Western news media homed in on the story of Japan’s depopulation crisis and the eerie ghost towns left behind about a decade ago now. More recently, though, the focus has been on the abandoned properties up for grabs. Headlines like Japan Is Giving Away 8 Million Abandoned Houses — Here’s How to Get One and Want a free country house in Japan? They’re giving them away may raise a few eyebrows, but is there any truth to the claims?
Yes, you really can buy a house for under $500 in Japan
Yes, there are really houses in Japan that are listed for $500 — in fact there are many. But what those articles don’t show is what $500 will actually get you.
Here’s an example of an abandoned house listed for sale for 5万円 (about $360 at the time of writing). To say this 6DK in Yonezawa-shi, Yamagata needs some TLC might be an understatement!
From the photos, you can see that there is mold, extensive water damage, leaky ceilings, and a disaster of a kitchen.
According to the listing notes:
- Reconstruction is not possible because the road is non-connected.
- The water heater cannot be used.
- There are rain leaks.
- There are places where the floor is missing.
The floor is missing. Not a great start.
See more photos of the inside of the house here.
So while you might own the house for only $500, it will certainly cost you many thousands of dollars more to make it livable.
What can you get for $5,000 in Japan?
Increasing our budget by a factor of 10 produces much better results.
Here is one example: a 60m2, 3DK bungalow (that is, 3 rooms with one combined dining room/kitchen) in the sleepy Motosaru coastal area in Oita Prefecture. It was built in the 80s, and located about an hour by bus to the nearest train station in Saiki, and a few kilometers from the nearest convenience store or supermarket, so a car would be essential here—though, unfortunately, there is no parking space on the property itself.
This can all be yours, the listing says, for just ¥800,000 — that’s just US$5,800 at current exchange rates. As is common with these kinds of properties, the house still contains a lot of the former occupants’ possessions, which are you responsibility to clean out. The website also notes it may require “light repairs.”
Are they giving away houses for free in Japan?
In case you thought it is but a fluke, this site called zero.estate is dedicated entirely to ¥0 properties! One example is this home close by Sawame Station in remote Akita Prefecture, about 65m2 in size, the second floor from which you can glimpse the Sea of Japan on a fine day. The ad explains that it once belonged to the owner’s parents who passed away and while most of their possessions have been cleared out, it has the odd piece of furniture remaining. The structure itself needs a bit of work: there are leaks, and the living room has warped flooring. The toilet facilities are rather outdated, though the bath is usable, it notes, as a previous renter fixed the boiler and plumbing. The only thing to bear in mind is the one-off property taxes: about ¥500k for the land, ¥800k for the building (about $9k total at current exchange rates) as well as a negligible annual tax of ¥12k or about $100.
The number of abandoned homes in Japan like these, called akiya stands at just under 9 million according to the last government land use survey in 2019, and this is set to more than double in the next decade. This means it is increasingly common to come across properties for mere pennies.
Are Japan’s $500 houses a good deal?
Unless you are a DIY fanatic, prepared to take the time, money and energy to overcome the hassles and hardships involved in making a neglected, old house liveable, I personally cannot recommend buying one of these “super-cheap” Japanese homes.
The problems could be manifold and won’t necessarily all turn up in an independent building survey. For starters, it is likely the property will not meet current quake-proofing standards — and it is often the case that the lovely timber frames of wooden homes fall prey to termites. It is these structural issues that are the hardest and costliest to fix. For foreign buyers with little Japanese ability, sourcing local help out in the rural countryside (where most of these kinds of houses are) may also prove too big a feat.
Here is a tour of one youtuber’s akiya bought for ¥1. While the toilet and bathroom is newly installed, he notes that the walls and ceiling need replacing due to the leaky roof:
In fact, I would regard any second-hand house on the market in Japan with seemingly “too good to be true” pricing with the same suspicion, and be prepared to thoroughly survey it and have some extra budgetary leeway available in the event of any surprises (see my article on what to expect in terms of average house prices in Japan).
Is there government financial support available?
It is true there is funding available to Japan residents to support relocation to the countryside and/or home renovations for various purposes, and apparently these have helped reduce the rates of empty homes by as much as 11% in some regions. The nationwide “Long-life quality housing remodeling” scheme makes up to ¥2.5 million (about $17k) available for disaster-proofing, energy efficiency, with prioritization given to young people under 40 and young families. Similar such schemes are run by local authorities, and are less well publicized, requiring a bit of research. In almost all cases the funding entails some bureaucracy, including house inspections and detailed plans submissions. It is difficult to say, though, whether $500 houses would necessarily qualify for this kind of funding, since they may not appear very sustainable.
Japan’s $500 houses are, on the whole, often more trouble than they are worth
With inflation and house prices soaring around the planet, the excitement building around Japan’s “free” houses is perfectly understandable, if perhaps misguided. That being said, if you do have some space in your budget, it is possible to find decent, looked-after properties in Japan at much more reasonable prices relative to those in most developed countries right now.
Find Your Dream Home In Japan
So maybe $500 was a bit optimistic, however not all is lost. There are some incredible property deals in Japan that don’t break the bank.
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