Building a House in Japan - First Steps

An image of a modern Japanese interior by homemaker Ecoworks
An interior by Ecoworks, a house maker in Japan.

Step One: Finding a Builder

I thought about putting “Finding Land” as step one, but most housing companies will help you with that. For us, we found the land first, thanks to one of my husband’s friends. We didn’t actually decide to buy it though, until we found our builder.

There are plenty of housing companies all over Japan that have smaller branches in most prefectures. Originally, I wanted Talo Loghouse to be our builder. We both adore the idea of living in a log cabin and they’re actually quite trendy in Japan. We connected with our local chapter for Talo, a company called Forest Blue.

I’m not here to bash on Forest Blue because their houses are simply stunning. We looked at a few houses, met with several of the staff, and even went to look at land for sale with them. However, I feel like they never took us seriously. Maybe it’s because my husband and I look like punk teenagers? But hey, I’m almost 40 and was very serious about building a house with them. Still, the general attitude we got was, “Meh, maybe we’ll build you a house…if we feel like it.” They didn’t return our calls half of the time and did very little to show they wanted our business.

The whole experience really put us off and we didn’t revisit the idea of building a house for almost a year. I spent a long time looking at house builder accounts on Instagram. I chose four for us to look at and we started visiting their open houses. The companies were BESS Kumamoto, Storyhouse Kumamoto, NEO Homes, and Ecoworks.

After visiting several open houses, we chose a builder. I’ll eventually share which builder we chose, but I’d like to keep that private for now. I will say that our reasons for choosing our builder had less to do with their style of homes and more to do with how the staff treated us. The staff was the perfect mix of friendly, helpful, and trustworthy without being overly pushy. 

The exterior of a loghouse in Japan by house maker Talo
A cute and cozy cabin from Japanese maker Talo Loghouse

Step Two: Finding Land

Every time we tried to move forward with building a house, we were met with some issue due to the land. “The little old lady who owns the land probably won’t make up her mind for three or four years” or “This land is reserved for agriculture and it would be too expensive to change it to residential.” This was by far the most frustrating thing about the home building process.

There are a number of issues as to why finding land in Japan is so hard. First of all, Japan is ridiculously small and 70% of the country is covered in mountain ranges. Apparently, only 33% of land in Japan is actually habitable. Second of all, Japan is crowded. Third of all, I wanted land that was as out-in-the-countryside as I could get. This put us at a slight advantage because most people want to live in cities. However, most of the land that appealed to me was reserved for agricultural purposes.

A while back, my husband and I visited a place of business that was located in the forest. I was obsessed with the location; I called it the “Ghibli Forest” because it felt like something straight out of My Neighbor Totoro. My husband is friendly with the business owner, so I urged him to ask questions about the land and if he knew of some in the surrounding area that we could purchase.

Turns out, he did.

The business owner introduced us to an old man who owned several parcels of land in the forest. Seriously, every time he showed us a parcel, he’d be like, “Well if you don’t like this one, I actually have another right over here.” His biggest parcel was on a hilltop. As much as I would’ve liked that one, our builder advised against it.

We settled on a parcel roughly 35,000 square feet in size. Unfortunately, a good portion of the land is on a steep hillside. I definitely would have preferred for all of the land to be livable space (or at least walkable), but the hillside will keep any future neighbors from building too closely. 

Honestly, I would live an hour’s drive away from the nearest town or neighbor if I could. All I need is wifi to do my work and I’m set. My husband’s job is on-site though, so it was important to him to be close to work. Thankfully, our land is much closer to his job than the apartment where we live currently. 

The interior of a Japanese house made by house maker Storyhouse Kumamoto
The upstairs interior of a house done by Storyhouse Kumamoto

Step Three: Getting a Loan

I’m afraid I won’t be able to provide a lot of advice or insight to this step. Since I’m not a Japanese citizen or resident, there’s no way I’d be able to get a home loan. Heck, I couldn’t even get a car loan when I first moved here for work (I still can’t, by the way). I’m no longer an employee of the Japanese school system (I’m a freelance content writer), so in the bank’s eyes, there’s no great way to verify my income. 

While there’s a small chance my husband would have qualified for a home loan on his own, we asked his father to cosign for us. He didn’t do so lightly, which we both understood and respected. Naturally, we will work hard to ensure that we’ll never require financial assistance from my father-in-law. 

I don’t want to give a ton of particulars on our loan, but I’ll say that the entire process is going to cost under 300K USD. I feel like this is pretty standard for new houses in Japan, though you can definitely build a house for less. The log cabin of our dreams would have been more like 400K USD, just because wood is so expensive.

A floorplan of a Japanese model house done by Ecoworks

Step Four: Planning and Customizing

Once we had chosen our builder and let them know we were serious about building a house, they started having us come in for meetings on a weekly basis (sometimes twice a week). This is where we’re currently at in the home building process. We’ve met with the designer probably eight to ten times? Each meeting is roughly two and a half hours long.

When we first looked at open houses, we saw two different models, as well as a catalog with the other models they offered. We were both quite taken with the second model we looked at but wanted to do some heavy modifications.

For starters, we didn’t want a “washitsu” (a Japanese-style room with tatami flooring). Second, we wanted the kitchen to have a floor plan that was more open. Every single house or apartment I’ve lived in has had a galley kitchen.

I hate galley kitchens. 

In Japan, galley kitchens are the standard. While we aren’t able to get a nice, open kitchen, we reconfigured the floor plan so that the kitchen is open from both sides. We also wanted a second bathroom. Most houses and apartments in Japan only have one bathroom. My husband either has IBS or a gluten allergy (he’s in the process of getting tested) so yeah, a second bathroom is necessary.

That’s where I’m going to leave things for now. In the next post, I’ll talk more about what we did at our planning meetings and discuss the timeline for the house. Exciting stuff!

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