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Japanese realtors try sales gimmicks to sell properties

It takes a great deal of ingenuity to sell a house in Japan these days.

Construction and real estate companies are constantly having to come up with new sales gimmicks to unload properties that could otherwise stay on the market for months.

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Even though fewer houses are being built than at any time in the past few years, there are still more houses than buyers. This is not because the market is saturated. Blame it on economic depression.

Inflation in the cost of land, always a scarce commodity, and construction materials is placing home ownership beyond the reach of a growing number of Japanese.

The equivalent of $100,000 would not buy much more than a three-room wooden shack anywhere in Tokyo these days, with possibly a matchbox-sized garden. And the view from the living room window might be a neighbor's concrete wall or the local gasworks belching fumes.

Fairly decent houses -- woodframe with two or three bedrooms -- within an hour or so traveling time of central Tokyo now go on the market for around $160, 000.

The deposit requirements are high before a prospective buyer can seek a bank loan. Many home owners, in fact, only reach their goal through generous help from their company.

The government has been hoping housing construction will pick up to promote economic recovery. But with so many unsold units on their hands, the industry is cutting back. Housing starts have now declined for four straight months compared to a year ago, and the prospect is that only 1.1 million homes will be built this year, against a modest Construction Ministry target of 1.3 million.

Hence, the new sales strategies now being tried.

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One of the biggest companies, Mitsui Real Estate Development, has 4,000 condominiums now under construction in a huge housing development in Osaka, western Japan.

Admittedly nervous about sales prospects, the company is sponsoring a nationwide radio quiz program that really does nothing more than ask listeners to identify the name of the Osaka project.

More than 3,000 answers were received in the first two weeks. A Mitsui official predicted a tenfold increase by the time the first condominiums hit the market in September.

Ten lucky winners from all those who get the answer right will get an eight-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Paris, Rome, and Vienna.

''No, they are not under any obligation to buy a home, although naturally we hope they will. But our real aim is to get more people interested in the idea of home ownership,'' says a spokesman.

Also in Osaka, the construction firm Hasegawa Komuten has set up a permanent flea market -- selling bargains from clothing to furniture. In the middle of the market is a ''housing corner'' trying to lure shoppers into a bigger expense.

In Tokyo, one company is promoting a housing development built around tennis courts and offering free lessons from well-known professional players. (Tennis is a current boom sport here).

In Nara, western Japan, a major real estate company, Tokyu Land Corporation, set up a temporary zoo in a new development on the theory that parents who brought along their youngsters would inevitably be drawn to look at the nice new homes all around them.

But the best idea of all to bring in new buyers could be better quality homes.

Amid mounting complaints over shoddy workmanship that can turn a dream home into a nightmare of defects, the Construction Ministry is now promoting a ''housing performance guarantee system.''

It is already operating on the northernmost island of Hokkaido and the aim is to have it established nationwide by 1984. A nonprofit organization of licensed builders will be set up in each region with its own insurance fund and inspectors visiting new homes during and after their construction to enforce set standards.

Major defects detected within two years will be paid for by the builder. For the following eight years the organization will meet the bill. Small repairs will be negotiable, with the Construction Ministry mediating if necessary.

''Long-term quality guarantees probably now are the key sales strategy in a very depressed market,'' says an industry leader.

The only drawback: ''Quality'' will add an estimated 4 to 5 percent to the cost.

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