Homebuyers turn to vacant homes in rural Japan

As Japan's population decreases, people are moving from cities to rural areas. They are buying old properties that need some work, enjoying the less crowded areas.

Homebuyers turn to vacant homes in rural Japan

Note from the Editor: Your subscription to Finance & Commerce includes business content from The New York Times. Jaya Thursfield's friends and family warned him not to bother buying a house in Japan when he found it a few year ago. They said the place was not worth it. It was surrounded by a thicket of shoulder-high weeds, having been abandoned seven years ago.

Thursfield was not deterred. He could tell it was different from the rest of the houses by looking at the garden. The black tiles cascaded to the slightly curved eaves, which were higher than the average house. The entrance hall was covered with a gable-tile roof. The temple architect who designed the 1989 house, which is 2,700 square feet in size, was responsible for its appearance.

Thursfield, his Japanese wife Chihiro and their two sons moved from London to Japan in 2017. They had a dream to buy a house with a large yard. The plan was for them to buy a lot and build on it. But land in Japan is very expensive and their budget would not allow it. They turned to the increasing supply of abandoned homes, which were cheaper and usually came with more land.

These are not the only ones.

Chihiro Thursfield said, 'We wouldn't have been able afford a home of this size and quality if it weren't for an akiya.' While many Japanese do not like used houses, foreigners are more likely to renovate and reuse a cheap house to suit their taste and budget.

A new segment of buyers is looking for rural architecture that needs some love as Japan's population shrinks. They feel less tied to the overcrowded cities and are seeking out older, rural buildings in need of repair. According to the most recent data from the 2018 Housing and Land Survey, there were about 8.5 millions akiya in Japan -- or roughly 14% -- but many observers believe that the number is much higher today. Nomura Research Institute estimates the number to be more than 11 millions and predicts akiya will exceed 30% of Japan's housing stock by 2033.

The Thursfields house, located in the southern Ibaraki Prefecture about 45 minutes away from central Tokyo, was abandoned after the family of the previous owner refused to inherit the property upon his death. The property was taken over by the local municipality and auctioned off with a minimum bid of 5 million yen (about $38,000). However, it did not sell.

Jaya Thursfield decided he would try his luck when it was put back on the market. He gave it a quick look with an architect friend, and found no major issues, despite years of neglect.

The cultural legacy of post World War II construction in Japan and changing building codes have led to houses in Japan losing value over time. Only the land retains value. The owners of an old house have little motivation to maintain it, so buyers are often more inclined to tear them down and start over. This can be costly.

Some people want to conserve what is there.

It was too beautiful to tear it down and replace it with something else. It was just too beautiful. Thursfield explained that they decided to renovate the house instead. Thursfield said, 'I have always been a person who is willing to take risks, learn new things and jump into the deep end. I was confident we would be able to manage.

Some homeowners pass away without ever naming a successor. Some homeowners leave their property to family members who, out of respect for the elders in their lives, refuse to sell their land. The house is left to wither.

Kazunobu tsutsui is a professor at Tottori University, who lives in an akiya that was built over a hundred years ago. Families will not easily give up their akiya, even if they move to the city.

Officials at the local and national level are now taking steps to help them.

Kazuhiro Nakao, an official of the city of Sakata on the west coast where heavy snowfalls can damage unattended buildings, said that 'poorly maintained akiya' can ruin the scenery and endanger the lives and property of residents if they fall. We are subsidizing the demolition of akiya and collecting reports from neighborhood associations. We also hold briefings to inform owners about the problem.

Akiya have become a major threat not only to rural and suburban markets, but also to the mental health of the nation. This has led to family conflicts over inherited property. This has led to a cottage business of akiya advisors like Takamitsu wada, CEO at Akiya Katsuyo. He acts as a counsellor for squabbling family members, often urging the to act before they lose their property.

Many Japanese municipalities also list vacant houses that are for rent or sale. They are called 'akiya bank' and often consist of bare-bones websites with few unimpressive photos. Some have partnered up with private companies, such as At Home which lists akiyas in 658 out of Japan's 1741 municipalities.

Matthew Ketchum is a Pittsburgh native who co-founded Akiya & Inaka in Tokyo, a real estate consultancy. The existing solutions are not in line with the requirements of today's buyers and sellers.

Ketchum’s firm is among several others that have emerged to capitalize on the glut of akiya, matching vacant houses with curious buyers. Akiya & Inaka has listed a 2,195 square foot home in Hachioji in Tokyo's suburb. It features a small garden, a reception area with a raised tatami, a tokonoma nook, and a rare woven cedar wickerwork ceiling. The property's price is 36 million yen (about $272,000).

Takahiro, an 85-year-old retired journalist, said that 'every Japanese agent we spoke to told us to destroy this place'. The house was rented out by Takahiro Okada and his wife Reiko, both 86 years old, but they decided to sell it after the tenant moved last year. The property was left untouched because their children were not interested. It's possible that different owners tore it down and sold off the land.

Reiko Okada stated, 'If we do this, we will lose Japanese culture.' When viewed from an international perspective, and by foreigners' eyes, Japanese items can have a uniqueness and inherent value.

Ketchum, along with his partner Parker J. Allen, say they are now receiving five times as many inquiries than when they started in 2020.

Ketchum stated that initially, the majority of inquiries came from Japanese, Australians, and Singaporeans. The vast majority of international clients are now based in the United States.

Allen stated that the pandemic had influenced many clients to consider rural living. The pandemic has prompted many clients to move into rural areas. Allen said that the Japanese countryside was undervalued, and that there were viable properties available that could be turned around almost immediately.

Alex Kerr is one person who did not realize this until recently. He was a Maryland-born author and Japanologist, who bought an abandoned country home (known as a "minka") in the mountains on Shikoku, Japan's smallest island, for just $1,800.

Kerr admits that akiyas can be money pits. He spent years and $700,000. ('About half' came from government grants, he claimed) on maintaining it. Now he rents it as a guesthouse. He has renovated about 40 abandoned Japanese properties over the years.

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