Do you yearn for a home in the Japanese countryside, far from the hustle and bustle of big city life? An akiya (abandoned house) may be the opportunity you’ve been waiting for.
What is an akiya?
Quite simply, akiya (空き家) means “empty house”. What it really means is an empty house in a small town (possibly in the middle of nowhere) that no one wants to move into and which real estate agents have basically given up on trying to sell. Akiya are both a symptom of Japan’s rapidly falling population and of the overwhelming preference of Japanese home buyers for newly built houses over older buildings. When seniors move to smaller houses or care facilities, or pass away, there are no younger generations around to move into their big, old houses and keep small towns going. A few akiya may be stigmatized properties.
According to an article on Japanese real estate information site Lifull Homes, in 2013 there were an estimated 7.57 million akiya, making up 13.1% of Japan’s total housing stock. With the “population problem”, as it is referred to within Japan, the number of akiya is set to explode with projections of a fall of Japan’s population from the current 126 million to 88 million by 2065.
Akiya are often quite large. For example, most of the houses on the akiya bank for Usuki City in Oita Prefecture in Kyushu are enormous by Japanese standards. Looking for a nine-bedroom house? They got you covered. Don’t expect real space though. An examination of the floor plans shows that most rooms (as you would expect with old Japanese houses) conform to the 4 1/2 to 6 tatami mat standard, usually with one larger room of 8 to 10 mats. The kitchens in particular can most generously be described as rudimentary. For toilets, you might need to squat!
What to be aware of with akiya
These houses are often old, unwanted and have sometimes been left empty for an extended period of time. So straight off the bat, making your akiya livable will require an investment to bring the house up to scratch. Depending on the age and construction method of the house, repairs could run into the millions of yen. If your plan is to bring the house up to a modern standard with things like insulation, soundproofing and new wiring, then you can add another zero to that cost. There may be subsidies available from the local municipal government for renovating akiya, so make sure you ask at the akiya bank about this.
Additionally, you should forget about akiya as an investment. Unless there is something special about your akiya (for example, if it’s a traditional farmhouse with lots of historical character) and you spend a large amount on renovation, you will also have trouble finding a buyer.
Are akiya “free” houses?
No, but they can be very cheap. Some are as low as 50,000 yen to buy. Prices this low are the exception rather than the rule though. Large houses on a substantial lot of land are often listed for 2 million yen, with the potential to negotiate a lower price. Let’s face it, if the place has been empty for a few years with no interest from buyers, then the seller probably has unrealistic price expectations due to sentimentality or the sunk cost fallacy.
It’s also worth noting that not all akiya are for sale. Some are for rent. These rents can also be extremely low—sometimes under ¥10,000/month. All the same drawbacks of buying an akiya apply, so if you want to make a ¥10,000/month house livable, you will need to spend a small pile of cash on fixes.
A small number of rural municipalities do offer free houses, but they come with strict conditions attached. One condition could be that you have to agree to live in the town for a certain number of years before you obtain the title to your house. The preference for those is young (Japanese) families.
Akiya are not just an issue of falling demand and collapsing buildings, the empty dwellings bring down the value of the surrounding houses and the lack of new residents is a threat to the survival of whole villages and towns. Without a stabilization of the population, services like supermarkets, medical centers, care homes, schools, shops and restaurants aren’t viable. When these services disappear, the decline of the village is accelerated. To address this, akiya banks—offices specialized in looking for new owners for akiya—have been created by local governments throughout the country. Their aim is not just to find buyers for the akiya, but to revitalize the village. The word “bank” is a little misleading and reflects Japanese usage of the English loan word. It’s more akin to a blood bank than a financial bank.
Where to start
Although there are plenty of websites like this one that collect listings from throughout Japan, they tend to present the more average-priced houses. They’re still after a commission, so it’s in their own self-interest to highlight higher-priced, easier-to-sell homes. For the real bargains, you need to check the sites set up by the municipalities—and there are hundreds. Not surprisingly, there is no accommodation for English speakers with these sites, although anecdotally, most are receptive to approaches from non-Japanese buyers. Not unusual for Japan, plenty of akiya banks don’t have websites, or the website is just a place to put their address and phone number. If you are interested in the area, you can call/email and request information.
The big cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto and Fukuoka don’t have a big akiya problem, but there are a few municipalities that have akiya banks.