Monday, March 26, 2012

Property Preparation Wrap-up

The preparation for the property is finished. 
The retaining wall looks very sturdy and was finished with a nice lip on top.
The drainage wall and pipe has also been finished and installed on the other side of the property.
We're very happy that the land is looking crisp and clean and ready for construction to begin...Hopefully in May.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

More property preparation

We stopped by the property to see how the pre-construction work was going.
A couple of very solid retaining walls have been poured. The land has also been leveled and smoothed. They added another week to the permit, so it looks like they're not finished yet.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Updated floor plan for March

We had a three hour meeting at the architects office this week. We reviewed the plans and made some minor changes. Check out the new feature in the atelier upstairs (last picture below), we added a window that extends outward, so it will have a window seat space inside.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Property Preparation

NOTE: I began this blog in March, 2012 most of my last posts happened several months or even years ago; so I'm happy to be able to now give updates which are happening in the present time.

Even though we still haven't secured our loan or finished planning and budgeting, some exciting steps have began to prepare the property for the house to be built.

The property is getting some necessary reinforcements and procedures that must be completed prior to us getting the go ahead for construction.

We were surprised to see some busy workers and machinery on our land as we hadn't received any news of when this work would begin.
Here's Yoko posing with the official permit, they've allowed 8 days for this job.
There's a parking area that borders our land that needs to have a retaining wall built. A hole was dug and a couple days later it looked like this.
 A small wall along the edge of the reservoir was also built to deal with drainage.

Soil Test

Our property is on a slope, and near the water so we were made aware of the challenge of building a solid foundation. Obviously earthquakes are also a concern in Japan so foundation construction is done to a high standard.

Our architect encouraged us to do a soil test and we were prepared to plan for a piling foundation which would involve boring tubes into the ground.

There were two tests available, at first we opted for the less expensive test, but the results were inconclusive. This was the machine that showed up for the first test. I'm really not sure what's involved here, but to my eye it looked like he was inserting long rods into the ground to measure resistance...
Since the first test gave us inconclusive results we decided to have the more elaborate test done. This is what the machine that performed the second test looked like.

They bored various holes around the property, taking core samples to test the strength of the soil.

Several weeks later we met with our architect to get the results. She presented us with this case, we had no idea what was going to be inside...
They opened it and inside were these carefully packaged vials of earth from the test, very cool.
Even better was the news that the land was solid enough so as not to require a complicated piling foundation, instead we could use a more conventional slab foundation.

Good News

Our architect has a connection at Grohe faucets. It seems that they want to donate faucets in exchange for Yoko doing some photography for them.
We're really excited, they make great faucets and also make an under-counter water filtration system with Cleansui which we were planning on using anyways!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Kitchen

Planning a kitchen in a house is critical.

We're initially just putting in a kitchen island and will add additional shelves and counter space after we move in.

Japan has a huge amount of system kitchen manufacturers. We visited every major kitchen showroom in our area and even went to Kobe to look at the IKEA kitchens.

In the end it looks like we've decided to use a kitchen from Toyo. The quality of their kitchen island and the simple design really appeals to us. They have very solid stainless counters and great big sinks. The island will include a dishwasher, propane range and hood. We'll use their Bay line with the chaos cabinets.
We're not totally in love with the cabinet material but at least scratches won't be an issue.

We also visited a very cool custom kitchen company, kitobito. They're a local maker who use really nice wood and are very craft oriented. We're hoping to have them make our bathroom sink and cabinets.

This is the kitchen in their house, our architect also designed their home.

Floor Plan

As Spring approached we were busy working on the floorplan.

We had compiled a vast photo library of inspiring images so Yokota-san had a pretty good idea of what we wanted: simple, spacious, stylish, and modern being some of the words I would ascribe to our tastes. We were pretty happy with the initial design and layout she presented us with.

We had many meetings going over little details and fine-tuning the layout.

This floorpan is after several revisions and we made a couple of changes after this version.

Around February one of the employees from Unita presented is with this model of our house. It was exciting to see something in 3-D!

Motoki was very interested in his room.

Securing a Loan

When we first began thinking of buying land in Japan, we knew from previous experience in New York City that speaking with a bank regarding our eligibility for a mortgage was the first step. We had learned that just because you could afford a loan (in your own mind) that the banks have the final say.

We visited and talked with many banks. Most said that they could not offer us a loan because we had not lived in Japan long enough and that a foreigners salary in Japan does not count towards earnings.

But a couple of banks were confident that we could qualify for a loan and so we applied. Since Yoko is self employed and I'm an American Citizen there were some challenges. Luckily Yoko had the perseverance to take on the task of learning the various types of loans available in Japan.

At this point we had to seriously think about how much we could spend and how we would be able to afford our house and still build something that we could be excited about with quality construction and materials.

Up until the groundbreaking for the land, we still had not locked in our loan...we will keep you posted on our final decision.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Finding our Land

With the help of several real estate companies including large Japanese home construction firms we looked at dozens of properties. We were pretty adamant about our requirements: location, price and size of the land being our main concerns. We wanted to be within walking or bicycling distance of a train station, and thus closer than thirty minutes to Okayama station. We also wanted to have a large enough piece of land for parking a couple cars and a garden. Of course money was a concern too.
Unfortunately none of the pieces of land we saw met any of our criteria until one day in the Fall of 2011 we found our land.

 It's on a slope, bordered by a newish house a small garden and a little reservoir/duck pond.

We immediately were interested. It met all of our requirements and the price seemed reasonable. The person who found it for us is the owner of an architecture firm, Unita, who we met her through Yoko's friend.

We quickly learned that, Yokota-san, was extremely dedicated, tireless and talented. We were so pleased with her that we decided to use her as our architect.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

First Kumayama Property in Kawatahara

This was the first piece of land we considered buying. It was on the same street we lived on and was owned by a family in our neighborhood who seemed willing to sell it to us. At least that was our first impression. We pursued this land for several months even meeting with the Japanese Agriculture office several times. Since all the land in our town which was available for purchase was zoned for farming there was a lot of paperwork and government bureaucracy involved. 

There were several things going for the land but in the end it didn't work out. Mostly because the owner had an unrealistic view of its value and was asking three times more than it was worth.

In the end it was probably a good thing. We looked at several other pieces of land in our town, but either were blocked by the zoning laws which promoted farming over residential construction or we didn't like the location.

We began to think that we would have to move to a different part of Okayama. We were a bit sad about the thought of leaving our nice community, but at the same time, we felt too far away from Okayama city, where we did most of our shopping and other activities.

246 Kawatahara

We arrived, from New York City, in Japan in the Spring of 2010. We had tentative plans to stay a year, or longer, if things went well. But it was actually a very smooth transition for all of us; I was able to find a job teaching in Yoko's home city of Okayama. Yoko also managed to get a couple of photography jobs in Tokyo through her agent PHOTO FACTORY INC. which made her confident about being able to continue her career in Japan.

We also got really luck with an empty house that we could rent from Yoko's extended family in a small town about 30 minutes by train from Okayama station. The town is called Kumayama. It's quite rural but has a small town center with basic amenities. There is a really great Pre-school Toyota Hoikuen which Motoki joined and he quickly picked up Japanese and assimiliated himself into his new surroundings.

I mentioned the house that we were living in. It's a sprawling old place with three distinct parts from different eras. The section on the corner is the oldest and has a dirt floor, it's pretty much a barn filled with farming tools and implements.

The building including the garage is the newest addition, probably built in the 1980s, it includes two bedrooms above the garage. The main living area is between the two sections and is a typical Japanese style house with low ceilings sliding doors and tatami flooring. The kitchen, bathroom and lavatory were somewhat recent and offered some comfort from the rest of the house which was really old and completely un-insulated. 

We really loved the neighborhood and quickly became happy with our surroundings and made friends with the neighbors who were all very welcoming.

We started to feel like Japan would be a long term home for us and began toying with the idea of finding a more long term and modern living situation.

We liked the feel of living in the country, we had a very quiet and surroundings and there was plenty for Motoki to enjoy doing in our neighborhood, he had friends, animals and a nearby river. We also enjoyed planting and tending a garden (even though we weren't very good at it). So we spent several months looking into buying property in Kumayama.