With eight million homes vacant and on the rise in Japan, real estate agencies say they offer short-term attractive alternative accommodation to pricey hotels. Photo: Bloomberg

Japan's short-term home rental market shows promise

Growing tourism industry, cheaper yen and plenty of vacant homes boost sentiment but the sector faces strict regulatory controls

Japan seems to have the right mix for developing a vibrant short-term home rental market: a rapidly growing tourism industry, a cheap currency and - unlike many countries - eight million vacant homes.

Adding to the attractive business case is a reform-minded national government keen to loosen regulatory curbs and develop the market ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

And despite some obstacles from regional governments, home rental website Airbnb has listed thousands of properties in the hope of drawing tourist money, and others hope to follow.

"Tourists coming to Japan are on the rise, and there's definitely the need for this type of service," said Takashi Sagara, a manager at real estate agency Able, which plans to connect homeowners with an Airbnb-style service.

Business hopes have been fuelled in no small measure by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's push to cut red tape as part of his policies to jump-start the nation's long-stagnant economy.

While renting properties for long-term accommodation is legal, current rules on short-term rentals are strict: owners cannot legally let their homes without a licence, hotel-style reception desks and minimum room sizes.

Abe has proposed to relax these curbs. Along with looser visa rules and a substantially weaker yen, the move promises to add to the explosive growth in tourist arrivals and boost broader economic activity.

Rental homes offer an attractive alternative to pricey hotels, which in Osaka, for example, are often near capacity at weekends.

Visits to Japan jumped 27 per cent in the year to October to an estimated 11 million. The government is targeting 20 million tourists a year by the time of the Tokyo games.

With one in seven properties standing vacant last year, homeowners are well placed to benefit from this influx. The vacancy rate, rooted in a declining population and a preference for buying new homes, could rise above 20 per cent within 10 years, says the Nomura Research Institute.

By comparison, less than 4 per cent of German homes are vacant. In the United States, whose housing sector was badly hit by the 2007 financial crisis, the rate is about 14 per cent.

Able's partner Tomareru estimates the short-term home rental market initially to be worth 100 billion yen (HK$6.53 billion) annually. But firms hoping to cash in are having to temper their plans until regional governments in Tokyo and Osaka take steps to relax curbs.

Opposition from lawmakers in these cities highlight some of the challenges Abe faces in implementing broader structural reforms. In September, Osaka legislators voted down a bill to loosen regulations, citing community worries about noise and safety. Vested interests are another roadblock.

"I'd love to get into the business. But hotels and inns have a real interest in protecting it, so oppose reform," said Daisuke Shigematsu, the chief executive of Spacemarket, a start-up that matches quirky vacant houses and other spaces with venue-seeking clients.

Still, these obstacles have not stopped Airbnb from listing about 4,000 properties for Japan, although that is only a tiny fraction of its 1 million listings worldwide. Other businesses are more cautious. Opposition from Nagano prefecture in central Japan has already caused Yahoo Japan Corp to scrap plans for a short-term home rental business.

Internet giant Rakuten has been weighing a move into the industry, people with knowledge of the plans said. Rakuten declined to comment.

Able and Tomareru are prepared to enter the market, with more than 2,000 vacant properties in Osaka already lined up. They are hopeful that proposals to appease neighbourhood concerns will help overcome opposition to Abe's proposals in at least some districts by the start of the next business year in April.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Short-term rental market shows bright prospects