In the United States, approximately 80% of home purchases consist of preexisting houses and the remaining 20% are for brand-new buildings. In Japan the exact opposite is true: 80% of home purchases are for brand-new houses, built either on undeveloped land or, commonly, the new owner tears down the old house sitting on the plot to build a new one.
While it’s true that oftentimes an old home being razed is more than ready to come down, the Japanese have an annoying habit of destroying perfectly good, structurally sound, and sometimes historically and architecturally significant buildings, only to replace it one supremely ugly and built of inferior materials.
Also, quite the opposite of western-world practices, when you buy a home in Japan you’re really buying the land. A brand-new, never lived in house on that land is valuable, but even our house in the city, built in 1976, was considered practically worthless when we purchased it just 30 years later, this despite the fact that it was commissioned by owners with money, judging by the high quality of wood and other details of its construction.
All of this is a prelude to us just barely averting total disaster in buying our minka in the mountains. Both Yukiyo and I figured buying the house would be easy, given that the house (and the land) cost little more than a mid-level luxury car (and 1/20 the average cost of a four-bedroom house in California, to say nothing of the land it came with). The real challenge would be securing enough of a loan to pay for the “reform” (i.e., renovation; Who do you think this house is, Leo Gorcey?) work that the house would need to become livable, about twice that cost.
I trusted Yukiyo’s judgment. She’s had lots of experience dealing with banks through her own work plus, obviously, she managed to get the home and reform loan for our house in the city – and that was many times the cost of this minka. I was ready with the “intent” and “downpayment” moneys. And with Japan’s low, LOW home interest rates, our mortgage bill would be very reasonable, peanuts, a fraction of what renters pay throughout the U.S., let alone L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, or New York.
After several weeks, Yukiyo’s experience told her that the bank we had chosen was asking for so much documentation that there was no turning back, almost zero possibility they were going to say ‘no,’; it was just a question of how much they were prepared to loan us for the reform work.
Meanwhile, the realtor had set the date for the official signing of the mortgage documents and payment for the house, a Friday. The afternoon before, Thursday, the bank called Yukiyo and told her, flatly, “No.” No to the reform loan, and no to the purchase of the minka.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because it too old. It’s worthless.”
No matter that this type of architecture of of such cultural and historic significance that the minka villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1995. No matter that the Hanase minka, if disassembled and sold piecemeal, was probably worth at least $250,000 in terms of its wood beams (from trees generally unavailable in Japan today), its antique doors and windows, its kamado, and other components. To them: worthless junk.
“What about the land it sits on? It’s big, something like 250 tsubo in all. Surely that’s worth something?”
In so many words: too far from the nearest 7-Eleven or Starbucks. In central Tokyo, $1,600/square meter. But Hanase? No wants wants to live there. This despite the spectacular mountains, beautiful rivers, and other scenery? And it’s not as if it was 500 miles out in the desert. Indeed, technically, it was still Kyoto City. Downtown was an hour away, hardly crippling.
But the answer was no, and though Yukiyo talked the realtor into extending the deadline until the following Tuesday morning, our chances of coming up with most of $50,000 over the weekend in cash to save the Hanase house, to say nothing of the reform work, were slim at best. Further, the realtor said he had several people waiting in line ready to buy it. He might have been BS-ing us, but that evening I had a nightmare in which a colossal bulldozer was revving up to tear it all down so a young couple could replace it with a house made of plastic and particleboard.
I spent most of the next several days in bed with the curtains drawn, despondent, not eating, until Saturday night Yukiyo suggested one of my favorite restaurants. I didn’t want to go, as there were always people there I know, and was hardly in a state to socialize. She then suggested another, quieter place and, not having eaten anything in 24 hours, reluctantly agreed.
Unfortunately, at the restaurant was a breezy, somewhat overly gregarious realtor who usually hung out at the first place Yukiyo had suggested. I wasn’t about to disguise my antisocial mood as any Japanese would, but Yukiyo explained the situation with them and they began chatting, he offering last-minute ideas of how we might secure a loan somewhere else that didn’t involve guys with tattoos and missing pinky fingers.
She called another bank. Surprisingly – imagine this happening in America – the bank agreed to work on our latest loan plan through the rest of the weekend and let us know their decision by the end of the day on Sunday. “Don’t hope,” Yukiyo instructed, with typical optimism. I didn’t.
Sunday around 5:00pm the call came: miraculously, the loans were pre-approved not only for the purchase of the house, but for about half of the needed reform work as well. Unfortunately, actually getting the money to pay the realtor would take 14 days. We had less than two.
However, the realtor agreed to wait until then, and Monday evening he visited our house in the city and a new agreement, setting the date to at long last sign the mortgage and pay for the minka in the mountains, was set.