Knock it down and start again
The Guardian Cities column recently reported on a fascinating aspect of Japan’s built environment – the country’s preoccupation with prefabricated houses. Indeed, this feature of the Japanese housing market is so entrenched that it is not uncommon for homes in the country to hold no value after about 30 years due to a model where houses older than that are simply knocked down and replaced. The reporter, Nate Berg, uses the example of Midorigaoka, a suburban neighbourhood about an hour outside Kobe, where even newer homes built in the 1980s and 90s are nearing the end of their collective lifecycle.
These prefabricated homes are built from steel frames and panels, and are clustered in their hundreds to create neighbourhoods. Newer models use fake ceramic brick sidings to create a visage of longevity and solidity, but that is only skin deep and the bones remain the same. When someone dies or moves on, it is not unusual in areas of Japan for the house to be demolished and a new one built in its place. Many people in Japan have never lived in a house which isn’t brand new, and there are almost 4 times as many architects per capita in Japan as in the USA for obvious reasons.
Ironically, western architects who live in Japan are often awestruck by this approach because the general standard of homes in Japan is much higher than equivalent homes in countries like the USA and the UK. Many Japanese people simply do not want to live in a ‘used’ home. Consequently, the idea of maintaining your home or redecorating is largely unthinkable to many Japanese homeowners. What would be the point?
The effect of this is that the Japanese housing market is the polar opposite of that found in western countries where property is largely seen as an investment rather than a home. For instance, if you took a UK buy-to-let investor into the Japanese housing market it is likely that they would be horrified.
However, it is possible that the winds of change are blowing as the younger generation begin to make their presence felt more fully. Much like many other developed economies, young people simply do not have the money that their parents were blessed with, and so the idea of renovating an existing property is growing in popularity. If you renovate a house rather than buy a new one it is easier to save money to start a family or to take care of elderly parents, making it unsurprising that the idea appeals to the young. Another factor which makes existing homes appeal to the young is the environmental angle. Buying a new home comes with a heavy carbon cost which many young people are acutely conscious of and unwilling to bear.
The trend for demolishing everything and building it up again is more entrenched in suburban areas, but city centre markets have seen growing sales of existing single-family homes over the past few years, according to Pacific Standard. Of course, it is important to put this trend into context – ‘growing sales’ still only amounts to approximately 35,000 sales in a year. It is a start, but not a trend which is sweeping the nation.
Global Property Guide reports that the Japanese housing market is continuing to grow year on year – with 4.7% annual growth recorded in January 2017 – and that overall demand remains stable. With that in mind, we should be wary of the idea that the Japanese housing market is on the way to becoming something we might recognise more easily. Instead, let’s take it as it is and be interested in it for its own sake. It is always interesting to see alternative housing models, and the Japanese market is unique.