The ad said the property was 2 km from Ajiro Station on the Ito Line, but it was difficult to tell how far we were traveling in the agent’s car. Most of the trip was up a steep, winding road into the hills above Atami on the Izu Peninsula, an area developed in the 1970s by the Tokyu Corporation for bessō, or second homes. The realtor talked the whole way.
“The songwriter Yu Aku had a large house over there,” he said, making a hairpin turn. “But since he died his family has had a hard time selling it, even at ¥40 million.”
Most of the homes didn’t look that grand, especially the one we were interested in: two stories, 78 sq. meters of floor area on 247 sq. meters of land. The neighborhood looked like a typical Japanese housing development except for a magnificent view of the Pacific to the east. The house was built in 1969 and had been bought by a different real estate company from a man whose main home was in Tokyo’s central (and chic) Shibuya district. The company was renovating it, but not today. We stepped over piles of lumber to inspect the interior, which looked as if it hadn’t been occupied for years.
The price, including the renovation, was ¥8.5 million, which was reasonable, but as with many bessō communities there were no amenities in the area — no stores, gas stations or even vending machines. And the drive down that hill wasn’t for the faint-hearted. We asked about the management fee and were surprised to learn it was only ¥20,000 a year. Tokyu took care of things such as garbage collection and road maintenance. In more exclusive bessō areas, like Karuizawa in Nakano Prefecture or the five lakes region near Mount Fuji, management fees are ¥60,000-70,000 a year.
Then again, Atami levied its own special bessō tax: ¥650 per sq. meter of floor area a year, which a resident could get around by registering the property as their main domicile and paid jūminzei (local taxes).
Some of the houses were clearly vacant even though it was the middle of summer vacation, and some lots just had sheds on them, “structures” erected for property tax purposes. If land is zoned for residences and remains empty, it is taxed at a higher rate. This is supposed to discourage speculation, and the agent told us that people bought land here in the ’80s as investments, expecting the value to increase, but prices plummeted instead. They hung on in the hope the price would go up, but it never did and never will. Even on the other side of the hill, a much higher-class development called Minami Atami, properties that sold for ¥200 million in 1990 are now worth less than half that amount.
Despite the suit and tie, the agent who showed us around Onjuku, a resort town on the eastern coast of Chiba Prefecture, was obviously a surfer first and a real-estate man second. He said he moved to Onjuku from his landlocked hometown in Gunma Prefecture for the waves, and then married a local girl. We were there to look at resort condominiums, most of which were built in the early ’90s. They were in buildings of five to 15 stories and faced the beach, which described a gentle inward arc.
“Most people who buy a vacation condo near the shore want to be on a higher floor because of the view,” he said. “But the higher the floor, the stronger the breeze. They have coffee on the terrace for the first week and then never go out again.” The breeze is also fraught with salt, which does more damage the higher you go. After a few years, window sashes and railings start to corrode.
We looked at three units, all of which got lots of sun but looked merely functional: a place to sleep, a place to bathe, a place to cook. Resort condos, the agent explained, were truly for weekenders. Owners could live in them, close to the beach, and they weren’t expected to become members of the community with all the attendant social obligations. That’s why bessō, wherever they’re built, tend to be isolated in their own communities, away from the locals.
The apartments were in the ¥5 — ¥10 million range for about 50 sq. meters, but instead of the yearly management fee you usually pay for bessō, resort condos charge a monthly management fee, in addition to a monthly repair fee. Those in Onjuku totaled on average about ¥30,000 a month. The agent said prices had remained flat for seven years after falling for more than a decade. Sales were good now. Onjuku is gaining a reputation as a surfing alternative to Shonan in Kanagawa Prefecture.
Onjuku is lucky. The resort condo was born in 1987 when the Diet passed the Law for the Development of Comprehensive Resort Areas, making leisure facilities a national project. Local governments and developers were given incentives and property laws were relaxed. Hundreds of thousands of resort condos were built, especially in the mountains because there was a ski boom at the time.
The boom didn’t last. Yuzawa, in Niigata Prefecture, the home of the Naeba ski resort, erected 58 buildings comprising 15,000 units, most of which are now empty. The average price was about ¥14 million for 30 sq. meters when they went on sale. You can now have one for as little as ¥40,000, but you have to assume the accumulated unpaid management fees and property taxes, which can run into millions.
And it isn’t just ski resorts. There are condos on the Izu Penninsula coast in Shizuoka Prefecture that originally cost between ¥40 — ¥50 million and are now going for a few hundred thousand yen plus assumption of the much larger management debt. It requires money to maintain hot-spring baths, swimming pools and elevators.
The realtor worked out of a prefabricated shack near the Daiya River, from where he also administered fishing licenses. He drove a big Range Rover that had no problem going uphill through the snow, which in mid-April remained on the ground in abundance.
The bessō we looked at was a one-story house in a wooded area developed and managed by the Tobu Corporation, which owns and operates a train line that connects the tourist enclave of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture to Tokyo. The house was well laid out, but even though it was only 10 years old the interior was in disrepair. Winters are harsh there, and the laminate floors and kitchen fixtures needed refurbishing. The owners were an elderly couple from Tokyo for whom the trip up had become a burden.
We heard a similar story from a different realtor who showed us another bessō. He explained that most of the owners in the hills were people from the city who had a little extra money and bought second homes simply because they could. After a number of years the appeal wore off because getting to Nikko is such a chore. Meanwhile, they pay fees and taxes but probably aren’t maintaining the property. There were dozens of bessō for sale in the area. Some had been on the market for more than a year.
Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.
A second home means extra utility bills, some of which can be extra costly
Bessō developments are like regular housing developments in that they usually come with infrastructure such as sewage and gas lines; water supplies, too, though that tends to be more of a problem. Local governments have to build large-scale water-delivery systems to accommodate a part-time population, so they usually charge more for water to people who live in bessō communities.
In Tsumagoi, Nagano Prefecture, the basic monthly water fee for permanent residents is ¥500, while for bessō residents it’s ¥1,400.
The local government in Hakone, Shizuoka Prefecture, also charges bessō residents more for water, but it doesn’t charge them a basic fee during months when they use no water at all.
One bessō community in Hokuto, Yamanashi Prefecture, sued the local authorities over its inflated water bill, saying it was unfair, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the bessō owners.