Despite the colorful sofa and classy light fixtures, it’s the long crack running along the ceiling and down the west wall of the living room that catches the eye. Sodden floorboards in the hallway further dampen the fresh feel that usually accompanies a newly built home.
That’s what one couple, who declined to be named, has endured for several months. Within a year of moving in, their dream home had become something they would sooner close the door on.
Had an aging structure or the nation’s notorious seismic activity been at the root of their problem, the couple would have less reason to feel bitter. But the faults in their home result from human error: Like many others in Japan in recent years, the two are victims of defective housing.
A wide variety of defects have been reported in recent times, ranging from leaking roofs and subsiding foundations to builders’ footprints in the veranda concrete.
The cause of such defects is the alleged corner-cutting and shoddy practices of builders.
In one Kanagawa Prefecture condominium, the volume of concrete used was far below the industry standard, meaning parts of the iron framework encased in the concrete were exposed like the bones of a dead fish.
One of the condominium’s residents, a businessman in his 30s, explained that having to return every day to a substandard property for which he had forked out over 40 million yen had caused a family rift.
“The problem put a strain on relations within the family, and my wife became highly critical of my ill-fated decision,” he said, adding that the defects had devalued his apartment by over 50 percent.
The recent increase of help-lines for victims and businesses to identify the cause of these household horrors are testimony to the seriousness of the current situation, as is the escalating number of callers.
In 1998 alone, consumer protection centers nationwide received 4,100 complaints about defective housing — five times the number reported a decade ago.
Japan’s first hotline was set up in 1996 by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations in the aftermath of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which dealt a heavy blow to the safety myth of Japan’s modern architecture.
An employee at a major contractor who visited Kobe right after the disaster as a volunteer said he witnessed many examples of shoddy workmanship in damaged buildings, including undersized concrete buttresses. “I saw newly built houses reduced to debris while some older ones nearby stood almost intact,” he said.
Since then, the number of calls during JFBA’s annual four-day service has increased dramatically. The 702 calls fielded in 1996 grew to 1,153 in 1998. The figure declined for the first time this year, a fact that JFBA officials attribute to the recent emergence of other similar help-lines and consultancy engines.
According to JFBA statistics, owners of single-family houses have drawn the short straw — more than 75 percent of the 902 complaints recorded this year were from owners of houses, while apartment and condominium owners accounted for about 15 percent.
However, the latter figure may be misleading because one caller from a 15-floor con dominium may be voicing the troubles of several hundred people living in the same building, JFBA said.
As was the case in the previous year’s statistics, leaky roofs and walls were the most-reported defects, followed by cracks in walls and tilting structures.
According to Ryuichi Inagaki, a Tokyo lawyer involved in the JFBA project, the issue of defective housing has been a concern in Japan since the mid-1960s, when a serious shortage of quality builders caused by rapid urban growth and mass production of houses opened the way for “amateurs” and, subsequently, substandard practices.
Prior to the burst of the bubble economy in the late 1980s, this was not a major concern for owners who considered their homes to be disposable products, said Kazuyuki Goseki, a house planner in Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward.
“(The prevailing feeling of homeowners then was,) ‘What the hell — we’re going to get a new one in 10 to 15 years any
way,'” Goseki said.
With the end of the bubble economy, however, land prices tumbled and the importance of the house as an asset suddenly increased. Consequently, homeowners have become less tolerant of defects, Goseki added.
Industry insiders agree that mounting pressure on the building industry to cut costs amid the recession has tempted builders to cut corners.
Faced with a meager profit margin per house built, subcontractors are forced to increase their output, even if it means constructing several houses at the same time, said Jun Takahashi, a Tokyo construction designer and inspector who also provides free advice to victims of defective housing.
As a result, builders are pressured into meeting tight schedules that don’t allow them to put the necessary care into the process, much less to rectify any errors that may occur.
“There are cases when materials do not arrive in time and workers make do with any other materials that are close at hand,” Takahashi said.
In other cases, he said, builders “start putting down the base of the house before the concrete of the foundations has even dried.”
Tan Hirose, a housing planner and head of the legislative division of a Tokyo builders’ association, attributes these problems to poor site management, which can lead to miscommunication between the 30-plus contractors involved in the construction of a regular single-family home.
It is not uncommon for subcontractors to begin a stage of construction before the previous stage has been completed, Hirose said.
Other instances of defective housing start at an even lower level.
When a number of relatively new dwellings started to subside in Saitama Prefecture earlier this year, it was discovered that the structures had been built on land that used to be rice paddies.
Hirose said there are instances where basic land tests prior to construction and building tests during construction are skipped to cut costs.
“(Contractors) are trying to increase profits by cutting corners that customers cannot see,” he said.
In this respect, consumers are not entirely blameless, Takahashi said. Prospective homeowners have become increasingly picky about the appearance of their homes, insisting on expensive materials that ultimately push up costs and lead builders to cut back on such “invisible areas.”
“There is a feeling emerging that it’s OK (to do this) if (the owners) won’t notice,” Takahashi said. Responding to mounting public pressure, the Diet enacted the Law to Promote the Securing of Quality Standards for Housing earlier this The law, which is slated to go into effect next June, is intended to tackle such areas as the lack of a clear definition as to what constitutes a “defect,” and demands builders provide a 10-year guarantee for houses they build.
Experts, however, are doubtful of the law’s effectiveness, saying the closed-shop mentality of the housing industry here is likely to prevent any immediate change.
Still others believe that customer-builder trust, badly damaged by the increasing frequency of defective housing, will need more than a new law to rebuild.
“Professionals should do professional jobs. Consumers place absolute trust in (builders) when they contract the work,” said one owner of a defective house, adding that even if you can fix a building, you can never repair a shattered dream.
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