The Thursfields’ house, which sits among the paddies in southern Ibaraki Prefecture, about 45 minutes from central Tokyo, had been deserted after the previous owner’s family refused to inherit it upon the owner’s death.
The local municipality took over the property and put it up for auction with a 5 million yen (S$50,000) minimum bid, but it failed to sell.
When it landed on the block again, Mr Thursfield decided to try his luck. After giving it a quick inspection with an architect friend and finding no major issues despite the years of neglect, he nabbed the house for 3 million yen.
Houses in Japan typically decrease in value over time until they are worthless – the cultural legacy of post-World War II construction and shifting building codes – with only the land retaining value.
Owners feel little incentive to maintain an ageing house and buyers often seek to demolish them and start fresh. But that can be expensive.
Others aim to preserve what is there.
“There was no way we wanted to knock it down and build something new. It was too beautiful. So, we decided to renovate instead,” the Thursfield family said.
“I’ve always been someone who likes to jump in the deep end, take a few risks and learn new things, so I was confident that we would manage somehow.”
Since buying the farmhouse in 2019, the couple has spent about US$150,000 on renovations, and there is more to do. The Thursfield family has documented the project on YouTube, drawing more than 200,000 subscribers.
While the Thursfields’ house had been abandoned by the previous owner’s heirs, some home owners died without ever naming an inheritor.
Others leave their properties to relatives who refuse to sell family land out of respect for their elders, leaving the house to wither.
“In rural areas, there is a long history of ancestral owners of akiya living in the houses and on the land,” said Mr Kazunobu Tsutsui, a professor of rural geography and economics at Tottori University who lives in a renovated akiya built more than a century ago.
“Therefore, even after moving to the city, families will not give up their akiya easily.”
Now, officials on both local and national levels are taking steps to give them a push.
“Poorly maintained akiya can mar the scenery as well as endanger residents’ lives and property if they collapse,” said Mr Kazuhiro Nagao, a city official in Sakata, along the west coast, where heavy snowfall can damage unattended structures.
“We’re partly subsidising demolitions, collecting neighbourhood association reports on akiya and trying to make owners aware of the problem by holding briefings”.
Akiya are increasingly seen not just as a threat to suburban and rural markets but to the emotional health of the country, sparking family disputes over inherited properties.
That, in turn, has led to a cottage industry of akiya consultants like Mr Takamitsu Wada, chief executive of Akiya Katsuyo, who acts as a counsellor for squabbling relatives, often urging them to act before their properties become a lost cause.
“In many cases, the parents die without making clear their wishes regarding the family home, or they develop dementia and find it difficult to discuss these things,” Mr Wada said.
“In such cases, the children may feel guilty about getting rid of the family home and may often choose to leave it unoccupied.”
Municipalities across Japan are also compiling listings of vacant houses for sale or rent.
Known as “akiya banks”, they are often bare-bones webpages with a few underwhelming photos.
Some have partnered with companies like At Home, which currently lists akiya in 658 of Japan’s 1,741 municipalities.
“Akiya banks are run by municipal office workers, the majority of which often do not have any experience in real estate,” said Mr Matthew Ketchum, a Pittsburgh native and co-founder of Akiya & Inaka, a Tokyo-based real estate consultancy.
“The existing solutions do not align with the needs of modern buyers and sellers.” Mr Ketchum’s firm is one of several that have sprung up to capitalise on the akiya glut, matching vacant homes with curious buyers.