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Water, water, it’s not everywhere

by Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku

There are aspects of everyday life that renters take for granted, such as access to utilities. Of course, renters pay for their own electricity and gas, and, depending on where they live, they may be billed for water and sewerage. Homeowners pay for these services, too, but there are extra financial burdens involved that people who have yet to buy a house or condominium may not know about. More significantly, some of these services are not available everywhere in Japan.

According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the diffusion rate for waterworks is 97.6 percent, which makes Japan one of the world’s most advanced countries in terms of public provision of potable water. However, the diffusion rate is slightly misleading, since it represents areas where public waterworks are available. It’s possible that not everyone who lives in a given area has direct access to waterworks, which tend to be provided in places with high population densities.

All of Tokyo has access to public water, while only 86.3 percent of residents of Kumamoto Prefecture do. Waterworks are administered by semi-private agencies working through local governments, and construction of facilities is only cost-effective in places where people are concentrated, meaning cities or, in the suburbs, planned housing developments and commercial zones. Farms tend to use water from wells dug by agricultural cooperatives. Anyone in between is left out or, more precisely, on their own.

In recent years we inspected many residential plots for sale, some in housing developments, some not. We found that when comparing land with all other aspects the same (distance from public transportation and amenities, size of land, aesthetic considerations), those with ready access to infrastructure cost almost twice as much as those without. According to the land ministry, water usage throughout Japan has been declining since 2000, so water agencies are disinclined to extend waterworks — meaning, lay pipe — to new localities unless there is a guarantee of a minimum number of new residents who will make the investment worthwhile.

Narita in eastern Chiba Prefecture has virtually ruled out building any more waterworks because it doesn’t see a viable return. This situation has led some existing communities to install infrastructure on their own. Two years ago we inspected a house in Ichihara, located in a relatively dense subdivision that was isolated from the rest of the city by hills. All the homes got their water from wells because the local water agency didn’t extend waterworks that far. At the time, the residents were contributing regular payments to a fund that would eventually pay for waterworks to be built in their area.

But not being in the matrix isn’t so bad. When a person has a new home built in an area where waterworks are available, he or she is required to pay suidō futankin (water charge), a one-time burden that offsets a portion of the cost of extending the waterworks to a new area. In most of the municipalities we’ve visited, this burden is more than ¥300,000, not counting application fees that can cost up to ¥40,000. If the person is buying a used house, he or she usually doesn’t have to pay this initial burden. After you move in you are then billed periodically for the water you use.

People who build houses in areas without waterworks have to dig wells and install pumps, and the cost is about the same as the suidō futankin plus application fee — usually around ¥400,000 — but afterward the water is theoretically free in perpetuity. The disadvantage of wells, however, is that the quality of the water is not assured. Most municipalities require well water to pass a quality test before they approve building permits, but even approved water isn’t necessarily going to taste good. Some people actually prefer well water, since municipal water mainly comes from reservoirs, rivers and lakes, and is more than likely treated with chemicals. (Some municipal water in certain areas is taken from wells.)

The owner of a home using well water needs to think about the water heater he installs. The economically and ecologically efficient EcoCute system, for example, has two types of water heaters, one for public water and another exclusively for well water, and depending on the minerals present in the well water, the system may also require a filter that will cost an extra ¥70,000.

If the land does not have access to waterworks, it may not have access to sewerage, either, which means a septic tank will have to be sunk in the property. The average cost of installing a septic tank is ¥400,000, but many municipalities in Japan subsidize the cost if a portion of their residents already have access to sewerage. Inzai in Chiba, for example, pays 100 percent of the cost of a septic tank and installation if sewerage isn’t available, but the budget is limited so it’s first-come-first-served in a given fiscal year. On the other hand, the town of Onjuku on the Pacific Coast, which has never had a municipal sewerage system, doesn’t subsidize septic tanks at all.

But even if you buy land in an area already serviced by waterworks, you may have to spend more than the suidō futankin to get hooked up. If there is no house on the property, it means there probably are no pipes in the ground connected to the municipal waterworks, so owners will have to pay for that when they build houses. If the house is being built by a developer that cost is already factored in, but if you’re doing it yourself or hiring a builder you have to make your own arrangements.

The cost of extending the waterworks to an individual home depends on the length and diameter of the pipe. Normally, waterworks run under publicly administered roads, so if your property is far from a public road it could be expensive. We inspected one fairly large property in the city of Tomisato, near Narita airport, that already had a house on it but the house was not connected to the waterworks under the public street nearby. We asked the realtor how much it would cost to make the connection and she answered, somewhat cagily, “It won’t cost as much as ¥1 million.”

Similarly, we once looked at a property in Sakura, in a densely occupied, older housing development that had waterworks but no sewerage. Sakura is currently installing a citywide sewerage system but whoever buys the property will have to lay their own waste pipe to the municipal lines.

And just because a house already has water and sewerage lines in place doesn’t mean they won’t cost you. Building experts suggest that if you buy an older property in Japan you should have the plumbing for both water and gas inspected since it deteriorates over time, as all public infrastructure does. The going estimate is ¥650,000 for every 30 meters of pipe that has to be replaced. Laying new pipe for a new house costs much less, about ¥10,000 per meter.

As far as gas goes, outside of large cities and even within a few, liquid propane gas (LPG) is often the only option since natural gas lines aren’t accessible to every neighborhood in the country. LPG is slightly more expensive than “city gas,” due mainly to transportation costs since tanks have to be replaced regularly. But if you’re building a new house and natural gas lines are available, you still have to pay to connect them to your property. No such construction is necessary for LPG, which comes in tanks that are directly connected to the home’s gas system, and can be set up instantly and at no cost.

Some homeowners prefer LPG for safety reasons: In the event of a disaster, municipal gas lines often fail. Some newer communities build local LPG facilities that service the community exclusively and obviate the need for delivery persons to bring tanks to individual homes. They just replace the tanks in a central distribution center.

Nowadays, many new homeowners, and even a few older ones, prefer going “all-electric,” meaning every energy function in the home operates off the electric grid and/or a built-in solar system. Environmentally, it’s a conundrum, since electricity in Japan depends on burning oil or, potentially, given the government’s aims, nuclear fission. But gas isn’t necessarily more ecologically sensitive, and electricity is almost always cheaper thanks to improved appliance efficiency.

Philip Brasor and Masako Tsubuku blog about Japanese housing at www.catforehead.wordpress.com.