Akiya Renovation 101
We are often asked by clients whether akiya renovation is worth it, and to go about it.
The properties that we show to clients is oftentimes extremely reasonable. However, this tends to frighten cautious buyers worried about the threat of expensive renovation work.
With older properties, updates, replacements, and other rejuvenations are almost inevitable to make the property comfortable for the new owner.
While Akiya & Inaka is a consulting service, not a licensed architect or construction expert, we are very resourceful. We have a wealth of experience and a database of contacts in the construction and renovation industries.
So, you ask, what can you do with an old akiya?
Much depends on project scope, budget, and how DIY you feel like going. But the short answer is, the possibilities are endless!
With rural properties, we often need to look below the surface to assess viability. This could be mold, termite damage, or structural issues, which must be addressed before cosmetic renovation work can begin. This is where building inspectors come in: they determine how much work is required to bring the building up to speed before purchase.
We often come across decades old buildings that have been empty for years but which are perfectly viable for renovation. Japanese construction *can* be good, so decent bones underneath a less-than-stellar veneer isn’t uncommon. Depending on how much rejuvenation is required to make a place truly livable, though, your renovation budget can match or exceed the purchase price.
When we’re talking about renovation budgets, each project is different. Generally, you can split it into three groups:
Group 1: Minor Renovation Project
New wallpaper, replacing old, warped drywall, new light installations, minor bathroom updates, etc. Budgets can be as low as ¥500,000, and go up to about ¥3,000,000. This, of course, all depends on your preferences and circumstances.
Group 2: Mid-Level Renovation Project
Re-imagining spaces with new carpentry, new kitchens or bathrooms, in addition to the minor cosmetic work of group 1. Budgets for this level can run between ¥3,000,000 to ¥5,000,000.
Group 3: Major Renovation Project
Serious structural repairs, such as uneven floors or foundation issues, will be no less than a major project. You should work with an architect or capable renovation firm as project scope will go beyond what any layperson can handle. For a full renovation on a residential property of 100 m², a budget of at least ¥10,000,000 would be prudent.
Is It Worth It?
With renovation’s potentially large costs, clients often ask if this is a wise investment versus demolition and starting from scratch. Every situation is different, but our approach to Japan’s akiya problem is that you are basically paying for the land, which happens to have a free building. If you think of it that way, by renovating you are creating value where there currently is none. Of course, the return on investment varies widely depending on purchase price, location, and the land use potential post-project.
Potential value to a future buyer is also something to keep in mind with real estate investing. With renovations, what you think is the best use of space is not necessarily what others think. That’s another reason why talking to professionals – such as building inspectors, architects, or tradespeople – is advisable. You will get a point of reference on how to move forward productively.
My Own Renovation
My own story with renovation work in Japan started in 2016, when I purchased a house in Tokyo. As many who look at an existing building, I was attracted by the low cost and abundance of space. Doing the numbers, the house was essentially a free 20+ year old building on a (not so free) piece of land. However, I came into the process knowing that there were a lot of things that I wanted to change, literally an entire house full of outdated fixtures, peeling wallpaper, and a less than ingenious layout.
Five years later, I am in the final stretch of my full-on renovation journey. You might think that I must be crazy – and you may be correct – but through this I have learned a lot about my house, the different ways that you can go about these projects, and a wide variety of specialists in Japan.
I first worked with a registered architect and renovation firm to rejuvenate my living and kitchen area. This entailed relocating the kitchen, which meant moving gas and water lines, tearing down walls, and building new ones. Ultimately it was successful, but I made one big mistake. I thought my instructions were well understood enough to avoid being on site, and went on vacation to visit family in the US. This was not a good idea!
When I returned, I discovered several things had not been done as I had specified.
- Bumpy quality of the wallpaper work.
- The new living room door had its handle in a comically low position.
- A new light fixture wasn’t assembled correctly.
This being my first foray into renovation in Japan, I was furious. I called my architect and poured my frustrations out onto them.
This is the blessing and the curse of working with a renovation company. I was talking to an architect, who subcontracted the work to various tradespeople. In retrospect, they mostly did a good job and were hands-on with site visits and project management. However, they did not ask about certain things that ended up being important, leaving room for error. Additionally, the work quality suffered due to the use of less-skilled tradespeople.
After this experience, I took matters into my own hands. The next stage of renovation included converting a home office into a guest room, adding walk-in closets to bedrooms, and installing carpeting over aged hardwood floors.
DIY home improvement is common in my Southeastern US hometown, so I thought why not give it a go. I purchased light fixtures and a ceiling fan via Amazon US. I also bought wall and ceiling paint from Benjamin Moore, a well-known US paint company with products geared towards do-it-yourselfers. This was an interesting process, and taught me a lot about how Japanese homes are constructed.
Do Your Prep Work
One thing to know about painting: surface preparation is everything. In Japan, wall paint is not common, and most wall surfaces are instead covered with vinyl wall covering. Before starting to paint, you must peel off this wall covering, and then use sandpaper and putty to prepare the surface.
But this is a lot easier said than done, as I learned after weeks of peeling, sandpaper-ing, and putty-ing. Thankfully, I have a friend who is a professional wallpaper installer. I ultimately gave in and asked him to come finish the prep work for me. What took me weeks to do partially, he completed to a high-level of quality in the course of two days.
Once the prep work is done, the painting itself is not so bad. Professionals tend to use oil-based paint, which is faster but much less forgiving to an amateur. I chose acrylic and completed the job easily enough.
First comes the bright white primer coat, and let it dry. Then apply at least 2 topcoats with your selected color over that to get a good finish.
With painting done, it was time to install the ceiling fan, and I soon learned the importance of checking your ceiling situation before deciding on a light fixture. American ceiling fans are relatively heavy, so they need to be supported with a joist. If there is no joist in the middle of the room, a special bracket needs to be purchased. That special bracket uses horizontal pressure between two joists to secure the fixture.
Satisfaction of A Job, Well, Done
After the difficult journey of completing a single 15 m² guest bedroom, I decided to switch to site manager and delegate the heavy lifting to professionals.
This ended up being the best idea I had thus far. Working directly with skilled tradespeople with no middlepeople produces much better results. I worked with a veteran carpenter who graciously decrypted my poorly-drawn instructions. He gave me important feedback about issues that came up during the project with recommendations. The job was completed immaculately.
With the carpentry work done, I had a professional install wallpaper in the bedrooms. After that, I had a carpet installer lay carpet over the old hardwood floors with a felt gripper system. Finally, I handled installing the baseboards and ceiling trim, painting, and a few more ceiling fans. Perhaps owing to my southern upbringing, I really like ceiling fans. They’re great for Japan’s humid summers!