On the hunt for a charming, well-loved fixer-upper that has good bones? An older home with a sense of history and plenty of juicy stories to tell?
If the real estate market in question happens to be in Japan
, you better keep looking because you’d be hard-pressed to find much of anything over 30-years-old, the average lifespan of a Japanese home. Even well before they reach 30, most Japanese homes are considered worthless and their owners start counting down the days until they can demolish and build something new.
In the American housing market, older homes are generally revered and increase in value as they age, and, on average, don’t meet the wrecking ball until they turn 100, if that.
Reporting for The Guardian
, writer Elizabeth Braw takes an intriguing look at Japan’s culture of disposal homes, a culture with serious environmental implications; a culture that’s not too much unlike what’s been happening to the Las Vegas Strip over the past twenty years — razing perfectly good buildings to make way for newer, flashier structures that seriously one up your neighbors.
And to keep churning out these new homes to replace the undesirable ones (the Japanese market for pre-owned homes is a miniscule one), is a small army of well-employed architects who have been executing some pretty audacious designs
, particularly in the realm of micro-housing, in recent years. As Braw notes, there are a staggering 2.5 architects per 1,000 residents in Japan, which, I should point out, has a shrinking population and a sluggish economy. In the United States, there are .33 architects per 1,000 people:
The disposable-home culture has led to a perverse market, where construction is in almost-perpetual boom without the number of homes increasing much at all. It has also produced a huge number of architects, who are kept busy by buyers wanting a new house that reflects their lifestyle.
Notes Alastair Townsend, a British architect living and working in Japan: “It's a direct contrast to, for example, western Europe, where many of the most desirable buildings are 200 years old. It's not environmentally sustainable but also not financially sustainable. People work very hard to pay off a mortgage that's ultimately worth zero."
The environmental burden that Townsend mentions largely comes in the form of construction waste. With homes being demolished and erected at a breakneck pace but little new housing being actually created, there’s a whole lot of it. And while a relatively new law has helped to ensure that a majority of the country’s construction waste is steered clear of landfills, the recycling process is still an imperfect, energy-intensive one.
And then there’s this:
Then there's the problem of illegally disposed construction waste, which is estimated to account for 70% of all illegally discarded waste. The construction sector is also a major CO2 emitter. In 2011, Japanese manufacturing and construction emitted 244.78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, compared with 587 million from manufacturing and construction in the US in 2010. Last year, Japan reneged on its pledge to cut its CO2 emissions by 25% compared with the 2005 level, instead announcing a 3.8% reduction target by 2020.
And now the big question: Why in the world are older homes in Japan so often unceremoniously razed and why do newly built ones depreciate in value so quickly?
Japan’s tendency to prematurely level homes well before their “expiration date” — an astonishing 60 percent of homes in Japan were built after 1980 — is deeply embedded into the cultural psyche of the nation on numerous levels. Although there are many factors at play including religion, much of it has to do with loss. In a country that was completely devastated by World War II and that has experienced its fair share of massive earthquakes and fires, rebuilding and starting anew is something that occurs not out of necessity, but out of habit.
Explains Jiro Yoshida, an assistant professor of business at Pennsylvania State University who specializes in the economics of the Japanese housing market: "Most structures in, for example, Tokyo were destroyed, so everything had to be rebuilt from scratch," he says of post-WWII housing in the country. "The new buildings weren't very good, so after a while many had to be knocked down."
Yoshida adds in reference to homes that are very much structually sound but demolished anyways: "The government updates the building code every 10 years due to the earthquake risk. Rather than spending money on expensive retrofitting, people just build new homes.”
More on this somewhat bewildering phenomenon can also be found at Freakonomics
where you can listen to a podcast dedicated to the topic — both Townsend and Yoshido share insight here as well. It’s also worth taking a look at the comments section of Freakonomics in which listeners react to the podcast and share their own take on the origins of Japan’s culture of disposable houses.