Home is where the condo is

by Yuko Naito

Mari Ishiyama, a 38-year-old secretary at a foreign bank, had been looking for an apartment for several years, but always struck out when it came to the final lottery (a standard real-estate practice to decide who can purchase a unit in a building when there are too many prospective buyers). “My friends told me I was probably not destined to own a condo, and I almost gave up,” she says.

This year, however, her dream came true. She found just the place she’d been looking for, a newly built high-quality condominium with a patio in Yoga, Tokyo, and recently moved in.

Her 60-something-sq.-meter condominium was originally priced at 65 million yen, much too expensive for a single working woman, but she eventually decided to buy it when the real-estate company offered her a “big discount.”

“I sometimes feel lonely when eating alone at this big dining table for six, but I’m so happy about having this place,” Ishiyama says.

Ishiyama is one of the growing number of professional women in Tokyo who earn almost the same salary as their male colleagues and have found that buying an apartment can be a smarter option than renting, especially now that the price of condominiums has become relatively reasonable and the interest rate on loans is unprecedentedly low.

Until a decade ago, people thought that unmarried women who bought condominiums had given up on getting married for good. But singles today don’t let marriage plans dictate real-estate purchases, whatever their plans for the future.

Ishiyama’s friend Misato Kaneda, 38, purchased a 65-sq.-meter condominium in Mizonokuchi, Kawasaki City, three years ago. The price was about 45 million yen, most of which she obtained through bank loans.

Her lifestyle has not changed at all since she bought her home, however. She still takes long vacations abroad at least twice a year, and enjoys such expensive hobbies as scuba diving, golfing and kayaking.

“The monthly repayment is not a heavy burden. It’s almost the same as the rent I was paying for my previous apartment in Jiyugaoka,” says Kaneda, who works at a U.S. semiconductor company.

Her current condominium is twice as big and much nicer than her previous one-room apartment. “If I tried to rent this apartment, I would have to pay at least twice as much as my current monthly repayment,” she says.

According to a survey released last December by Recruit’s weekly magazine Shukan Jutaku Joho, 12-13 percent of all the people who bought condominiums over the last three years were unmarried. Almost the same number of single women purchased apartments as single men, and the average age of the two groups was similar, too — 35 years old for men and 36.7 for women. Men spent an average of 38.9 million yen on their condominiums, and women spent 36.1 million yen.

The big difference between the two groups was in the size and location of the condominiums they bought. Single women tended to give priority to convenience over size: The Recruit survey showed that nearly 70 percent of female singles working in the metropolitan area bought an apartment in Tokyo last year, while 50 percent of their male counterparts chose other prefectures within commuting distance, such as Kanagawa, Saitama and Chiba. Men’s apartments were generally bigger than women’s; 67.6 sq. meters on average for men, and 58.8 sq. meters for women.

Jin Seike of Recruit, who compiled the survey, points out that it reflects a difference in the views men and women have on marriage. Regardless of their age, “most men believe that they will get married sooner or later, so they want a 3LDK (three bedrooms, a living/dining room and a kitchen) or bigger for their future family,” he says.

“On the other hand, women start thinking of the possibility of remaining unmarried for the rest of their lives when they reach their mid-30s. They prefer living in a fashionable and convenient area or somewhere closer to their workplace,” Seike says.

“For unmarried women, a condominium is not unlike insurance promising a more secure life,” says Minako Nakajima, a journalist in her late 30s. Nakajima bought a condominium in Kiba, Tokyo, two years ago. She says she had always worried in the back of her mind that nobody would rent her a place to live if she reached retirement and had no family.

Nakajima’s deep-rooted anxiety stems from bitter experience. When she came back to Tokyo in her late 20s after completing a masters degree in journalism in the U.S., she tried to find an apartment. Though she had no job at the time, she was confident she would soon be employed, and in addition had plenty of savings. Her parents had already retired and she had no guarantors with a regular income, but she didn’t expect to run into any difficulties when renting.

Things didn’t work out as planned, however. “The real-estate agencies didn’t offer me anything,” she recalls angrily. “I clearly remember what one young man working at an agency told me. He said, ‘Normally, women of your age are either married, or working or going to school.’ I was shocked. In this country you have to belong somewhere and have a constant income to rent an apartment.”

Even after she eventually found a place, Nakajima could not shake off her feelings of concern for the future. One day, though, she learned there was a way to borrow money to buy real estate without a guarantor. Three weeks later, she signed a contract to buy a condo.

Unlike Nakajima, Hiromi Maeno, 34, who recently moved into a condominium near Tama Plaza Station in Yokohama City, says she has never thought about life after retirement.

When her married sister was looking for a condominium, Maeno sometimes went to real-estate agencies with her, just out of curiosity. “As I heard the explanations about repayment plans, I realized I could afford a condo myself. Since I didn’t like the environment of my previous place and the rent was unreasonably high, I wanted to move somewhere else,” she says. “My heart was pounding when I signed the contract, but buying a condo really wasn’t such a big deal.”

Maeno says that having her own apartment does not give her a feeling of security for the future. “In such a terrible economic situation, you may get fired by your company tomorrow,” she says, pointing out that she knows of a woman who got fired right after she bought a condominium. “I’ve certainly started behaving nicer toward my boss, because I don’t want to lose my job,” she says. “But strangely enough, I can work more enthusiastically than before, because now I have a new goal — buying a more up-scale condo.”