Making home your own

by Setsuko Kamiya

That wall must go. The same thought nagged Mariko Maruoka every evening while she cooked dinner for her family. The dividing wall that ran between kitchen and dining area served no useful purpose.

“It was kind of dark standing there, and I also felt shut out of what was going on because of it,” recalls Maruoka, 40, who lives in a 15-year-old house in central Tokyo with her parents, her husband and their three daughters, who are all in elementary school.

The family usually ate together at a large table in the dining room, where the only other major item of furniture was a capacious cupboard. However, the dining area seemed to have shrunk, too, over the years as the children grew older. “Things had changed for our family since we first built the house, and basically we needed more space,” Maruoka says.

So, in the early summer of 2002, the Maruokas embarked on their first home-renovation.

After nearly a month of construction work done by a major home-remodeling firm, the troublesome wall was gone — but for a support beam — and the kitchen and the dining room were happily united. Maruoka also had a new circular dining table made, and had the workmen create cleverly concealed storage spaces in the dining area to keep dishes and kitchen utensils.

The entire project cost around 2.3 million yen, but Maruoka is in no doubt that it was worth it. “The remodeling brought light and improved ventilation to what has now become a roomy kitchen/dining room,” she says with a smile. “What’s more, now my daughters often gather around the dining table even when it’s not meal time. And they also help me more in the kitchen.”

The experience of the Maruoka household is a good example of what’s known in Japanese as refomu (reform), currently the focus of considerable media attention in the pages of glossy magazines and on a Sunday prime-time television show that’s been getting high ratings since it debuted last April.

The TV program — “Daikaizo!! Gekiteki Befo Afta (Major Change!! Dramatically Before and After)” — each week chooses one architect and showcases his efforts to transform an ordinary home through major renovation. Invariably, the dramatic changes that the architect suggests make for great viewing, and the families often welcome the lifestyle benefits of a renovated house with nothing less than tearful gratitude.

“The show is really about helping ordinary families to solve whatever problems they have, so in the beginning we were also looking at food and clothing, not just housing. But now, home remodeling has become the main pillar of our program,” says Akiko Watanabe, a spokeswoman for the program’s producer, Osaka-based Asahi Broadcasting Corp.

Every week, Asahi receives more than 100 letters from viewers who want their homes renovated, she said. And that’s in spite of the fact that the bill, which the program declares at the very beginning, is footed by the families themselves.

Soon, however, six lucky families might get their homes renovated — for free. Beverage conglomerate Suntory Ltd. is the latest to jump onto the home-reform bandwagon. Next month, the company is launching a campaign offering up to 10-million-yen worth of refomu by a well-known architect to six winners. Participants will be asked to send in the answer to a quiz regarding the name of one of its happoshu products, and the winners will be selected by a random draw. Of all the promotion campaigns the firm has initiated, this is the first of its kind, a Suntory spokeswoman says.

These responses to a rapidly expanding Japanese home-renovation market couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. According to a report by the Center for Housing Renovation and Dispute Settlement Support (CHORD), the noncorporate refomu market amounted to 5.23 trillion yen in 2001 — some 30 percent up on the 4.06 trillion yen it was worth a decade ago, in 1991. Market observers predict that market size will continue to be large, although its growth will level out over the next couple of years. Indeed, most major home-builders now have thriving subsidiaries specializing in refomu.

The sunny forecast for the refomu industry is based on several factors. Many houses in Japan are now entering their major renovation time, says Masanori Nakaoka of CHORD. The need for minor changes, such as roof repairs and repainting of exterior walls, is usually felt as soon as 10 to 15 years after a house is first built, he continues. Major structural changes, however, tend not to be required until a house is 20 or 30 years old.

Of the nation’s entire residential stock in October 1998, 22.1 percent of homes were built prior to the 1970s, according to data from the Ministry of General Affairs. Nakaoka notes that most houses built during this period of rapid economic growth from the 1950s up to the ’73 oil crisis are of pretty low quality, and so they often need to be rebuilt from scratch rather than reformed. Ministry data also shows that 53.5 percent were built in the ’70s and ’80s, and the remaining 22 percent were built after 1991. According to Nakaoka, these houses tend to be of a higher quality and do not require rebuilding, because they were built in compliance with increasingly stringent revisions of the 1950 Building Standards Act. They are prime candidates, however, for refomu.

The story is much the same with apartment buildings. A report last year by the Remodeling Promotion Committee for Condominiums showed that the renovation market in 2000 was worth 769.7 billion yen — up from 610.3 billion yen in 1995. Like the single-family homes, more condominiums will continue to need remodeling or refurbishment, and the Committee estimates that this sector of the market will likely peak at 1.14 trillion yen by 2010.

Condominium owners are often torn between whether to buy a new place, or to redecorate the existing one, says Junko Oota, a renovation consultant at Tokyu Amenix Corp. “People come to realize what kind of space they really want for their homes only after they’ve lived there for a while, and they find that newly built places aren’t usually custom-made to meet their needs,” Oota says.

The refomu trend isn’t just a response to changing home requirements, however, or to the wear and tear of

Japan’s housing facilities. It seems to reflect a change in Japanese people’s expectations of their housing.

According to a 2002 survey by Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a Tokyo-based think tank, more men and women in their 40s, compared with their counterparts a decade ago, said they are particular about their living standards. Those in their 20s also said they are willing to spend more money on furniture and interior decoration than people their age a decade ago.

“For a long time, Japanese have spent a little here and a little there on things like clothes and cars, while tamely accepting life in small homes. But I think we are now seeing more people who are eager to improve their housing environment,” says Takayo Yamamoto, a research director at HILL, who is herself now planning to build a new home in Tokyo. In addition, with the much-touted “graying” of the population, Yamamoto points out that more families are now looking to remodel their houses to be barrier-free. Others are exercising the refomu option to rid their home of chemically harmful construction materials.

In what may be a minor social sea change, Yamamoto also believes that the refomu trend is benefiting from people’s growing appreciation of the value of old things, as opposed to the more familiar fondness for all things new.

Tokyo residents Shuji, 38, and Takako, 37, (who asked that their last names not be printed) are currently having their 44-year-old house in Adachi Ward renovated. The house was built by Takako’s grandfather, who was a carpenter. For more than 10 years, Shuji and Takako rented out the first floor to a school, and lived above it with their three children. Now, though, with their children (ages 14, 12 and 11) needing their own space, the couple have terminated the first-floor let and remodeled their home entirely.

The kitchen, living room and bathroom are now all on the first floor, and the second floor is divided into four rooms — one for each of the children and one for Shuji and Takako. An interior staircase linking the two floors, which had been blocked off for more than a decade, is back in use. “We were really surprised at first by the fact that there was more light coming into the house than before,” Shuji says. “Now the children are inviting their friends over to hang out at the house much more than before,” says Takako, who is now busy thinking up decorative concepts for her new kitchen.

Although they were quoted a cost of 9 million yen, changes to their original plans along the way should push the cost up to about 10 million yen.

Completion overdue

The family seem pleased by the results of the remodeling, but they aren’t as positive about the remodeling firm they commissioned. The firm didn’t stick to its schedule, they say. The work, which began in August, was slated for completion in October, but even as late as February, the work is still in progress.

“At one point, we thought of getting rid of them, but we heard it wasn’t easy to ask another firm to continue the work when it’s already halfway done,” Shuji says. “And we didn’t want to make too much trouble with them because they might start doing things halfheartedly.” Eventually, the person who was initially in charge of the family’s renovation was transferred, and things got better.

Home refomu is not without its disappointments. But according to CHORD, the group receives many complaints from consumers not just over contractors’ work, but over door-to-door salespeople who try to pressure them into signing remodeling contracts. Often, they are told, such tactics go hand-in-hand with dubious offers of “bargain” renovations, or cases of clients being ripped off by poor-quality materials or even, quite simply, very low-quality construction.

In many cases, CHORD reported, it is older people who tend to fall prey to such scams.

In other words, don’t get into home refomu with your eyes closed. “Home renovation is about making the home you love a more comfortable place to live,” Nakaoka said. “So if people gather more information on what they want to do and how it can be done, they can help ensure the experience will be one to bring them lasting happiness.”