Foreigners find Japan’s empty homes not empty of value

Shaimaa Khalil Jun 26, 2024
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There are an estimated 9 million abandoned homes, known as akiyas, across Japan. Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Foreigners find Japan’s empty homes not empty of value

Shaimaa Khalil Jun 26, 2024
Heard on:
There are an estimated 9 million abandoned homes, known as akiyas, across Japan. Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Sangenjaya is a small but busy neighborhood in Tokyo, about three stops from the famous Shibuya Crossing. Imagine not being far from Westminster in London or Times Square in Manhattan, New York — but minus the enormous price tag. 

Japan’s empty homes, also known as akiyas, are scattered all over the country, even in sought-after areas like Sangenjaya. There are more than 9 million of them nationally, experts say, and they’ve been making waves on social media.

Anton Wormann is a model turned renovator who’s gone viral on TikTok for chronicling his akiya project and raising the profile of these cheap homes.

“In this case, it was three siblings and their parents lived here, and the parents passed away,” Wormann said. “They had this house filled with stuff, and just getting rid of things costs a lot of money and also a lot of time, so the houses just get abandoned that way.”

Wormann paid around $100,000 for the property. “What I’m essentially paying for is the land. This is 90 years old. Houses in Japan depreciate, which means that after 30 years, they’re basically not worth anything,” he said.

Japan‘s asset bubble burst in the early 1990s, leading to decades of economic stagnation, which kept property prices low. Houses became like cars: The longer you have one, the less it’s worth. 

When elderly people pass away and their homes aren’t worth much, families may not want to deal with the tax implications and cost of emptying the home, selling it or demolishing it, so some choose to just abandon them.

An abandoned two-story house in Miyoshi, Japan.
An abandoned house in Miyoshi, Japan. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Once you travel out of the big cities, the issues of Japan’s aging population and low birth rates become much more pronounced. Another reason that rural areas are turning into ghost towns is that young people tend to not want to live there. That’s part of why akiyas have proliferated — there are so many that some villages and towns are giving them away for free

Sam King is originally from the U.K. and has lived in Japan for seven years. King and his Tokyo-born-and-raised wife, Nanami, bought an akiya in a rural mountain area, where they live with their 5-month-old son.

The couple paid around $100,000 for their property but admitted it would have been “a lot easier and straightforward” to buy a newly built home. “It’s such a beautiful house, and it’s nice to preserve that and to extend its life,” King said.

King’s advice for anyone thinking of buying an akiya is to get someone to check the condition of the property. “Some of these places sound really cheap, but then you get in there and you find there’s problems with the structure, or the water system is completely changing, like this place,” he said. 

“Be prepared that everything is not as it seems on the Instagram post. Although they may look nice, you have to look beneath the surface a little bit.”

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