The Japanese countryside is dotted with old, rambling shacks and farmhouses that look empty and abandoned. They can even be found in urban settings. You may think it’s a simple process of just pulling the title with the owner’s name on it, giving them a call and offering a few Yen to take the old home off their hands. And voila, you now have a charming fixer-upper of your own?

Nope. It’s not that easy.

There are currently no legal obligations to keep a property title up to date or record any changes in ownership. It is entirely optional. For old family homes in the countryside, very few families bother with recording the change in owners as previous generations pass away. Many legal heirs have no idea they are the rightful owners to a house owned by a distant ancestor over 100 years ago.

If you do try to go down this route, you might find the title deed still shows great-great-grandpa, who may have lived during the 1800s, as the owner. Obviously, he is no longer around to sell the house to you so you have to track down the legal owner. There could be over 100 heirs as the true legal owners, and you would need to chase each and every one of them down to obtain the required 100% consensus to agree to the sale. One old house in Kyoto was estimated to have over 1,000 owners, many unreachable, with lawyers remarking that it would be essentially impossible to sell in that scenario. For the general public, this is an impossible task. And even for local government offices, this is an incredibly time-consuming and expensive process that can take over a decade and run up a bill of a few million Yen. Some owners may never be found.  

Land and buildings with outdated property titles are of increasing concern to local governments. Some of the homes are in such disrepair that they pose a risk to neighbors, while others may hinder much-needed infrastructure projects. The national government is considering making it compulsory for heirs to update property titles. The title registration system is only designed to provide the owner with the right to claim ownership against a third party and is currently optional. Normally a buyer would choose to record themselves as the new owner to prevent any ownership disputes in the event that the previous owner sold the property to several different parties. Whoever records the change of ownership the earliest can legally claim their right against the other buyers.

What’s the solution? Stick to homes that are clearly for sale. Look through ‘Akiya Banks’ which are a collection of vacant homes where the owners are looking to sell or rent them out in each district. Many prefectural governments have a small selection of listings on their homepages, while multiple-listing site Lifull Home’s has a special page collating akiya properties.