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Saturday, Aug. 30, 2008

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Getting back on the horse


This year's sublime fiasco with the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States had made me wince at the plight of U.S. mortgage holders, even though I am not one of them and I have but a buck ninety-eight invested in American banks.

But it's made me recall the rough years of Japan's real estate bubble, during which time I had a house yanked from under my feet here in Tokyo. And I didn't even own it. I was renting.

Until then the bubble meant nothing to me other than fodder for humor columns. For what is funnier than seeing a galloping economy screech to a dead halt, with the poor rider being flung forward into the water trough?

Yet all of a sudden I wasn't laughing. I had learned that the rider was me.

It happened like this: My former employer suggested I get out of company housing. Subtle, eh, putting suggested in italics. Quite unlike the daggers in his eyes and decibels in his voice.

Anyhow, I began to frequent realtor displays and in front of a quiet back-street business in north Tokyo, I found the house of my dreams.

Brick veneer outside, wood paneling inside. Huge living room/dining room. Three spacious bedrooms. Separate wing with two rooms and a kitchen, perfect for my mother-in-law. Ample yard. Parking space. Five minute walk from the station. Seven minutes from my kids' school. Partially furnished (with a jet bath, no less) Plus. . . with a monthly rent sharply below anything else in the neighborhood.

That should have served as a warning. But a sucker is born every minute and my time had come. At the moment my biggest worry was a kitchen barely big enough in which to break bread. Fortunately, we ate mostly rice.

The whole family loved it. Except. . . our dog. Who maybe could smell something was up.

But we ignored man's best friend and jumped through all the hoops with the realtor, who introduced us to the "owner," a man was almost giddy with joy. A few bows, some signatures and a greasy handshake later, we had rented a home.

And so . . . with frilly little hand towels as gifts we dutifully knocked on neighborhood doors, Japanese-style, and introduced ourselves as the new kids on the block.

Only to have the neighbors stare at us like we were tree sap in shoes. They knew what was coming. . . but took the towels anyway.

Yet we settled in, all of us happy with our new home — except of course, the dog. It lasted about a month.

Then our furnished fridge conked out and the jet bath ran out of gas. We called the "owner" for help and, no matter what the hour, the man never answered his phone.

A week later we had a cop at the door. He wanted to know if I was. . . and he offered a Japanese name. Somehow he soon guessed I was not his man.

Who it seems had been the real owner of the house, a true victim of bubble trouble. He'd skipped out on a truckload of debts, with the law and his creditors in hot pursuit.

"So who owns the house now?"

Turns out it was not our "owner." He was just one of the creditors, out to recoup losses by renting a house he didn't own. A house that had just been sold at public auction to a large real estate firm.

Whose representative soon showed up with the requisite credentials. They suggested we leave. It was a message I'd heard before.

But I am an American and in such times Americans know what to do. We sue.

I sued the realtor who had misled us and I sued our never-at-home "owner," who found it harder to hide from my lawyer.

Both men showed the requisite remorse. It was an honest mistake, they said. It might have happened to anyone (stupid enough to fall for it). We then settled out of court.

Not a bad deal. We ended up living in the dream home rent-free till we could find a new spot. The bad guys then paid all expenses for the move. And they then sweetened the pot with a hefty damage payment.

About which our lawyer — gentleman-like — said, "Don't worry about me. You keep it all."

Until I responded even-more-gentlemanlike with, "No, no, you should be paid."

"Oh. . . OK," he said. And then he took half.

None of this properly describes the trauma we went through, the times the men showed up suddenly to suggest we leave sooner, the "boy, are you dumb" looks flashed at us by neighbors and the weeks and weeks of desperately trying to find a place — any place — to house our family.

Finally, we found a rental and moved promptly. In the end, the new place was, at best, just OK. In fact, only one of us really loved it.

You guessed it — the dog.



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