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Free Houses in Japan: A Dream-Come-True in the Japanese Countryside?

Table of Contents

How I Found a Free House in Japan

If you’ve been interested in cheap or free houses in Japan, you’ve probably heard about akiya banks and government programs. While those options exist, they often come with restrictive requirements. However, there is an alternative way to get a house for free. In this blog post, I’ll share my own story and reveal my secret to obtaining a free house in Japan.

(Want to explore the akiya banks yourself? Here is a list of akiya banks by region. You might just want to install a Google Translate browser plug-in first.) 😉

Check out my story on YouTube. 🙂

The Backstory

Misconceptions

After my first video about getting a free house went viral, I received numerous comments and messages with wild assumptions and extreme backstories. However, none of those were true. The house wasn’t haunted, burdened by debt, or part of a government initiative. In reality, I had never met the previous owners, and there was nothing majorly wrong with the property. Just a small roof leak, new faucets and an electrical panel were due for an update (I spent less than $1k to fix this all).

My Journey to Happiness in Japan

When the pandemic hit New York City, I decided to make a major lifestyle change. I quit my job, packed my bags, and eventually ended up moving to the most remote part of Shikoku, Japan in November 2021. I had been living in cities where I couldn’t afford to buy and could barely afford to rent a home. In New York, I shared a hot, roach-filled apartment that required a minimum hour-plus subway commute from work for $1400/month.

I wanted to live a simple life where people care about each other. Somewhere that communities practice generosity every day. I thought that was just a wild dream until I moved to Ehime. I thought I would just be here for a year or two as a sort of work sabbatical. But now that I’ve experienced life here, I feel like I will never be able to go back to my old ways. Here I am updating this post nearly three years after moving and while it hasn’t been problem-free, I still don’t want to go back.

I’ve been criticized of romanticizing life here. It can be challenging and upsetting for many people. Culture shock is real and every situation is different. But the core values that attracted me to this place are the ones that keep me here, despite the challenges.

Challenges of Living in Expensive Cities

Prior to my move, I lived in cities like Seattle and New York, where housing was expensive and often inaccessible. I shared a small, costly apartment in Brooklyn and contributed to gentrification, which displaced locals and led to the demolition of existing buildings. The competitive nature of the city felt suffocating, and I longed for a simple life where I could connect with others and pursue my passions.

See also → The Challenges of Living in Rural Japan

On Being Present

To find a free house in Japan, being physically present is crucial. Online listings might involve properties that owners want to profit from or have some financial liability. The houses you desire, in good condition and available for free, are owned by individuals who aren’t motivated to list them online. To become a beneficiary of such opportunities, you need to immerse yourself in the community, invest in relationships, and contribute positively to Japan. Being a team-player, saying “yes” to elders, and dedicating yourself to the needs of neighbors are key factors. Even foreigners can be adopted by a community. My story is living proof.

Freedom Without Owning

Owning a free house shouldn’t be the sole focus if you are longing for freedom. Renting at a low price can provide even more freedom without the financial burden of ownership. In Japan, rental houses can often be renovated according to personal preferences, offering a sense of ownership but with flexibility.

Reevaluating Values

While the idea of a free house might seem enticing, it’s important not to prioritize surface values. Japan shouldn’t be viewed solely as a place to find a house, but rather, as a country with a unique culture and opportunities to grow as a global citizen. It’s essential to value cultural harmony, be a good neighbor, and prioritize community well-being.

Freedom in the Countryside

The low price of shelter and healthcare has been a truly freeing feeling. Having lived in large American cities, I felt limited in pursuing independent work because of the challenges when stepping out from employer-offered healthcare. Here in the Japan countryside, the low-low housing price and more easily accessible healthcare have given me the ability to imagine my wildest dreams for the future.

I can build my own trajectory and take my time to design my own future. There are some “strings attached” (though not the kind you might expect). Simple? Yes. Easy? Not always. Being a recipient of a free house, and a freeing lifestyle like this does require that I invest labor, give back and maintain positive community relations. That being said, living a life where I can practice generosity every day is a lifestyle I’m more than happy to develop and strengthen.

Want to follow along with my story? I post updates on Japanese rural life, my akiya renovation, tips for foreigners, and more on my Instagram, @bitsii_in_inaka

How I Did It

I was happily living in my very affordable apartment. I wasn’t looking for a house, but I was interested in making new friends and learning about traditional Japanese craftwork. Through the pursuit of this interest, I found my house through word-of-mouth. While I was hesitant to take on the project at first, I was able to negotiate some ways to address my concerns. I wanted to share my skills with my new community by maintaining the house and was especially drawn to the property based on the untold history of its previous resident, a sweet neighborhood Grandma who left behind evidence of her life, travels, and family story.

Are There Free Houses in Japan?

Yes, there are free houses to be found in Japan. Free houses are usually in the Japanese Countryside, which could be a positive or negative point depending on what kind of lifestyle you want. If you find a free house online, the owner might be motivated to get rid of it due to liability or ongoing maintenance obligations. Many Japanese people inherit houses they don’t need, but continue to hire yard maintenance, etc. to keep up their obligations within the neighborhood.

There are some free houses in good shape that are either move-in ready or nearly move-in ready. As these houses still hold some practical value potential to the owners, they might not list them online or in newspapers because they don’t have much motivation to get rid of them. In this kind of case, you would hear about the house by word of mouth. And also note that these houses are likely to be very, very remote Japan countryside houses.

Can I Search Free Houses in Japan Online?

There is a site, zero.estate where you can search 0 yen houses by area. Many of these houses are in very rural areas and need property removal and maintenance. Please do not contact this site in English. If your Japanese language skills are less than fluent, I am happy to help connect you with some help. Email me at bitsii.creative (at) gmail.com for a recommendation. But I will warn you that the only English-speaking assistance available costs a few grand to get started with, thereby beginning the expenses of your future “free” property.

There is a property matchmaking organization called Minna no Zero-en Bukken that lists 0 yen properties available. These properties often need renovation, high amounts of maintenance, or demolition. They also have a YouTube channel with video walk-through tours. The videos are minimal production and strangely (eerily?) fascinating.

***May 24, 2024 update: Minna no Zero-en Bukkuen is merged with zero.estate.

The Cheapest Reliable Akiya Discovery Tool

As free or super-cheap properties might need a good deal of investment, many people have had better luck working with consultants or starting with the low-investment newsletter, Cheap Houses Japan (20% off discount link here!) They don’t post free houses, but a little bit more money at the beginning can mean a lot less hassle, especially considering the challenges of navigating services and products in Japanese.

For example, in your "free" house, you might decide you want $7k in termite extermination services, $30k for a new roof and $8k for a system kitchen... or you could just find a cheap move-in ready property like the ones in this newsletter.


Their newsletter posts homes under $150k, plenty under $60k, and I’ve even seen some in the $4k to $8k range.


See also ➡ Cheap Houses Japan Newsletter Review


Since all of the property listings are hand-selected by a human, there is a higher level of reliability. The guy finds really special houses, including old traditional folk houses, properties with home onsens (hot springs), vacation cabins or homes with spectacular views like of Mt. Fuji. (Seriously! There was a listing with views of Mt. Fuji including from the laundry room. Talk about a bespoke lifestyle, hah!)


Try the newsletter that Japanophiles obsess over.

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Why Are There Free Houses in Japan?

  • Japan is experiencing depopulation. It’s a simple equation. When there are fewer and fewer people every year, there are more and more vacant houses.
  • Young people often prefer to live in urban areas, or maybe they left their hometown to go to college and never moved back. Japanese culture sometimes involves a high level of obligation, especially in rural areas. This may contribute to resistance to move back to one’s hometown. This means there are more and more vacant houses in the Japanese Countryside every year.
  • Countryside living demands a certain level of labor and social commitment. This means house maintenance, working land, community engagement, volunteer time, and satisfying social obligations. Some people would rather keep their time for themselves. Even though urban living has higher population density, you can expect a higher degree of autonomy and privacy versus rural areas.

Can a Foreigner Get a Free House in Japan?

Yes, theoretically anyone can get a free house in Japan. There are no citizenship or resident status requirements to own property in Japan.

There are government-sponsored programs that facilitate low rent over a certain number of years, then the participant can assume ownership of the home. From my experience living in rural Japan (where you would most likely find this kind of opportunity), this scenario is actually a good idea for potential homeowners. It allows you to get a true feeling for the dynamics of a neighborhood before committing to ownership of a property.

After a year in, you might find that foreign people are treated kindly but aren’t understood or supported. It is best to understand what your life will be like before owning a home. Homes aren’t so easy to hand off, especially if it’s a property that is being offered for free.

The True Cost of a Free House

Every situation is different, but it is important to remember that there will be additional costs associated with assuming ownership of a house, even if it has a zero yen price tag. These costs might include:

  • Transfer taxes, registration, duties, lawyers, scrivener and other fees. Depending on the location, you may be able to pro-rate taxes across multiple years.
  • Renovation costs such as disposal fees of any leftover personal belongings, termite damage repair and prevention, roof repair, tatami floor replacement, cosmetic changes, addressing mold or water damage, and accommodating foreign preferences such as updated air conditioning or insulation for cold winters.
  • The personal challenges associated with adapting to a new culture. Yes, even native Japanese people may face challenges if they are moving from an urban area to the countryside.
  • Volunteer labor expectations from the local neighborhood. For example, local residents may work together to cut weeds and grass in public places, near roads, and on mountain paths. Agricultural communities may take turns pitching in during harvest time on each others’ plots.

See also → Akiya House Journal 1: My First Akiya in Japan

The Best Way to Find Free Houses in Japan

It is rare that you would stumble upon a house in akiya banks that have a zero yen price tag. But free houses exist. I’m sorry to say you might not be able to recreate my situation, but if you could, here is how you would do it.

Be Present

  • Spend time in Japan with the intention of learning, participating, and understanding the culture.
  • Learn the language and immerse yourself in the local way of thinking.

See also → Visas for Japan: Immigration Lawyer Directory

Explore Japan

  • Travel and familiarize yourself with different regions.
  • Look for places that are remote, countryside Japan locations that are less convenient, and have limited local amenities, as they usually offer cheaper housing options.

Get Engaged in a Community

  • Assess your skills and find ways to volunteer in the community.
  • Join clubs, take classes, volunteer, and build genuine friendships.
  • Remember that the best way to forge connections is in the way your neighbors want – not necessarily in the way you want.

Embrace Flexibility

  • Understand that your ideal vision may not align with the reality of the situation.
  • Be open to alternative possibilities and different ways of living.

Practice Patience

  • Express your house dream but don’t rush or force it.
  • Focus on living your best life, even if the free house aspiration isn’t immediately realized.

Next Steps?

Obtaining a free house in Japan is possible. If attempting to locate a free house through word-of-mouth, it requires a shift in mindset and a willingness to immerse oneself in the community. The key is to prioritize genuine connections, personal growth, and cultural appreciation over the concept of a free house. Remember, happiness is not solely defined by the possession of a free house, but by the quality of the life you lead.

And if you have decided this the the journey you want to pursue, the next best place for you to start is this Thorough & Hand-Vetted Recommendations for the Best English-Speaking Immigration Offices.

Recommended to read next: What I’ve Learned Living in Rural Japan & What To Expect.

Ganbatte, ne! 😉


Facts About Free Houses in Japan

Is Japan giving away millions of free houses?

The government isn’t giving away millions of free houses. There has been a growing trend in Japan of individual people and families offering homes and property free of charge to others. But the clickbait trend claiming “Japan is giving away free houses” is fairly misleading.

Some municipalities offer “free house” programs after some years. More municipalities offer subsidies for repair, maintenance or removal of akiya houses, however please note that these programs are not available in English, and it is likely that they would be unavailable to Japan non-residents.

Which municipalities in Japan have “free house” programs?

Each area has terms for their programs, such as being under a certain age or staying for a certain number of years. Consult the town hall (in Japanese language) for the most complete and up-to-date information.

  • Oumu Town, Hokkaido
  • Shichikashuku Town, Miyagi
  • Okutama Town, Tokyo
  • Sakai Town, Ibaraki Prefecture

What areas in Japan have renovation subsidies and grants?

The below information is included for general information and convenience purposes only. Full program terms and exclusions should be investigated directly from the municipal office.

Kashima City, Saga PrefectureTheir akiya renovation grants will subsidize half the cost of renovating kitchens, toilets, etc. (up to 500,000 yen).
Bizen City, Okayama PrefectureTheir “Young People’s Rent Subsidy Program” covers half the rent (up to 30,000 yen) for immigrants under the age of 50.
Awaji City, Hyogo PrefectureFor people who are planning to move into or live in vacant houses, if the renovation costs exceed 1 million yen, a subsidy of one-third (up to 1 million yen) will be provided.
Akaido Town, HokkaidoIf the property is live in for 10 years or more, a subsidy of 3 million yen will be provided for housing construction/renovation funds.
Ome City, TokyoVia the “Ome City Vacant House Utilization Support Project.”
Kisarazu City, Chiba PrefectureVacant house renovation subsidy system
Osaka City, Osaka PrefectureVacant House Utilization and Renovation Subsidy Project
Fukuoka City, Fukuoka PrefectureFukuoka City Vacant House Utilization Subsidy
Unzen City, Nagasaki PrefectureThe city will subsidize part of the costs required to renovate akiya bank houses if you live there for more than five years and join the neighborhood association. (Unzen City Settlement Promotion Subsidy)
Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka PrefectureUp to 1 million yen to cover home improvement expenses.

Which Japanese towns offer housing support?

These areas have various support programs in place to encourage people to move and stay there. The programs may include construction grants, childbirth incentives, financial relocation incentives, infertility subsidies, home purchase subsidies, wedding gift money, and more.

  • Akaigawa Village, Hokkaido
  • Shika Town, Ishikawa Prefecture
  • Kiryu City, Gunma Prefecture
  • Arita City, Wakayama Prefecture
  • Matsuno Town, Ehime Prefecture
  • Satsumasendai City, Kagoshima Prefecture
  • Ishigaki City, Okinawa Prefecture
  • Sano City, Tochigi Prefecture
  • Yame City, Fukuoka Prefecture
  • Kaga City in Ishikawa Prefecture

What are the hidden fees?

If the total value of the land and house exceeds 1.1 million yen, the recipient of a free house will be liable for “gift” tax (based on market value of the house). You will need to register the transfer of ownership, at which time you will be charged a registration license tax. There will a fixed asset tax every year. In some areas, you will also be charged an annual city planning tax.

In addition, there is likely deferred maintenance that would require repair costs. If the property contains rubbish, trash removal fees will also apply.

Can I turn a free vacant akiya house into an AirBNB?

Theoretically yes, however several requirements need to be satisfied under the Minpaku Act of 2018, such as having a staff person on-property or within walking distance of the property. A license needs to be approved before offering the property as a short-term rental. There is regular paperwork to be filed with the local municipal office as well.

Is it easy to get a free house in Japan?

With a free house, the transfer is likely to be negotiated directly between the owner and the receiver (without a real estate agent). Researching the land, negotiating terms, organizing the gift contract, preparing the legal documents, and registering with the municipality is complicated (especially in Japanese).

For me, finding free houses has been easy. But executing the following steps is complex.


Glossary

Akiya

(空き家) In Japanese, meaning vacant house or unoccupied house.

Akiya Bank

Online database of vacant house listings. These may be for rent or for sale.

Ehime

(愛媛) Prefecture in the western part of Shikoku, Japan.

Ghost House

Stigmatized term for an abandoned house; implying haunting or an empty village.

Inaka

(田舎) The Japanese countryside; rural Japan.

Kominka

(古民家) Old-style Japanese house; old folk house.

Machiya

(町家) Traditional Japanese wooden construction house; traditional merchant house.