What is the Lifespan of a Japanese Condominium?

How long can you live in a used condominium after purchase?

Condominiums in Japan are demolished in their prime?!

May 2013: Dojunkai apartment block, Uenoshita Apartments, closes its doors after 84 years of history. This building was completed in 1929 and was the last of 16 Dojunkai steel-enforced concrete apartments built in Tokyo and Yokohama during the reconstruction after the Great Kanto Earthquake. The last demolished (re-built) Dojunkai apartment also housed tenants for about 70 years.

 

In comparison to the long-lived Dojunkai apartments, complexes that gained popularity after the 1960s generally only stood for around 30 years. In 2002, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) determined that the average lifespan of these buildings was 37 years from the beginning of construction. Also, Tokyo Kantei announced in their July 2014 publication "Condominium Lifespan" that the average lifespan was 33.4 years from the 198 buildings that had been rebuilt nationwide. The average in Tokyo is 40.0 years, but this is most likely raised by the extreme examples of the Dojunkai apartments. The apartments demolished after 30 - 40 years are the most common examples.

 

The city government in Tokyo, as an area with a high demand for condominiums, has been making progress on the upkeep of older residences since 2000. However, "old" buildings at the time were still defined as "30 years."

 

It is predicted that the number of older condominiums will continue to increase, but what is the actual lifespan of a Japanese condominium?

 

Created with information drawn from the MLIT Council 11th Building Standards Section Meeting

 

Concrete structures that last over 100 years?

Whether reinforced concrete (RC) or steel reinforced concrete (SRC), concrete is the most important factor in the lifespan of buildings. According to the MLIT report "Research Lifespan of RC (Concrete) Structures", "RC structures are predicted to have a physical lifespan of 117 years" (IIZUKA (1979) "Building Maintenance Management" Kajima Publishing). "The lifespan for RC buildings is 120 years for general buildings (including residential buildings) and can be extended to 150 years by adding an exterior finish" (Ministry of Finance Tax Office (1951) "Calculation Methods for Service Life of Property.") Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that these buildings can stand for at least 100 years. In addition, "According to average lifespan assessed in from demolition data in the fixed asset ledger (...), RC residential properties have a lifespan of 68 years (KOMATSU (2013) "Survey on the Average Lifespan of Buildings"). This points out that only a few properties are used for the maximum lifespan.

 

There are most likely several elements to determine the lifespan of a concrete building, but the thickness of the concrete plays an important role in increasing the number of years a building can withstand. A thickness of 3 cm relates to about 65 years, and 4 cm to 100 years. Also, the Long-Term Excellent Residential System requires that "the structural framework must be able to withstand at least 100 years under normal maintenance conditions" but this was originally based on the "200 Year Residential Concept."

 

Not to mention, recently concrete that can withstand 200 years has already been invented, and a major general contractor is researching a "500-year concrete."

The first official long-term condominium “Branchera Urawa” (Completed in June 2011, Haseko Corporation)

 

Reasons Condominiums have such short Lifespans - Construction Issues

But why are buildings demolished and rebuilt after 30 years despite the fact that the lifespan of concrete exceeds 100 years? In order to grasp this issue, we have to understand the legal and social background.

 

First, let's take a look at the issue of earthquake prevention standards. There were approximately 1.06 million buildings built according to the old seismic reinforcement standards, and about 60 to 80% of those are assumed to have no prevention measures at all. However, another 10% of these buildings have received seismic reinforcement renovations, but over half have not been touched. Therefore, the question is whether to add reinforcement or to simply replace the entire building. According to the MLIT data in April 2013 (not including the reconstruction of buildings damaged in the 1995 earthquake), a total of 183 (approximately 14,000 units) had been rebuilt (apart from 24 buildings under reconstruction at the time and 11 in preparation).

 

Above, we reported that "many buildings are rebuilt after 30 years," but the more correct statement is "seismic reinforcement cannot be added to most of the condominiums, so they are rebuilt after about 30 years."

 

Next, we will take a look at the issue of quality. During the growth period in the 1970s, there was a large number of condominiums built as well as civilian and public buildings. This building rush led to a shortage of sand in the rivers, so sand from beaches was used in great amounts. As a result of the insufficient cleaning process, salt grains were left in the ocean sand and led to a decline in the quality. "Defective condos" became a social issue, and there was a large number of leakage of buildings in the 1980s (that is, buildings built during the 1970s.)

 

Even without life-threatening defects, these buildings reached 30 years old in the 2000s. Of course, not all of the condominiums built during this period were low-quality, but the one has to consider the large number of buildings that wore down relatively quickly.

 

Condominiums without a single wall repair. At the time of this photo (2003), this building was 31 years old.

 

Reasons Condominiums have such short Lifespans - Maintenance Issues

Another necessary factor for the lifespan of condominiums is issue of maintenance and management. Condominiums built in recent year all have maintenance plans that are supported by a maintenance fund. However, buildings built during the 1960s and 1970s did not have maintenance plans or funds collected from the owners. When the wear and tear on the building became visible, the fees amounted to several million yen per household - a fee impossible to convince owners to pay - so the buildings were left without repairs. There is also the issue of the increasing age of the tenants of the buildings in addition to the high maintenance costs. It was not simply about finding the finances to pay, but also a question of whether or not people wanted to continue living there after repairs.

 

Not to mention, there were also inherent problems with old condominiums themselves (small, no changing room or space for a washing machine), no elevators, low specs (thin floor slabs, low ceilings, short steps), etc. This led to an increase in vacant units. As condominiums grow in age, they are increasingly rented out, and research has shown that vacancy rates increase with age of the building. If vacancy rates increase, it creates a vicious cycle for building maintenance.

 

The background behind this is the idea of "scrap and build" structures intended to be demolished and rebuilt after aging as well as social values. This refers to the concept of "worn down=rebuild" rather than renovating buildings to increase their lifespans. In some of the buildings constructed around the 1970s, the floor area ratio was not used completely which means that it is easier to rebuild them. For some of the public housing facilities in the wards of Tokyo, there were cases where around 120 to 150m² of land were alloted for each 40m² unit. In this case, it is possible to drastically increase the number of units and sell them to third-party buyers to off-set the construction costs.

 

A condominium with the metal frame sticking out of the cracked concrete. This building was 29 years old at the time of this photo.

 

There are many things to check when buying an older condominium!

Most reconstructed condominiums were special cases, and only amount to a small percentage of the total. As a result, we will start to see a drastic increase in 40 to 50-year-old condominiums in the near future. However, one also has to consider that there are a number of worn-down condominiums for which there are no effective measures that can be taken. Also, many "existing non-conforming buildings" are out there that exceed current floor area ratio standards.

 

Although concrete structures with exterior insulation are common in the Europe and North America, they never gained popularity in Japan. This has lead to a shorter lifespan for condominiums, but the physical lifespan can be expected to increase with the development of construction techniques.

 

However, at the same time one must consider the "economic" and "social lifespans." If, due to increases in the age of tenants and vacancy rates, it is not possible to collect enough money for management and maintenance funds, buildings will not receive the maintenance they require, and their lifespans will decrease. This is the economic lifespan.

 

Internal factors include changes in the social landscape and obsolete facilities that cause residents to think that it is no longer worthwhile to continue living where they do. On the other hand, external factors are related to changes such as in the social structure, laws, and urban planning can mean that certain buildings is no longer required for its original purpose and can influence the living environment as well as the social lifespan. Considering the shrinking population, there may also be less of a need for condominiums in the future. The market for used residential properties has a enormous effect on condominium lifespans. There is a large number of older properties not applicable for mortgages.

 

Of course, you should have the condition of older condominiums inspected upon purchase. But in addition, you should also confirm that there is a maintenance plan in place, that there is enough money to fund it, and that necessary repairs have been performed in the past. In addition, it is also important to inquire about the average age of the tenants, the vacancy rate, and whether or not there will continue to be a need for the building in the future.

 

If the fund is insufficient to cover repairs, up to several million yen could be collected from the owner of each unit. The amount collected is not relative to the length of residency, so residents who have lived in the building for 30 years or several days must all provide the same amount (or a portion divided according to the area of each unit).

 

The lifespan of a condominium depends on the residents. Just like maintaining good health, exercise, and diet are important for humans to have a long life, condominiums also need to be maintained to increase their lifespan. When looking to purchase a second-hand condo everyone wonders how much longer it will stay livable, but unfortunately there is no clear answer.

 

If the building is well maintained and there is no major earthquake damage, buildings currently on the market are often tenanted for around 60 - 70 years. But just like the lifespan of each person is different, condominiums wear down at different rates, so it is important to inspect them before purchase.

 

18 November, 2014

Masayuki Hirano

Reex Brain Real Estate Consultant

(Translated by LIFULL International Investments Group)