It is a commonly held idea that homes in Japan only last 30 years before they deteriorate to a state where they have to be torn down. But how accurate is this statement, and what about the lifespan of apartment buildings?

“Japanese homes do not last as long as European or American ones”

Japanese residential properties are thought to have a lifespan of 30 years. In America that number is 55 years, and 77 years in England. Many apartment buyers hold the same belief and think that an apartment can only be held for 30 years. However, this assumption is incorrect.

The data on building lifespans is based on the length of time that the building is standing before it is torn down. This can include properties that are damaged and torn down following a disaster, as well as still livable properties that are knocked down and rebuilt for various reasons. This data not only includes apartments, but also wooden-frame homes and all types of structures. It does not imply that steel reinforced concrete (SRC) and reinforced concrete (RC) structures have a life of just 30 years.

Why are some apartment buildings rebuilt within just 40 years?

So how long will an apartment building stand until it is rebuilt? There are approximately 100 cases of apartments built in the mid 1970s that have been, or are currently being rebuilt (not including reconstruction following the 1995 Kobe earthquake).

40 years is a considerably short lifespan for a building, but many of these buildings were not torn down because of decay as they were still structurally sound. The main reason was the aging of the buildings’ facilities such as plumbing, which became too expensive to maintain and repair. The decision to rebuild was an economic one. Many older 5-story buildings also did not have elevators, leading to a functional decision to rebuild for the sake of the inhabitants.

Some apartment buildings from the 1970s are currently built to a size that falls below the maximum floor space index (yosekiritsu) for that lot. The successful reconstruction projects to date have been buildings on lots that are zoned to allow for much larger buildings to be constructed. In these cases, the project is funded through the sale of the additional apartments created in the new building.

For a building that is currently built to the maximum allowable floorspace, reconstruction may be possible if several adjoining sites are acquired and the larger site is redeveloped. During Japan’s bubble economy, many buildings less than 20 years old were demolished to make way for much larger developments. With an explosion in land values, it was essential to get the maximum salable space out of every block of land, so many small buildings were knocked down to create a larger site. This was a societal decision to demolish.

The legal service life of a building

In response to the question “how long is the life of an apartment building”, the only answer is that it is not possible to provide an estimate at this point in time.

It has only been approximately 50 years since condominiums were first developed in Japan, so the history is short, and there have not been any examples of a condominium apartment building being torn down due to decay.

However, in that response, there is one criterion that may be used – the legal service life of a building. This is the depreciation of a building as determined by the Ministry of Finance. It will differ depending on the type of asset, its construction and use.

For SRC and RC buildings built after 1998, the service life for depreciation purposes is 47 years for residential and 50 years for commercial buildings.

Do not confuse a building’s service life with it’s physical life span! It is for accounting purposes only.

The service life will also vary depending on when the building was constructed. The most recent service life of 47 and 50 years applies to buildings built after 1998. Prior to this revision, the previous service life of a residential building was 60 years. This does not imply that the physical lifespan of buildings has decreased. Functional and societal reasons play a major part in the lifespan.

As the quality of building materials increase and construction methods improve, buildings in Japan can be expected to last much longer. There has also been recent movement towards building “200 year homes.”

The lifespan of apartment buildings is up to the inhabitants

The life of apartment buildings can be compared to that of humans. The average life expectancy of Japanese males is 79 years, and 86 years for females (Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, 2007 data). However, this is not identical for everyone.

By maintaining one’s health, a long life is possible, and the same is possible for apartment buildings, provided they receive routine maintenance and repairs. If the building is neglected, its value will fall and its lifespan will be severely shortened. The realistic lifespan of a building is therefore determined by its inhabitants and the management company in charge of maintaining it.

When will its physical life run out?

A common concern by buyers and owners is that apartments become more difficult to sell as the building becomes older. However, for ‘vintage mansions’ that are 30 to 40 years old, many have retained their value and sales are positive despite their age.

The lifespan of an individual building varies depending on its environmental and maintenance history. Rather than trying to find a general number that encompasses the lifespan of all buildings, one must consider the four different lifespans that a building has: physical, functional, economical and societal.

Source:  All About, Inc. March 19, 2009.