Buying an apartment in a high-rise tower mansion in Japan? Be aware of these potential risks

High-rise residential buildings are a hallmark of the Japanese urban landscape and a popular choice for homebuyers, but there are a number of risks specific to owning a unit in a tower mansion that prospective purchasers should know about.

High-rise condominium buildings are known as タワーマンション  (tower mansions) in Japanese. The first “tower mansion” was constructed in Japan in 1971. Currently, one out of every five new residences sold in Japan is a unit in a tower mansion. From 2000 to 2018, 1,096 high-rise condominiums were built in Japan, about 80% of which are concentrated in Tokyo and the Kansai region. Including those constructed before 2000, there were 333,789 units in 1,289 high-rise condominiums in Tokyo and 35 other prefectures as of the end of 2018. This is according to Tokyo Kantei

Disaster Preparedness

One of the first issues to consider when living in a high-rise building (generally defined as being 60-meters or more or 20-stories or more) is disaster preparedness in the event of a major quake. Being hundreds of feet above ground does not make things easier in an earthquake. In fact, units located on higher floors sway much more compared to those on lower floors. Japan has world-leading earthquake building codes (please see: Earthquake building codes and technology in Japan), but even buildings with earthquake dampening technology sway significantly in a major quake, as was evident, for example, in the Shinjuku skyscraper district in the March 2011 9.1-magnitude earthquake. Newer buildings may be structurally sound, but there are still a plethora of problems that can arise.

Flooding of electrical equipment following a major storm

One issue practically every tall residential building in Japan has in common is design for delivery of electrical power. Succinctly, to deliver power all over the building, it is necessary to have a large area to house two to three stories worth of devices, electricity distributors, etc. To save space, architects almost always plan for the devices to be installed underground or in the basement area of the building.

This can be a big problem when a typhoon hits and water starts to seep into the basement area. If the electricity in the building is affected, this can cause elevators to stop working, water to quit running, and even the toilets to stop flushing. As a response, there are some building operators that are moving emergency water and toilets to each floor of their high-rise buildings, but these are the exception rather than the rule.

Torrential rains brought by October’s Typhoon No. 19 (Hagibis) caused flooding of underground electrical equipment in some high-rise condominiums (notably at a 47-story condominium building near Musashi-Kosugi Station in Kawasaki), which led to elevator and water outages. Residents on upper floors were also at risk of being isolated.

As a result of flooding following Typhoon Hagibis, the Ministry of Land has announced that it plans to issue new disaster-preparedness rules for tower condominiums by the end of March 2020.

Special budget to pay for repairs

However, for residents of tower mansions that have been damaged in a natural disaster, there is still follow up work to do once the actual storm has passed. In order for the building to be repaired, in the usual case the individual owners of the units need to agree on a special budget to pay for the repairs. For the budget to be approved, at least 75% of the owners must agree.

This is a high hurdle to overcome, especially because the interests of the owners of the lower-floor units do not coincide with the owners of the top floors. Many owners of units on lower floors are loathe to pay what they see as “special fees” for top-floor owners. They feel that since the price of a top-floor residence is higher, these owners should pay more than owners of lower-floor apartments. However, usually repair fees are calculated and allotted to each owner based on square foot of their residence, regardless of how much they paid for their property. As one can imagine, there are many types of possible disputes among residents when discussing the collection and use of repair fees and maintenance reserves.

This problem can come up regardless of whether disaster strikes. Every 12-15 years, large residential buildings need to be checked and restored, refurbished, etc. as needed. To pay for large scale restoration, the condominium association collects money in a reserve. However, according to the MLIT, as of 2018 over 28% of all tower mansion buildings have insufficient funds in the reserve, and 40% are even in arrears in collecting monthly management fees.

If you are planning on moving into a high-rise building, be sure to confirm the current balance of the condominium association reserves, the level of monthly management fees collected, and the identity of the other owners in the building, since you will all need to work together in the future to protect the long-term value of your new residence.

Lead photo: Tower mansion by Satomi Abe via Flickr