As further evidence that real estate is a local business, let’s take a look at the housing market in Japan today. It’s a very unique market.
According to this Freakonomics podcast, 50% of all single family houses in Japan are demolished by the time they reach 38 years old. That’s their half-life. By contrast, in the US, this number is 100 years.
The reason for this is rapid depreciation. Real property typically consists of two things: land and the building. Land doesn’t depreciate. But the structure sitting on the land does.
In Japan, the building or structure is thought to be fully depreciated (and therefore worth nothing) after about 30 years for a single-family home and after about 40 years for an apartment/condominium.
The result is that there’s virtually no resale housing market. When somebody buys a house, it is usually torn down and completely rebuilt. It’s a uniquely Japanese phenomenon.
So why does this happen?
The Freakonomics podcast presents a couple of hypothesis. Some believe that it’s caused by a Japanese fixation with newness. New is seen as pure and clean.
Others believe that it has to do with a building code that is constantly changing due to the high frequency of earthquakes in Japan. 20% of the world’s earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater happen in Japan. And so there appears to be a belief that newer homes – with the latest seismic technologies – are the safest.
Whatever the case may be, the fact that there’s virtually no resale housing market in Japan, not surprisingly, produces some interesting outcomes. For one, maintenance and DIY home projects are uncommon. Why invest in your home when it’s not viewed as an asset, but as a disposable good?
At the same time, people worry very little about marketability when they are building new. And this is a big reason why Japan is so famous for its radically designed homes. When you’re building only for yourself, you just do what you want.
But most importantly, some (such as Richard Koo, who is interviewed in the podcast) believe that this approach to housing is a huge “obstacle to affluence.” Without a functioning resale market, the Japanese don’t get the opportunity to build wealth/equity in the same way that other countries do.
Do you buy that?