Moved by the benefits of mobile-home housing

by and

The model house sat on an empty patch of brown land along a commercial stretch of road in southern Ibaraki Prefecture. Few people would have identified it as a model house. It had a forlorn, out-of-place look to it. Technically, it was a mobile home — “trailer house,” in Japanese parlance — propped up on car jacks and with a small porch attached to the entrance.

It had been imported from Canada but incorporated design changes, presumably done to attract local buyers. One very small room had tatami mats, and the kitchen — more like a nook situated between the tiny living and dining rooms — didn’t have an oven, a standard in North America. Nevertheless, the house was more Western than Japanese: baseboard heating, painted rather than wallpapered walls, carpeting, shower but no bath. It looked cheap and was cheap, a little more than ¥3 million. The most expensive model in the company’s line was ¥7 million.

The importer was basically a part-time, one-man operation whose lone worker was also a full-timer for another, larger housing company. His sales pitch focused on the economical and practical aspects of the imported home. Canada is a cold place, and so housing, whether prefab or custom-built, has to be of high quality. The design and decor may have been basic, but the house itself was airtight, structurally sound, and made of high-quality wood and other tested materials. Still, Japanese people think of trailer houses as having little or no resale value, which is true. But then conventional Japanese houses lose their value quickly after they’re built, too.

Counterintuitively, the main appeal — instant setup and portability — was also one of mobile housing’s drawbacks in Japan. Most prefabricated homes are shipped in components and assembled on-site. Mobile homes are only mobile in the sense that they are completely manufactured and assembled in one place and then transported to their final destination. Such a system is feasible in North America, where the land is open and spacious, as are the roads. In Japan, however, roads tend to be narrower, and strict regulations govern the size of loads that can be carried over them. Moreover, since a mobile home is classified as a “vehicle,” owners theoretically have to get a license plate before they can move it anywhere — and that can take several months, which may result in hefty storage costs after the house has been imported.

The importer pointed out that his merchandise was easier to move because the houses were “foldable,” meaning that the structure, though still assembled, would be collapsed for easier portability and transportation. Nevertheless, it would still be pretty big, and when he told us someone in Kyoto was interested in buying one for a plot in the city center, we wondered how the truck would maneuver Kyoto’s tight grid.

North Americans have a clear stereotype of mobile homes: cheap digs for lower-income families. But the technology has improved greatly over the past decades and many mobile homes — formally referred to as “manufactured homes” in the United States — are too expensive for what are still disparagingly called “trailer parks,” even if they’re still much cheaper than conventional single-family homes.

In Japan, the low-price sales angle is reinforced by a legal loophole that mobile home sellers emphasize. Because mobile homes are not considered “fixed properties,” the way homes with foundations are, they are not subject to property taxes. Some local governments, including Kanagawa Prefecture, have tried to sidestep this reality by telling mobile homeowners that they are still liable, but it’s a bluff. The Japan Trailer Home Association has threatened to sue any local government that makes such a claim for interference with their right to do business.

Since laws regarding property administration are determined by the central government, local governments can’t change them of their own accord. Consequently, mobile-home importers advise potential buyers to find land they can rent, put the mobile home on it and live there virtually tax-free for as long as the landowner permits them to. If the landowner kicks them off, they can always move the house to somewhere else.

This loophole should appeal to low-income people who want to own a home but are intimidated not only by the cost of buying or building a conventional house, but also by the red tape involved. A mobile home can be bought with cash and assembled in the course of a few afternoons, sidestepping bureaucratic processes and their attendant fees.

This aspect received a great deal of media coverage when an association of hoteliers in Miyagi Prefecture used mobile homes to help with reconstruction efforts. The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, wiped out much of the coastal town of Onogawa, a bedroom community of the larger city of Ishinomaki, which was also devastated. Transportation in the area, including the train line between the two municipalities, has still not fully recovered and thus reconstruction has been slower than expected. Volunteers and construction workers have to commute from places such as Sendai.

Four innkeepers in Onogawa want to rebuild their facilities, but since their original inns were located in the affected area, they can’t. According to the law, nothing can be built on the land until it is elevated by 10 meters. It’s a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Without accommodation to house workers the work will take longer, but the accommodations can’t be built until that work is done.

The four innkeepers joined forces and bought mobile homes from a company in Nagano Prefecture. Since they don’t qualify as fixed structures they could be erected legally in the disaster area. Even better, they could be moved whenever needed, since they have wheels attached. The innkeepers spent ¥100 million to create a trailer park, called El Faro, with government subsidies of ¥400 million. The facility offers 108 beds and is run like a regular hotel, with a front desk and an attached restaurant.

Mobile homes can also be placed on land that is not yet approved for residential or commercial structures (shigaika chōsei kuiki). Several years ago, a businessman near Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture set up a “ramen village” consisting of four restaurants housed in mobile homes on a piece of land that was not zoned for buildings of any kind. It was all perfectly legal.

The importer we talked to told us that he had tried to sell mobile homes to the authorities arranging temporary housing for victims of the March 11 disaster in the Tohoku region. But he was unsuccessful. At the time, some media reported that a number of foreign firms had wanted to build temporary housing using mobile-home technology, but they were effectively shut out of the bidding by regulations and practices that favored major Japanese builders. A few domestic mobile-home companies did manage to get involved in reconstruction.

In the end, however, the temporary prefab housing selected by the government was delayed by almost a year. If they had chosen mobile homes, they could have been ready in a week.

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

  • wanderingpippin

    Interesting but I would have liked some discussion of what I think would be a major issue; electricity, water, and sewerage connections, especially on unzoned land.

    • John Cartman

      There are many off-grid prefab homes, links to examples in my previous message in moderation now.

      If you have money, anything is possible.

  • Renga

    Yes, please provide info on how these houses get plumbing/sewage. Also, how sturdy are these “car jacks” in earthquakes????

  • wanderingpippin

    Something that did not quite sink in on first reading but now seems to be, at the least, very exaggerated is the ending statement that mobile homes could have been ready in a week after 3.11. Are you seriously suggesting that within one week after this catastrophic event, while emergency care and feeding, searching for victims and dealing with all the bodies, minimal clearing of debris, etc. were still being carried out, appropriate sites could have been found and prepared all up and down the coast, tens of thousands of units purchased and brought to Japan, delivered to all those sites over still barely passable roads, erected and readied for occupancy?