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If buying a home is impossible in SF, this startup says why not try a fixer-upper in Japan

In a country with too much supply, Bay Area-owned AkiyaMart is trying to bring in the demand

This image shows a detailed map illustration of a town with traditional-style buildings and a river. Several red location markers are placed at various points.
Japan’s housing crisis is the opposite of Bay Area’s. | Source: Ai illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard

$340,000. That’s the jaw-dropping amount a household needs to make a year to comfortably afford the mortgage and related expenses for a home in San Francisco, according to an analysis by Zillow

Longtime friends Take Kurosawa and Joey Stockermans were already struggling with this daunting reality. Then, they were both laid off from their tech jobs at the beginning of 2023. 

Disillusioned by an American dream increasingly out of reach, they decided to pool their money together to purchase an abandoned house in Japan, where a combination of housing oversupply and a shrinking population has led to a sharp decrease in property prices. 

Why Japan? Both friends had spent parts of their childhood in the country growing up and were yearning to explore the country further in their adulthood, Kurosawa said. 

The image shows a cozy room with wood-paneled walls, featuring a grey L-shaped sofa, a round glowing lamp, a hanging plant, and a yoga mat on the floor.
A Bay Area resident and his friend started AkiyaMart, which connects foreign buyers to Japan's vast array of empty homes. | Source: Courtesy Take Kurosawa

For just $42,000, they got a 1,000-square-foot house in Beppu, a city of about 122,000 people on the nation’s southernmost island Kyushu, approximately 680 miles from Tokyo. Sure, it was a fixer-upper, but at least it was theirs. 

Right now, the cheapest Zillow property listing for sale in San Francisco is a studio a quarter of the size in the Tenderloin that’s asking $195,000. 

Feeling fulfilled by their experience of landing a home across the Pacific, the pair launched AkiyaMart last summer, an online tool for foreigners to research and shop for similar properties in Japan. The term “Akiya” translates to abandoned homes. The site offers a subscription AkiyaMart Pro tier that unlocks access to higher-priced listings and charges consultation fees for those interested in pursuing a home.

“We are basically trying to bring the demand to the supply,” Kurosawa said. Although buyers still have to work with a Japanese real estate broker to close on a house, AkiyaMart translates local listings into English and makes them easier to shop for—similar to the experience of browsing for homes on Zillow or Redfin. 

While there are no legal restrictions prohibiting foreigners from buying property in Japan, there is still a high barrier to entry for the country’s real estate market, said Kurosawa, who now splits his time between a mobile home in Santa Cruz and Japan. 

“Most people perceive Japan as this high-tech society, but when it comes to real estate, it’s all pretty old school,” Kurosawa said. “They still use fax machines and wet signatures.”

A perusal of the cheapest listings on AkiyaMart mainly consists of residences located in smaller rural towns that were built well before the 21st century. These properties sit empty in large part because Japan’s population has migrated toward bigger cities and current generations are loath to inherit properties that require extensive upkeep. 

The image shows a room under renovation with exposed wooden beams, construction tools, and materials scattered around. There are large windows and a sliding door.
Take Kurosawa and Joey Stockermans spent the better part of a year renovating an old house in Beppu, Japan after buying it for $42,000. | Source: Courtesy Take Kurosawa

Since property values in the country continue to trend downward, there’s also little economic incentive to turn these homes around. After getting the keys to their house in Beppu, Kurosawa and Stockermans spent all of last year working with a local contractor to fully renovate the property into a getaway home and vacation rental.

“Most people want to see these homes filled,” Kurosawa said. According to data from Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, there are nearly 9 million empty homes in the country, an 80% increase from 20 years ago. It’s the opposite of the U.S., where less than 1% of homes available for sale are vacant per the Census Bureau.

A 2017 study by the Nomura Research Institute predicted that a staggering one-third of all Japanese homes would be vacant by 2033 if population trends do not reverse. 

Since launching, Kurosawa said AkiyaMart has helped four people close on an abandoned home in Japan. Outside of North America, most prospective Akiya shoppers come from Australia, Singapore, China and the Philippines.

“As long as you’re respectful of their culture, you will be well received,” Kurosawa said. “Before we refer anyone to an agent, we want to make sure they’re not going to be a jerk.” 

The next step for the pair’s business is to help foreign shoppers buy all types of real estate in Japan, but that involves convincing more local Japanese brokers to come aboard.  

“A lot of them are afraid to work with foreigners,” Kurosawa said. “They think we’re going to lowball them. If we can make it so they don’t have to work with foreigners ever, but still enjoy the profits, I think that’s where we can fit into this market.” 

At the end of the month, the AkiyaMart team is throwing a party at a Mexican restaurant in Tokyo for local agents. Before Kurosawa hopped onto his latest flight to Japan, he reflected on a newfound life that only arrived after he got laid off. 

“It’s just getting harder and harder to achieve this dream in California,” Kurosawa said. “Next step is convincing my fiancé to move with me.”