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Sunday, July 25, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Home is where the financial heartbreak is


If you have a dedicated telephone line, you probably receive calls from sales people pitching new condominiums or single-family homes in your area. The pitch always starts the same way: "Do you rent? Do you pay more than 100,000 yen a month? If you were paying that much a month for a mortgage, you could own your own home. Now you're just throwing your money away."

This sales strategy is based on an accepted good thing -- home ownership -- that is in turn dependent on a myth which says home ownership is a sound investment. In Japan, however, it isn't and never has been. Only land has any real value, and since the end of the bubble economy and the onset of deflation, land prices throughout the country have fallen.

Right now, the price of a new house or condominium is said to drop by 10-20 percent as soon as you move into it, and the value continues to drop more or less to zero over time, whether you carry out improvements or not. Japanese housing is not built to last, on purpose.

This is not news, but the myth persists, encouraged by the government, whose policy is to promote home ownership. That's why TBS's daytime variety show, "Happy Hiru (Happy Noon)" (Monday to Friday, noon), is almost subversive in the way it portrays the housing market.

"Happy Hiru" goes one step beyond the home improvement "reform boom," which was launched by "Best Time," the show's predecessor in that time slot, several years ago and is now exemplified by the prime-time house-renovation show "Before After" on TV Asahi. The reform boom made public what everyone understood privately: that Japanese housing is junk.

The TBS show not only confirms this belief, but clarifies it in a way that anyone can easily grasp. Every day, a female announcer and a charming young real-estate agent named Suwa visit a house or condominium at the request of its owner, who explains how much she paid for the property and how much she "hopes" to get if she resells it.

The most pertinent data for the assessment is the size of the property, its location, and how long ago it was built, but the bulk of the segment is taken up by Suwa going through the property room-by-room and pointing out its "pluses and minuses." In the end, three celebrities back in the studio make their own assessment and then Suwa gives his verdict.

Without exception, Suwa's price is always lower than the one that was originally paid, but often the drop in value is so steep and so fast that the owner virtually goes into shock right there in front of the camera.

The most unsettling aspect of the show is how gullible buyers seem after Suwa has gone over their property. One woman paid 49 million yen for her 75-sq.-meter condo in Tokyo's upscale Bunkyo Ward only three months prior to Suwa's visit. "That's cheap for this area," he said. The woman thought so, too, and believed she could get 55 million yen if she resold it. Suwa's assessment was 46 million yen.

Obviously, the woman doesn't watch "Happy Hiru" regularly. Many of the properties Suwa visits are in "popular" locations, which would seem to mean that their value should at least remain stable. But since they are popular, developers are saturating those areas with new condos, which are more desirable than used ones, even if the used ones have only been used for a couple of months.

Though Suwa never criticizes the industry he works for, he can't help but put it in a bad light with his comments. Many of the people he visits paid too much for their properties and he tells them so. Tarento Kazushige Nagashima, the show's main star, has an uncanny ability to guess the correct value, and perhaps because of his media reputation as being simple-minded he gets away with comments that usually don't get said on daytime TV. "That woman was cheated," he said about a homeowner who was led to believe the concrete apron in front of her property could be used as a parking space. After she moved in she discovered it couldn't.

Because of the show's sunny atmosphere, these disappointments may not seem as dire as they really are, but if you watch the show regularly it can be cumulatively depressing. One woman who bought her house in Sagamihara eight years ago for 36 million yen discovered that it was now worth only 18 million yen (including land) and commented ominously, "The remaining mortgage payments are more than that."

The only people who come out ahead are those who have owned their land for many years or inherited it from their parents. In these cases, Suwa's assessment of the houses themselves is pointless, since the structure has no value whatsoever after such a long time. One woman who had owned her home in Kawasaki for more than 30 years estimated the value of the property at 40 million yen, because that's what she figured the land was worth. But Suwa pegged the value at 38 million yen after subtracting the cost of demolishing the house that stood on it. In other words, the house had minus value.

Since condo owners do not have land, they lose from day one, and factoring in the interest on a 35-year loan, there's not much difference between a homeowner paying monthly installments (and property tax) and a nonhomeowner paying rent if, in the end, the homeowner only gets back a fraction of the money he spent when he sells. The next time one of those salespeople calls, you'll know what to say.



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