In most countries around the world, value is placed on older buildings. There’s something about the history, originality, and charm of an older home that causes their value to sometimes be higher than newly constructed projects. But in Japan, the opposite is almost always the preference. Newly-built homes are the crux of a housing market where homes are almost never sold and the obsession with razing and rebuilding is as much a cultural thing as it is a safety concern, bringing 30-year-old homes to a valueless market.
Unlike in other countries, homes in Japan rapidly depreciate over time, becoming nearly valueless 20-30 years after they were built. If someone moves out of a home before that time frame, the house is seen as having no value and is demolished in favor of the land, which is seen as being high in value. This approach to building longevity is explained by both the poor construction techniques that were created to meet the booming demand for housing after World War II, and also the frequently updated building codes that aim to improve resilience against earthquakes and the looming threat of other natural disasters. Additionally, because people believe that their homes will quickly lose value, there’s little incentive to maintain them in a way that would make them enticing to a potential future buyer. What this provides is a market where homeowners feel more liberation to design homes as they want while simultaneously accepting their negative equity. In fact, Japan has nearly five times the number of registered architects, due to the need for newly built custom homes.
While this trend seems to apply to most of Japan, there are small signs that this trend of rebuilding may be experiencing some change. Some homeowners are taking a smaller-scale approach to the wrecking ball, and considering renovating their homes by redesigning floor plans, demoing walls, and opening up spaces in a more modern way. For the first time in many years, people are beginning to appreciate an older home.
Part of this niche market movement is just a reflection of what is happening across Japan. Population growth is on a rapid decline, expected to decrease by nearly 40 million by 2065. The country is also an aging population- soon more than one-third of people in Japan will be over the age of 65. These demographic trends are causing an above-average number of homes to be vacant, and that number is expected to rise to about 30% in 2033- giving Japan a reason to rehab old homes instead of building new ones.
In the more urban areas where the majority of the population skews younger, people have more flexible options. Companies in Tokyo are looking at non-traditional and less-cultural forms of housing. From transforming buildings into having new uses (like the popular method of taking old office space and converting it into apartments), and designing new co-living areas, new spaces and ways of living are being introduced into a society that lends more traditional and conservative. Not only do these shared spaces offer a cheaper means of living, but they also strengthen the sense of community between non-family members and encourage more social interaction.
Japan’s 30-year home life span is both a curse and a blessing. While it offers a level of unique design, and the ability to live as you please without the pressure of needing to resell your home, the notion of “old” equating to bad is thankfully being reconsidered.