Sunday, September 16, 2012

Japanese House Hunting

Well, we’ve learned a lot about Japanese houses and the rental process in the short time that we’ve been here. Japan is a country about the size of California, but with almost 130 million people…and 80% of the land is mountainous. That means only 20% of the land is available for agriculture, industry and housing. Space is at a premium, which is something that is difficult to understand for most Americans.

Any house that is over 30 years old is considered ancient. At this point only the land is valuable and the house is worthless. Most houses that age have (or will be) torn down and replaced. Why build essentially throwaway houses? As far as I know, Japanese houses have never been built to last—tsunamis and earthquakes destroyed houses so many times historically that houses were built to be reconstructed quickly and often.

First of all, Japanese houses are mostly very small, but you can find decent sized houses, especially in the area we’re in (Yokosuka, which is considered part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Area). We looked at a 679 sqft apartment with THREE bedrooms (which is about the same size as our ONE bedroom back in Seattle!) but then we also saw a 1500 sqft house. Regardless, we will probably be some of the only people that will be living in a larger home than we were back in the states.

Click here to see a gallery of houses we've looked at so far.

Most of the kitchens are pretty small, so they have under floor storage. Japanese women are much shorter than me on average—probably by 5 inches or more. Therefore, the countertops can seem very low! Also, you’ll be hard pressed to find a house with an oven AND a dishwasher. Most of have neither! A stove top with 3 burners and a fish broiler underneath is standard. I would love to find a house with a dishwasher, even though they’re usually tiny—a small pull out drawer. I HATE doing dishes! Let the record show that Igor has volunteered to help out :)

The washer and dryer are always stacked and located in the bathroom (the toilet is in a separate room). Japanese dryers are pretty useless, as they can take half the day to dry one small load, plus they use a lot of energy. Most people just hang their clothes out on the line on their balconies.

A traditional Japanese bedroom has a tatami mat floor (made of woven straw). A futon is laid out at night and folded up and stored in the closet during the day. On average, bedrooms are 6 tatami in size (a tatami mat being 3’ x 6’), or 9’ x 12’. That is rather small when you consider most Americans have queen size beds, not to mention king sized! Tatami mats, while beautiful, are fragile and cannot handle heavy furniture, such as actual beds. If one is damaged, it costs about the equivalent of $600 to replace each mat, and all must be replaced so they match. One solution is to lay a carpet over the tatami.

Parking is at a premium, since space is at a premium. Some houses don’t have a parking space, some have one, and sometimes you’ll find houses with two. They are not always located next to the house—sometimes a short walk away. In the neighborhoods there is virtually no street parking. And before you get a car, the police have to come out to measure to make sure it fits properly in your spot!

All this being said, our #1 priority is to find a house close to a train station, within a 10 minute walk. Easier said than done since this is what most people want! Our other criteria include 3 bedrooms, or 2 bedrooms and a tatami room. We’d like a small yard, somewhere for me to garden and BBQ. That rules out apartments—no BBQs on the balconies since people put their laundry out there. You WILL get the fire department called out on you!

When it comes time to rent the house, you have to show up with a lot of cash--not check, not credit cards, CASH--the agent's fee, plus a security deposit and "gift money" for the owner. That all adds up to the equivalent of $10,000 - $15,000 in yen for the houses we're looking at. We have to pay this up front, but luckily the Navy reimburses us!

We'll keep you posted on how everything goes!

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