– INTRODUCTION TO OUR PROJECT –
After many months of searching and planning, we are embarking on the renovation of a traditional machiya townhouse located very close to Nijo Castle in Kyoto City. Once complete, the renovated machiya will be offered for sale.
WHAT IS A MACHIYA?
A machiya is a wood-framed building constructed before the 1950 Building Standards Act, designed for town-living and built with a traditional method of construction. Features may include a long entrance or hallway along the side of the house with a kitchen and vaulted ceiling, small courtyard garden, mud and straw walls, tiled eaves on the first story, and grid-type lattice bay windows on the ground floor window. In Kyoto, these machiya are often referred to as ‘kyo-machiya’, a word coined in the 1960s.
In 2016 there were about 40,000 surviving machiya in Kyoto City, although 5,600 were demolished between 2009 and 2016. An average of 2.2 of these houses are demolished each day to make way for new developments.
FINDING THE RIGHT HOUSE
After combing through various realtor websites, listing sites and the agents-only multiple-listing database, we came up with a shortlist of properties. More than half were already sold or under contract when we called the listing agents to arrange a visit. On an earlier trip to Kyoto, I had the chance to see a very gorgeous machiya before it was officially put on the market, only to see it sold to a buyer the following evening. Lesson learned. The traditional townhouses were selling fast. From conversations with local agents, many of the buyers have been corporate buyers looking to operate holiday rentals, or out-of-towners (Tokyo-ites) looking for a weekender. We had to be ready to make a move on a place quickly.
We considered several options. Some were in great locations but too small, while others were the right size but in less exciting neighborhoods.
It was on the second trip to Kyoto that we found a house with potential. It was tucked down an old laneway with no passing traffic. Two of the ten terraces had been renovated in the past couple of years. The true age of the terraces is unknown, although a neighbor said there were records of them existing as early as 1902 (Meiji 35), which would make them at least 116 years old. There were once fourteen homes in total, five on the southern side, five on the northern side and four on the eastern side. The eastern side terraces were demolished some time ago and replaced with a school building while the north and south terraces remain. It’s possible these three blocks of terraces may have been built as a rental investment by a landowner. They all appear to have been renovated at some point after WWII and in the same fashion, possibly by the landlord at the time. The land and terraces have since been subdivided into freehold ownership and are now owned by various individuals.
When searching, the priority was somewhere close to the city’s landmarks and with enough shops and cafes nearby to have a good ‘walk score’. Finding something that was within 100 meters of Nijo Castle and less than a 15 minute walk to Sanjo-dori Street ticked those boxes. Kyoto doesn’t have an extensive train network like Tokyo does, with locals relying on the city’s bus system. That being said, we were lucky to find a property that is walking distance to stations on Kyoto’s two subway lines. A taxi from Kyoto Station to Nijo Castle is about a 10 ~ 15 minute drive, depending on traffic.
There were some good points for this particular machiya. It was south facing with no immediate neighbor on the southern side, which meant the upstairs received full sunlight during the colder, winter months when the sun is lower in the sky. It already had a bathroom extension, which could be grandfathered into the future renovation.
We put in an offer then-and-there and came back a week later to do a same-day contract and settlement. On the day of the contract we spent around 2 hours at the realtor’s office going over the due diligence and contract documents with the seller before signing them. We then went to the bank to transfer the funds, scrivener fees and brokerage fees. The money was transferred as soon as the scriveners gave us the okay after checking the title papers against the seller’s identification. Once the seller had confirmed receipt of the money, the scriveners immediately went to the legal affairs bureau to transfer the change in ownership. The seller gave us the keys to the house and we parted ways.
We went straight to the property to introduce ourselves to one of the neighbors who was home at the time. In Japan it is customary to bring small, inexpensive gifts to your neighbors when you move into a home, although it is becoming a less common practice in larger cities. This gesture puts you on good footing and can help to avoid potential trouble or hostility from neighbors in the future. When a renovation company starts construction, they make a point of visiting neighbors to introduce themselves.
About a week later we received the title deed from the scrivener and set up the utilities and insurance.
DID YOU KNOW?
Things to be aware of when looking to buy a traditional machiya townhouse:
- By definition, these homes were built before the introduction of Japan’s Building Standards Act (aka the building code) in 1950. To make such an old structure comply with the current act and to make it meet earthquake resistant standards would involve replacing basically the entire structure and starting from scratch. However, it is possible to add reinforcing. They also do not have building certificates, and these cannot be retroactively obtained or applied for.
- The lack of a building certificate and the non-compliance of these homes means that adding any legal extensions to the property is technically not allowed. Even a 1 square meter extension is a no-go in this situation. However, any previous extensions that may have been built over the years may be grandfathered in and restored, as long as you stick to the confines of that structure. Why is this important? The smaller terraces were often built without bathrooms. The custom was to go to the local bath house. When you are looking to renovate one of these terraces, it’s better to find one that has space to either install a bathroom inside, or one where a bathroom extension was added many years ago.
- Laneway or normal street frontage? Laneways are quiet. There is no street traffic. Since they do not front onto a legal road, however, they cannot usually be rebuilt. A terrace with proper street frontage will get more noise from cars that pass by, but can be rebuilt in most cases.
- If you plan to operate a licensed guest house, check your zoning and local regulations very carefully. Kyoto has very strict rules about hotel licensing and even the looser minpaku-style licensing is strictly regulated. Some exceptions may be granted for machiya properties. If in doubt, go down to city hall for a chat.