When we were thinking about buying a condominium some years ago, we looked at older units and brand new ones, and one of our least favorite features was pebbled or fogged window glass, which was ubiquitous. Early on, when we didn’t know any better, we asked a real estate agent how much it would cost to replace a set of pebbled windows with transparent ones, and he said that was not possible. We reacted with confusion, thinking that as owners of the unit, not renters, we could make any changes we liked. But as he explained to us, some of the features of a condominium are considered “communal” (kyōyō-bu), meaning they are owned by all the residents of a building, and one of those common features are windows, which means they can’t be changed.

Most communal features and facilities are obvious — building foyers, elevators, hallways, mailbox areas — as are “private” features (senyū-bu), which incorporate almost everything within an individual unit. However, some features exist in a kind of gray area — nominally communal space that is nevertheless used exclusively by a certain owner. Examples include first floor or penthouse gardens attached to individual units, parking spaces, exterior front-door alcoves, trunk rooms and balconies.

Yes, balconies are considered communal features even though each one is attached to a particular unit, and in principle most condominium associations do not allow owners to place items such as sheds on their balconies. Even air conditioning units usually have to be placed in a specific space. One reason balconies are considered communal is that in the case of an emergency they can be used to evacuate residents from one floor to another.

The exterior of a front door is communal, while the interior of the same door is private: You can do anything you want to the inside of the door but must not do anything to the outside of it. This also explains why some condos don’t even allow owners to put nails in the walls. Only the wallpaper is private. The wall itself, because one shares it with a neighbor, is communal.

But why are windows considered communal features? We’ve never received a satisfying explanation for this rule, but it seems to have something to do with privacy. Pebbled glass not only protects the privacy of the people who live in the condo, but also ensures that people outside the condo are not confronted with the residents’ private goings-on against their will. Curtains aren’t good enough.

Obviously, it’s important for a potential owner to understand what’s communal and what’s private before he purchases a condominium, and not just to determine whether or not he can put a welcome mat in the alcove. When you own a condo, in addition to a monthly management fee (kanri-hi), you also have to pay a monthly repair fee (shūzen-hi), which covers large-scale repairs to and maintenance of communal features and facilities. Each tenant is responsible for the upkeep of his own private realm, while the shūzen fund provides for upkeep of the rest of the building.

According to housing journalist Yumi Fukuoka, shūzen-hi is one of the more contentious aspects of condo living. She once explained how she didn’t know anything about the system when she bought her apartment and became a member of the building management committee. There was much she had to learn about the way shūzen-hi is collected and spent because the realtor didn’t explain it at the time of purchase. One of the reasons she bought a condo is that she thought it would require less maintenance and expense than a house. But, as she found out, large buildings age and deteriorate as much as small buildings do, and repairs can be very expensive — even when the cost is shared by a group of people.

The most harmful natural element for a large building is ultraviolet rays, which damage the exterior and undermine waterproofing. Ideally, the exterior should be repaired every 12 years, otherwise the building’s structure could receive a lot of water damage. Then there’s wiring and plumbing, which can also fall apart after a dozen years or so. However, Fukuoka found that most condo associations put off the first large repair work until the building is 20 years old and, as a consequence, have to pay much more to bring the building back to a suitable state.

In any case, developers and the management companies they hire often set the shūzen-hi low so as not to scare off potential buyers, so when it comes time to carry out full-scale repairs, the fund is insufficient and each owner has to kick in extra money.

Fukuoka was lucky. Her association carried out its first major repair work after the recommended 12 years, and each owner only had to pay an extra ¥1 million. With each additional year you wait, that price goes up. She recommends that owners set aside an extra amount of money equal to the shūzen-hi every month, because they will probably need it when the work is carried out. In addition, prior to having the work done, condo committees usually have to hire a consultant to evaluate which features and facilities require work. That task alone can end up costing each resident up to ¥50,000. Some condos try to save money and don’t hire consultants, but considering that estimates from one maintenance company to another can differ by several million yen, it’s usually a good idea to know what needs to be done before you hire somebody to do it.

For that matter, tenants should also set aside money for private repairs, which also have to be carried out in a big way at regular intervals. The life span of a water heater, which is private, is 10 to 15 years, and it can cost between ¥250,000 and ¥300,000 to replace. Kitchen tops and sinks last between eight and 15 years and cost up to ¥100,000 to replace. Wallpaper is surprisingly expensive. It should be replaced every eight years and can cost between ¥50,000 and ¥100,000 per room, unless you do it yourself.

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

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