It is highly likely that for millions of office workers, the dream of one day escaping their daily commute to telework from a bucolic setting in the Japanese countryside is a tempting fantasy. The potential to work from home—no matter the location—is now much more of a real proposition than ever. Where would you go? Even if you were to remain in the city and work from home comfortably, you would most likely require some additional space. How could such a transition be accomplished economically? Well, the answer may lie with the current over-supply of vintage housing.
Japan has a glut of under-utilized and often dilapidated housing. Many of these properties are approximately 50 years old, although some date back more than 150 years to the Edo Period.
According to the report “Housing Market and Issues in 2040” released by Nomura Research Institute last June, the total number of housing units in 2018 was 62.4 million. 8.5 million were akiya (空き家) or vacant properties in Japanese. That represents 13.6% of the available stock, a sharp increase from 7.6% in 1978.
This problem is getting worse. If the rate at which homes are abandoned continues at the same pace, there could be as many as 22 million vacant properties by 2038, representing 30.5% of the total.
Although conventional wisdom is that most akiya are in the countryside, it turns out that the city with the largest percentage of abandoned homes is, in fact, Tokyo. The sheer number of such properties is especially plentiful in Setagaya-ku and Ota-ku.
As the old saying goes, “A house is made of bricks and beams. A home is made of hopes and dreams.” Although many abandoned homes scattered across the country are considered by many to be an eyesore, others see a real opportunity. While purchasing one of these classic homes is certainly an option, it is also possible to rent them or even rent only a small portion of one of them.
If you are in the market to purchase (baibai 売買 in Japanese), the first key question is how much would it cost?
How much would it cost?
To answer that question, first, you must remember the classic rule of real estate: Location, location, location! Regarding an akiya, you also must consider the overall condition of the home and surrounding property, the size of the dwelling, and assessed value in addition to all sorts of other factors.
While there are some akiya available for less than 500,000 JPY ($4,500), veteran rehabbers like Mr. and Mrs. Kikuchi in Chiba stress that you get what you pay for. The higher the asking price, the more likely it is that fewer improvements will be required. That said, there are plenty of abandoned homes on the market for between 2 ~ 5 million JPY ($18,000 ~ $45,000).
Sourcing suitable properties can be challenging. Local real estate brokerage firms are a good place to start, but searching through a particular town’s akiya bank (空き家バンク) or list (not a real bank) of available sites is one way to save some money. The Kikuchis have, however, found the best deals via word of mouth. Simply by asking around, they have been able to uncover some real deals.
Any potential landowner—particularly of property that has fallen into disrepair—should always beware of potential problems before putting down cash.
To be clear, the legal definition of whether a house is vacant is judged comprehensively based on whether no one enters or leaves the house throughout the year and the status of water, electricity, and gas usage. So while the exterior may still seem reasonably okay, especially if animals and/or bugs have found a way to get inside, the situation can get pretty bad.
There are, however, plenty of visionary people such as the Kikuchis who would see this kind of a situation as a potential gold mine. For example, this couple purchased the pictured home for only 250,000 JPY (approximately US $2,300), cleaned up the mess, and did a complete remodel before “flipping” the property for a healthy profit.
They have, in fact, had similar success with over 50 abandoned homes in Chiba. Although the Kikuchis used to have regular jobs when they first started rehabbing on their own, now they do this on a full-time basis and employ a cadre of craftsmen.
The Kikuchis are, though, quite picky about the properties that they select to remodel. Altogether, they inspected a total of more than 200 akiya before settling on the 50 to remodel. Their main advice can be summed up with the old Latin proverb caveat emptor, which means “let the buyer beware.”
Trusted legal support is a must for any potential buyer. Akiya are often left abandoned by siblings who have inherited such property from deceased parents. Sometimes the heirs do not see eye to eye on what to do with the property, and so it languishes. While much has been made of this type of situation in the media, in reality such cases are, however, relatively rare. The main reason why houses are left vacant is because people do not know how to use the inherited property.
What can you do with an akiya?
If you are willing to put in the elbow grease like the Kikuchis, a project to remodel an akiya can provide a rewarding opportunity to gain a lot of space. However, the result is likely to remind you of what life used to be like in Japan generations ago with a few modern amenities such as electricity!
Watch out, however, for unexpected, hidden costs. Although the initial acquisition price may be a steal, the cost to remove debris can add up quickly. In addition, as it can be difficult to find skilled craftsmen who are willing to work near your job site unless you are handy and can do most of the repairs on your own, remodeling costs can also be high.
If you’re in it to flip, then the rewards can be handsome. Yields are usually more than 20% and sometimes even exceed 30%. The Kikuchis gave an example of a home that was originally purchased for 3.5 million JPY ($32,000), rented out for a while for 65,000 JPY/month ($590), and ultimately sold for 6.5 million yen ($59,000). The key is to tell the tenants, when they move in or renew their lease, that if they live in the house and like it, you can sell it to them.
What if I am not that handy?
Not a problem. There are some specialized real estate brokers like Kachitasu that will take care of this for you. They buy up old homes, renovate them, and then re-sell them. While the purchase price is certainly going to be higher than if you do all of the work yourself, it is certainly a lot easier. Another firm, Renoliving, buys up old homes, renovates them, and then rents them out.
Alternatives to Purchasing
While homeownership allows you to do just about anything you want to improve the property—within the relevant regulatory limits—a much cheaper alternative would be to rent (chintai 賃貸 in Japanese).
A couple of years ago, upon relocating from the middle of Tokyo to a rural spot on the east coast of Kyushu, my wife and I had personal experience with this approach. With the help of representatives from the department in our local city hall responsible for encouraging incoming migration, we were able to find a spacious 60-year-old farmhouse with so much land that we could have planted a large crop—if we had known anything about farming. Furthermore, we could strike a deal directly with the landlord to rent this property for one year for a fraction of the cost of rent that we had been paying in Tokyo.
Depending upon the same factors to consider when purchasing, the rent can vary quite a bit. However, a quick perusal of various akiya bank—that also list rentals—indicates that there are quite a few stand-alone, single-family dwellings with plenty of adjacent lands that are immediately available to rent for between only 10,000 ~ 50,000 JPY/month ($90 ~ $450).
Renting at first is a good way to get a feeling for whether you would really be happy there in the long term and before taking the plunge of purchasing the property. Partly out of desperation, landlords of akiya are often quite flexible about proposed modifications. Our landlord clearly explained that we could make just about any home improvements that we want while renting—without the need to return the property to its original state. He also offered us the opportunity to purchase the home after the initial rental agreement expired.
Use as a “Trunk Room”
Got a lot of stuff? Even if you do not want to live in an akiya, it is now possible to use such properties for extra storage.
The firm Mono Oku (モノオク), which literally means “storage place” in Japanese, provides an online platform for matching people who want to use “storage space” with those who have the space to use vacant houses as “trunk rooms.” Check out https://monooq.com/ for more details. The going rate in our area seems to be only 3,000 JPY/month/tsubo ($27/month for space equivalent to the area of two tatami mats side-by-side or 3.3 square meters equivalent to 36 square feet).
Although Japan is still a little slow to jump on the telework bandwagon, the ongoing global pandemic–and pressure from the central government–are certainly helping to encourage more employers to allow their workforce to work from home. This will, in turn, spur more people to seek more space either in the big cities or in Japan’s beautiful countryside. Akiya are an immediately available resource to help such pioneers to realize their dream of working from home.
Mark Kennedy is a native of Chicago who has spent more than 20 years living, studying, and working in Japan. By day he is Country Head - Business Development, Nexdigm - Japan but becomes a writer after work. Mark is a lifelong student of the Japanese language and culture. He loves to travel throughout the country. Mark also is the author behind the "Real Gaijin" Substack, countryroadsjapan.com, as well as the Country Roads Japan and Coastal Sailing Japan YouTube channels. Photo supplied courtesy of the author who had stopped to check out the free-roaming horses and cows about half-way up to the summit of Mt. Aso, an active volcano in the center of Kyushu.