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KYOTO (Reuters) - For generations, artisans and merchants in Japan's ancient capital of Kyoto lived in thousands of traditional "machiya" townhouses that are steadily disappearing or falling into disrepair.
To help restore the wooden-and-tile-roof structures, banks in Kyoto have tailored loans to help contribute to the preservation of architecture in a city that was once Japan's ancient capital and boasts a number of World Heritage sites.
While borrowers are encouraged to preserve classic machiya features, such as latticed wood exteriors, they are allowed ample leeway in renovating their homes.
Thanks to a loan from Kyoto Shinkin Bank, Sae Cardonnel and her French husband Sylvain outfitted their machiya with a modern kitchen and heated floors, as well as ample open space inside for their family of five.
"We wanted to live in a home, not a history museum," she said. "The neighborhood children gather here to play on rainy days."
The Cardonnel's nearly century-old home is now flanked by modern structures. While Kyoto survived World War II bombings as the city was spared, many machiya were wiped out afterward by modernization and development.
Machiya were included in both the 2010 and the 2012 Watch lists of most at-risk assets compiled by the World Monuments Fund, a U.S. nonprofit organization aimed at preserving and protecting endangered architectural and cultural sites.
Derelict machiya are common in Kyoto neighborhoods. About 13 percent of Kyoto's machiya were destroyed between 1996 and 2003 alone, and the number has declined since then. Over 80 percent of the surviving buildings have lost at least some aspect of the their traditional appearances.
"There are more and more empty machiya in Kyoto. We'd like to preserve them, and the historic townscape," said Kazuhiro Waki, executive director of retail banking at Bank of Kyoto.
Putting money into old houses shows a change of thinking in a country where such homes are often torn down because they're worth little more than the land they're built on, and bankers have recognized the need for a niche lending product.
Bank of Kyoto, as well as rival Kyoto Chuo Shinkin Bank, began offering specialized loans last year. A third lender, Kyoto Shinkin Bank, pioneered machiya loans five years ago, and as of June, it had lent 2.9 billion yen ($28.87 million) for 112 restoration projects.
The banks' loans work like this: Rather than basing the loans on assessed value alone, the banks include an evaluation from the Machiya Machizukuri Fund, which certifies a property as a machiya and also documents how much restoration work would be necessary.
The Machiya Machizukuri, or "town-making," Fund is public-private cooperative agency set up in 2005 after the Kyoto government received a significant contribution from a private donor to support and subsidize renovation projects.
Restoring old houses is relatively unusual in Japan because many people prefer newer residences. Most older buildings do not meet Japan's strict codes aimed at withstanding earthquakes.
The country's Building Standards Act of 1950 requires that all new wooden structures be built using modern construction methods, which essentially rendered older buildings obsolete, no matter how structurally sound they might be.
Already existing buildings are not required to meet modern standards, though many of their owners opt to reinforce them.
Bankers hope the loans draw more buyers to machiya restoration projects, and make it easier for local real estate companies to market them.
"For real estate companies, it would be easier to develop and promote machiya by using this program," said Bank of Kyoto's Waki.
Interest in restoring machiya is growing from potential buyers outside Japan as well.
Hachise Co, a Kyoto real estate agency, started a worldwide service in 2013 and an English-language website in 2014. The number of visitors to the site nearly doubled after attracting more than 30,000 in its first year, according to Shunsuke Bito from Hachise's global marketing team.
Some clients do ask about the availability of mortgages.
"There is certainly demand for them," Bito said. "We would prefer to sell to customers who love machiya and have the intention to preserve them."
With help from Bank of Kyoto, Yoshinori Murase was able to restore his family's machiya, built in 1918, to an airy refuge, with polished wooden beams above floors covered with pristine tatami mats.
"I really appreciated that such loans are now available," he said.
Murase said he hopes his restored home would inspire other owners to renovate theirs - including the one attached to his. It now sits empty, as its owner, a childhood friend, lives in another city.
"I hope he comes home to fix it someday," Murase said.
Reporting by Lisa Twaronite; Editing by Malcolm Foster and Simon Cameron-Moore