- Anton Wormann, a 30-year-old Swedish model, moved to Tokyo in 2019 after visiting for work.
- Wormann started buying and DIY-renovating cheap, neglected houses in his neighborhood.
- His most recent project was a 100-year-old “akiya” that hadn’t been lived in for 10 years.
While rebuilding an abandoned “akiya” property that he purchased in suburban Tokyo in 2022, Anton Wormann often questioned his own sanity.
A year later, the transformation was complete — Wormann had successfully renovated the Japanese home to rent out on Airbnb for extra income.
Wormann, a 30-year-old model who is originally from Stockholm, first came to Japan for two months in 2015 on a modeling assignment at a Japanese agency. He fell in love with Japanese culture, cuisine, and life in Tokyo.
Between 2015 and 2019, he spent time in New York, Milan, London, and Paris while making return visits to Japan, and he began learning the language. In 2019, he took the plunge and moved there permanently.
Moving to Japan was the ‘best decision’
“It was one of the best decisions of my life,” he told Insider.
After settling in the hip Shibuya and Sangenjaya districts of west Tokyo, Wormann told Insider he began buying cheap, neglected properties in the area and flipping them to rent for extra income.
He had learned the necessary DIY skills watching his father flip properties in Sweden, Wormann said.
Buying the Sangenjaya House in March 2022 was his most ambitious project to date.
“It is almost 100 years old and had been empty for more than 10 years when I first saw it,” he said. “The previous owner had passed away in 2010 so it was owned by four siblings who just did not know what to do with it.”
Wormann told Insider he was passing by the house and saw the owners at the site. He asked if they were interested in selling.
The owners were shocked that Wormann wanted to buy the house
“‘Really? You want to buy this piece of crap?’ That was their reaction,” he said. But Wormann was already familiar with the process of flipping houses in Tokyo and felt ready for the challenge.
Although Wormann didn’t share how much he paid for the property, akiya can cost between $10,000 and $100,000, depending on their condition and location, according to an akiya listing site. A more modern akiya in Tokyo was listed for $34,000 on the Instagram Cheap House Japan.
Wormann was able to complete the purchase in March 2022. He told Insider he always planned to rent the place out, so he wanted to incorporate Scandinavian and Japanese designs that would appeal to Airbnb guests.
The century-old house is 90 square meters over two floors. It originally had five small bedrooms and a small garden in the back.
Wormann demolished all the internal walls on the ground floor. He installed a new staircase and combined some of the upstairs rooms to make them more spacious.
Upstairs, he retained the traditional Japanese accents, including tatami mats on the floor, sliding panels called fusuma, and wood-and-paper doors called shoji.
On the ground floor, Wormann outfitted the kitchen with modern appliances. He also installed a rotenburo, or outdoor bath, in the back garden.
Wormann wanted a challenge, but the renovation wasn’t easy
Wormann documented many of his struggles on his YouTube channel, “Anton in Japan.”
“I love a good challenge, but if I am honest, I had no idea how big a project I was taking on when I took a peek inside for the first time,” he said.
“I speak Japanese fairly well, but the terminology used in the construction world is pretty different from the fashion world,” he said.
During the renovation, he handled a termite infestation in the beams, mountains of trash as the property was gutted, and contractors who could be unreliable. Replacing the beams was an unforeseen cost — and all the problems delayed the project.
Firing tradesmen isn’t usually done in Japan
Wormann hired a plumber and a carpenter but then fired them when the work was taking too long and not up to the standards that he expected.
That’s not something that’s typically done in Japan, as locals do not question the “master” they employ to complete a task, but Wormann said he was on a budget and a deadline.
“I learned by experience,” he said. “With a DIY renovation, you have to make hundreds, if not thousands, of quick decisions so as not to fall behind schedule or go broke. The hardest things are the ones that you have no control over, such as how can I get hold of a water boiler, or when the plumber says he cannot come for a month.”
On the plus side, Wormann said the city government was helpful with the paperwork. He told Insider local governments across Japan are very keen to solve the problem of abandoned and collapsing akiya.
Personal contacts in the real-estate business and among local tradesmen helped Wormann finish on time and on budget.
He estimates that he put in about 1,500 hours of his own labor on the house and spent some $50,000 on materials and laborers. The rebuild took a year to complete, with Wormann working on-site when he wasn’t traveling for modeling jobs.
The Sangenjaya house was completed in March, and Wormann told Insider he had his first Airbnb guests within a month.
“I still live in the area and whenever it is not rented out, I have friends over for dinner,” he said. “I hope my mum can come and visit next year during the cherry-blossom season.”
Others looking to buy an akiya should do their research
Wormann already has his eyes on his next akiya renovation and has written a book that will be available in October with advice for anyone thinking of taking on a similar project.
The bottom line, he said, is not to buy the first property you see, stay calm, and choose the area where you want to live.
“Japan has 10 million vacant houses and this market is growing,” he said. “And if you contribute to a community then opportunities will arise around you.”