have even formed an association that raised funds to re-landscape the street. Cracked asphalt on the narrow street has been replaced with square concrete paving stones, their varying shades of grey laid out like a long mosaic. Streetlights have been painted bright green and some shopkeepers, like those running a bar inside an old shipping container, have added benches and seating outside for public use. Tokuda says this approach to reusing space can be a kind of catalyst for change. “By stimulating the building, we can stimulate the neighbourhood,” he says. “It’s a form of town renovation.”

Ishikawa, the restaurant co-owner, says renovated buildings like hers represent hope for the future in Kitakyushu. “We want to create a new cycle of ‘live in the town, work in the town, and patronise the businesses in the town’.”

(Source – The Guardian, Pic – House, Tokyo / “jonathan Sare“)

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