Japan has so many vacant homes it's giving them away

Updated 8:29 PM ET, Mon January 14, 2019

The series on Japan's demographic reckoning is supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. None of the material in this series may be reproduced without an explicit credit to CNN and the Pulitzer Center.

Okutama, Japan (CNN)Four years ago, Naoko and Takayuki Ida were given a house. For free.

It's a spacious, two-story home nestled amid trees on a winding country road in the small town of Okutama, in Tokyo prefecture. Before moving, the couple and their children -- two teenagers and a five-year-old -- were all living with Naoko's parents.
"We had to do a lot of repair work (on our new home), but we'd always wanted to live in the countryside and have a big garden," said Naoko, 45.

Naoko Ida converted an old Japanese-style house into a cafe.

It's a popular stop among bikers.

Ida opened her cafe in September 2017.

A free house may sound like a scam. But Japan faces an unusual property problem: it has more homes than people to live in them.
In 2013, there were 61 million houses and 52 million households, according to the Japan Policy Forum. And the situation is poised to get worse.
Japan's population is expected to decline from 127 million to about 88 million by 2065, according to the National Institute of Population and Social Security, meaning even fewer people will need houses. As young people leave rural areas for city jobs, Japan's countryside has become haunted by deserted "ghost" houses, known as "akiya."
It's predicted that by 2040, nearly 900 towns and villages across Japan will face a risk of extinction, according to a 2014 report entitled 'Local Extinctions' published by Hiroya Masuda. And Okutama is one of them. In that context, giving away property is a bid for survival.
"In 2014, we discovered that Okutama was one of three Tokyo (prefecture) towns expected to vanish by 2040," says Kazutaka Niijima, an official with the Okutama Youth Revitalization (OYR) department, a government body set up to repopulate the town.
Vacant houses are a common sight across Japan as the country's population shrinks and many young people move to urban areas.

Akiya bank plans

Okutama is a two-hour train ride west from Tokyo prefecture's dense, neon-soaked center.
In the 1960s, it boasted a population of more than 13,000, as well as a profitable timber trade. But after the liberalization of imports and falling demand for timber in the 1990s, most young people left for the city. Today, Okutama has just 5,200 residents.
In 2014, it established an "akiya bank" -- or vacant house plans -- which matches prospective buyers with aging homeowners and empty properties. While akiya banks are now common across Japan, each town sets its own conditions.
For example, Okutama subsidizes home repairs for new akiya residents, and encourages akiya owners to relinquish their vacant properties by offering up to $8,820 per 100 square meters (1,076 sq feet).
However, it stipulates that those who receive a free home or renovation assistance must be aged under 40, or be in a couple with at least one child under 18-years-old and one partner aged under 50. Akiya applicants must also commit to settling in the town permanently and invest in upgrading second-hand homes.
But even giving away homes is tough in a country where people prefer new builds.

A view over Okutama, 1955. (Okutama Town)

Constructions for Ogouchi dam in 1945. (Okutama Town)

Second-hand homes

Niijima leads the way into a vacant, box-like house with a blue roof and white walls that was built 33 years ago. Though sturdy on the outside, the musty smell inside hints at the decade it has sat empty. The kitchen is in need of a makeover, and the tatami floor is faded.
"It will suit someone who likes DIY," Niijima said with a grin.
There are 3,000 homes in Okutama, and about 400 are vacant -- only half of which are believed to be salvageable. The rest are either too dilapidated or were built in areas at risk of landslides.
In the 20th century, Japan experienced two major population spikes: the first after World War II and the second during the economic explosion of the 1980s. Both created housing shortages which led to cheap, mass-produced homes that were quickly erected in densely populated towns and cities.