Seven reasons not to fall in love with that $25,000 Japanese farmhouse

Clipping of article from the New York Times about buying cheap Japanese farmhouses

The New York Times is only the latest media outlet to jump on the “you can buy a fabulous farmhouse in Japan for cheap” bandwagon, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. To sum up this latest piece of clickbait, Japan’s famously shrinking population has left millions of vintage farmhouses sitting empty and unwanted, so the owners (or the municipalities that are auctioning them off) are willing to sell them for a song.

Which is true.

But before you smash your piggybank to snap up one of these bargains, there are a few things you ought to know.

The population bust is leaving more than houses empty

This article fails to note that while millions of akiya (empty houses) are going begging, apartment construction in the big cities is still booming. Japan is no more exempt from the laws of supply and demand than the deplorably unaffordable housing market where you live, and as population shrinks, many small towns and rural areas are becoming unviable places to live.

The big employers go first, because no business can operate if the worker pool is too small, too unskilled or too elderly to hire from. And the small businesses close next, once there are too few employed people to support local restaurants, drugstores, and supermarkets. Those who must work for a living have little choice but to flee these rural areas and head for the cities. Which means…

You’d better not need a job once you move to your new house

And even if you’re independently wealthy or have a remote job you can count on to pay the bills for as long as you own the house…

Your new life will be the envy of Instagram, but don’t forget the eggs when you make a grocery run

…because that’s another hour of your life you’ll never get back.

That, however, is just for starters

Because the other thing this article fails to mention is that you may not even be allowed to buy that dream fixer-upper and/or live in it full-time.

Owning property doesn’t mean you’ll be granted permission to stay in the country longer than 90 days

Japanese visas have nothing to do with how much of an investment you’re willing to make, and everything to do with how much someone in Japan wants you to be there. The government won’t give you permission to stay longer than any other tourist unless a Japanese organization finds your contributions essential enough to sponsor your visa or a citizen loves you enough to marry you.

Without permanent residence status, you can’t get a mortgage

You may have noticed that all the successful rehabbers of the cheap houses mentioned in this article are longterm residents of Japan and/or married to Japanese nationals. A mortgage requires that you have a relationship with a Japanese bank, and you can’t even open an account (or rent an apartment or get a cellphone account) without being a Japanese citizen or being granted permission by the government to live in Japan for more than three months at a time.

And how do you obtain that golden ticket? You can work for a Japanese company or organization that agrees to sponsor your longterm visa (and can revoke it at will), or marry a Japanese national. Then sit back, pay your taxes, and wait seven to nine years to be eligible for consideration.

But let’s say you’re willing to plunk down the entire purchase price in cash and are content to live in it for no longer than three months at a time…

Clipping of article from the New York Times about buying cheap Japanese farmhouses

Don’t fork over your hard earned Benjamins until you think long and hard about…

A fixer-upper in rural Japan is not the same as a fixer-upper in San Francisco

“The Thursfields’ house…had been deserted after the previous owner’s family refused to inherit it upon the owner’s death,” reports the NYT. Which seems to suggest that the reason it’s so cheap is because of some weird Japanese aversion to inheriting the house. The truth is, there are probably very good reasons nobody wanted to live there.

Let’s start with the obvious one: it’s a fixer-upper.

Now, you obviously wouldn’t even have bothered to click on the listing if you hadn’t weighed the pros and cons of owning something that needs work. You’ve prudently set aside $150,000 for repairs to shore up those sagging walls, fix the leaking roof, and put in a nice bidet toilet. You even checked to make sure your farmhouse has the right kind of plumbing before you bought it (because yes, in rural Japan, there are still people who have lived without hot running water their whole lives and use a wood-fired heater to keep that nice, deep bathtub steaming).

Now all you have to do is to find someone who lives in back-of-beyond Japan* to do the work. Which is not so easy, since all the skilled laborers have decamped to the city. And it would be a good idea to brush up on your Japanese, because you won’t be navigating the inevitable scheduling hiccups and trying to understand the reasons that it’s going to cost more and take longer than you’d budgeted in English. English speakers are somewhat thin on the ground outside the big cities, especially among people who do not (and have never) needed English to do their jobs.

“But I’m going to do all the work myself!” you proudly object, because maybe this isn’t your first rodeo when it comes to turning an eyesore into a want-worthy palace. Which is a great plan, providing you can source the materials for the price you agreed upon and by the date you need them, then convince the local building inspector that everything you built is constructed to Japanese code.

If you’ve made it this far and are still undeterred..

The Terms & Conditions might be a whole new level of dealbreaker

Akiyas are often dirt-cheap because they’ve fallen into some sort of ownership no-man’s-land and have to be sold at auction by the local municipality. But governments aren’t in the business of offering bargains if they don’t get something in return.

Some want to stem the population drain from the area, so they require that owners make it their permanent residence (which will put a foreigner in violation of their visa if they don’t have permanent residency). Some towns fight their graying demographic by only allowing Japanese people who are younger than 43, married, and with kids who are middle school age or younger to buy their bargain akiya (yes, this is really A Thing) And many rural locales require that anyone who buys a bucolic farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies to farm them.

As you know, I love Japan—even the irritating bits—and my diabolical mission is to persuade you to love it as much as I do. But this kind of clickbait (shame on you, NYT!) creates a false picture that gets in the way of understanding and appreciating the genuinely wonderful things about the country I love so much, warts and all.

* By “back-of-beyond,” I’m referring to anywhere that’s not within an hour’s commute to a major city by regular train lines (not the bullet train, which costs an order-of-magnitude more to ride). The reason Tokyo is such a sprawl is that people are willing to commute up to an hour each way to work, so whenever an express train is added to the schedule, it opens up that terminus to development. Property that was previously too remote instantly becomes a lot more desirable, and prices go up.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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