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Parking the car can drive you crazy

by and

Special To The Japan Times

In the 1990s when we rented an old house in Saitama Prefecture, we needed a parking space since we had a car at the time. There was none on the property and so we talked the landlord into tearing down a decrepit prefabricated storage shed that stood next to the house. He did, and then, at our own expense, we had a carport erected on the newly vacant lot.

Our house shared a narrow street with one other family house opposite us, and one day we returned home to find that our neighbor, a carpenter, had put up a fence in the middle of the street, driving metal poles into the concrete. Because of the position of the fence and the angle of approach from the street to our carport, it was almost impossible to maneuver our station wagon into the space. We contacted our landlord, and he told us that the street was not public, but private — half owned by him and half owned by the neighbor, who, having seen that we were going to use it to access our carport, preemptively guaranteed access to his own space by putting up the fence.

The landlord refused to get involved, and we ended up renting a parking space 10 minutes from the house by bicycle.

This story illustrates the problem many people in Japan have with regard to parking. Bear in mind that our house was not located in an urban area. It was fairly suburban. Some would consider it rural — at the end of our street was a large patch of forest — but there was no place where you could legally park unless you had space on your own property or secured a bona fide parking space somewhere else.

When you buy a car and register it with the police, you have to provide proof (shako shōmei) of a parking space. If you own your home and there is parking attached to the property, you provide a diagram of the space. If you rent, you have the owner of the property or the owner of the separate parking space you lease fill out a form. That space, in principle, cannot be more than 150 meters from your residence.

When you buy a new or used car from a dealer, the dealer will carry out this process for you, but for a fee. When you move, you are supposed to change your car registration to your new address, which means providing new proof of parking, but from our understanding most people don’t bother and the police rarely follow up. Also, some municipalities do not require proof of parking for so-called mini-cars (kei jidōsha).

Rental properties rarely come with parking. According to our own informal survey, less than half the rental apartments in Tokyo have parking on site, and when they do, it always costs extra. Condominiums, however, are different. Most have parking spaces for residents, either enclosed or in lots, and they also cost extra. Depending on where in Tokyo you live, monthly charges for parking in condos run from ¥18,000 to ¥30,000. If you rent a space in a private lot, fees will run considerably higher. In most cases, condo parking is owned and operated by a third party. It is not common property owned by the residents. Consequently, spaces will often also be leased out to non-residents.

Because land is increasingly at a premium in Tokyo, more and more parking spaces in new buildings are being constructed underground or in towers, using carousel-type mechanisms that require regular maintenance and thus cost more to rent. However, in some cases such maintenance is incorporated into the monthly long-term repair costs (shūzenhi) that condo owners have to pay, even if they don’t own a car. It’s like paying for monthly elevator maintenance in a high-rise when you live on the first floor.

Parking spaces outside of major cities are considerably cheaper, but many homeowners simply set aside space on their property for cars. Unlike in the U.S., Japanese homes usually don’t come with garages owing to space limitations. Residential lots are relatively small, which means the footprint of a house will be small as well. Owners who want a garage usually have to relegate the entire first floor to parking, with living space on the second and, if necessary, third floors. The building codes, however, are strict when it comes to homes with garages, so doing this is expensive.

The only design regulations for enclosed garages is that there must be at least 50 centimeters between the exterior of the vehicle and all respective facing walls. Enclosed garages also boost the owner’s property tax, unlike parking space under a carport or out in the open, which require no extra property taxes. Owners could buy prefabricated garages and have them erected on concrete aprons, but those may also be subject to local property taxes.

The only real area for concern with regard to parking anywhere is on the street. Even in rural areas, street parking is illegal and strictly enforced, as evidenced by our experience in Saitama. The kind of “private street” we shared with our neighbor is a common suburban fixture, built by subdivision developers who want to squeeze as many lots as possible onto a given tract of land.

According to law, at least 4 meters of the land that contains a private home must adjoin a public street, so what developers do is build private streets of 4 meters in width and then build homes along that street, giving each home joint ownership of the street. This scheme satisfies the law while also allowing the developer to build as many houses as they can on the tract. The problem is that since this driveway is not a public street, the authorities have no jurisdiction. If someone parks on his or her half of the driveway and blocks access to the neighbors, the police can do nothing, because it’s private property.

Apparently, our neighbor in Saitama understood this reality better than we did.

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