Landed Japan, by Christopher Dillon
As part of our series on the best books about real estate in Japan, we are happy to present our review of Landed Japan (2018), by Christopher Dillon.
We know from our research on the population of Sapporo, that the total number of foreigners living and buying real estate in Hokkaido is increasing. There is substantial interest in Japanese real estate from non-residents, with very little information about real estate in Japan written in English. Dillon’s book Landed Japan is perhaps the most well-known contemporary book written to help educate buyers and investors in their efforts to buy property in Japan.
Our work with clients has given us first-hand experience with the current topics and challenges that foreigners face as they negotiate real estate transactions in Japan. In that context, we have had a chance to examine Dillon’s book and decide for ourselves how relevant or useful it might be for foreign buyers here in Hokkaido.
Our conclusion is that we liked Landed Japan very much. It is rare to find good content in English, and even more rare to find comments on Hokkaido.
Below we’ll tempt you to read it for yourself. We will include our notes on Dillon’s personal experience as a real estate investor, his use of case studies to illustrate concepts, some of his generally insightful comments about Japanese real estate, and then some specific notes about Hokkaido real estate, property in Niseko, and our thoughts on the greater real estate opportunities in Sapporo.
Background on Christopher Dillon
We begin our review of Landed Japan with some background on the author, author Christopher Dillon.
Despite his western origins, Christopher Dillon is best known for his work in media and real estate in Asia. Originally from Canada, Christopher Dillon has an education from Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. He lived in Japan from 1989 to 1992. His authority on the topic of Japanese real estate comes from his experience as a researcher, a buyer, and an investor in real estate in Japan.
Dillon has a long history of experience with real estate in Asia. His first major purchase was an office building he bought in Hong Kong in 2002. Presumably based on that experience, he wrote Landed: The expatriate’s guide to buying and renovating property in Hong Kong in 2008.
Based on the success of that project, Dillon began research for a second book, and in 2010, Dillon released Landed: The guide to buying property in Japan.
Landed: The guide to buying property in Japan was written before I purchased local property. As a result, I extended my research methods. I interviewed architects, builders and agents. I wrote case studies about foreigners who had successfully bought and built homes in Japan. I read trade magazines to learn about trends shaping the market. And I scoured academic journals for practical information about subjects ranging from asbestos to zoning.
Note his reference to case studies; the case studies in Dillon’s Landed series do a good job of helping to illustrate aspects of real estate in action. In fact, in 2010, after the first edition of his real estate book about Japan was released, he bought an apartment in Tokyo, which gave him more local experience and continued his education in the Japanese real estate market. From that first purchase in Japan, Dillon had expanded his knowledge on the Japanese market and had become his own case study.
We’ll provide some examples of other case studies below.
Dillon went on to write two additional books about real estate in Asia, including Landed China (2013) and Landed Global (2014). After these experiences, as well as buying his own property in Japan, he revised his book about real estate in Japan, and released Landed Japan (the current edition) in 2018.
For many foreign-born real estate investors, Christopher Dillon does an excellent job sharing a unique perspective on the process of buying property in Japan as a foreigner.
The current edition of Landed Japan was published in 2018. In this second edition, Dillon includes more details about buying property, and also more personal experience from activities in Japan and in real estate transactions in Hong Kong.
In writing Landed Japan, I have omitted the sales pitch. I assume that, whether for family, lifestyle or financial reasons, you want to buy real estate in Japan.
Landed Japan is divided into six parts with sections including People, Your New Home, Locations, Money, Special Cases, and Resources. The book is subdivided into 20+ chapters on a range of topics including demographics, the buying process, choosing a location, chapters on mortgages, homeowners insurance, taxes in Japan, a “Property Buyer’s Checklist,” and an excellent index.
Dillon’s Personal Experience with Buying Japanese Real Estate
Here is Christopher Dillon talking about his personal experience in Japan:
After publishing the first edition of Landed Japan in May 2010, it was time to use what I had learned to buy an apartment in Tokyo.
He goes on to provide details of his personal case study where he successfully locates and completes the purchase of a rental property in Tokyo. With the help of a Japanese real estate agent, he looks at apartments in various neighborhoods, makes an offer, and works with local judicial scriveners to complete the buying process. He also documents the major costs associated with the purchase including the agent’s commission, the fees for the lawyers, his real estate acquisition tax, and his revenue numbers for one year of operation.
Dillon includes his personal experiences late in the book, but we present them early in this review to show he has some “skin in the game” when it comes to real estate in Japan. He is not a local agent, trying to capture a commission. His story is closer to that of other investors, trying to negotiate Japanese culture and conduct real estate transactions in Japan as a foreigner.
At our company here in Hokkaido, we have been through many of the experiences Dillon documents in his book. We read his Landed Japan early in our time in Hokkaido, and many of his notes helped us to understand some of the specific cultural nuances of real estate in Japan.
In Japan, prospective buyers cannot view the inside of tenanted apartments. But we were able to walk around the neighborhoods, some of which were quasi-industrial. Overflowing mailboxes indicated buildings with high vacancy rates, while rust stains and peeling paints suggested maintenance problems.
In our experience buying rental property in Sapporo, we can confirm many of his assertions (including the over-stuffed mailboxes). When our founder bought his first Sapporo rental property, it was occupied, and was purchased without ever seeing the interior of the unit; it wasn’t until after the first tenants moved out, that he was able to see the inside of his investment for the first time. These kinds of details may help investors with experience from other countries to feel comfortable with some of the local peculiarities of Japan real estate practices.
Particularly with the second edition of his book, Dillon’s Landed Japan brings relevant personal experience as a buyer, enriching his notes on what a foreigner might experience as they pursue real estate opportunities in Japan.
Japanese Real Estate Case Studies
Landed Japan provides several case studies that may be relevant to the education of anyone wanting to know more about the process of buying property in Japan.
An example comes on page 244 (of our copy of the 2018 edition), where Dillon tells a story about some buyers from Hong Kong that started out looking at winter homes in Niseko while on vacation. They expanded their search, and eventually decided to buy a vacation home in Gunma prefecture. Dillon lists some notes about that transaction, including comments on financing, about the role of judicial scriveners (as opposed to a “title company”) in closing the transaction, and some more general comments about the need for local identification in working with banks and other local entities.
We will include a reference to yet another case study below about home loans for foreigners in Japan.
In general, case studies help take abstract concepts and apply those concepts to the actual circumstances you’ll face as you work to buy and manage property in Japan. We found Dillon’s practical examples to be compelling and educational.
Real Estate Trends in Japan
Landed Japan begins with some general trends about Japan’s demographics and other factors that impact Japanese real estate.
Here is a comment about Tokyo and migration patterns, which also includes a reference to Hokkaido:
Greater Tokyo is the main beneficiary of Japan’s migration patterns. The migration pattern has two major effects. First, when women move to big cities, they have fewer children. Second, it accelerates the depopulation of rural areas. Communities in Hokkaido, Aomori, Yamagata, Wakayama, Shimane and Kochi are particularly vulnerable.
With some experience in Japan (or with modern migration patterns more generally), you could take Dillon’s comment about Tokyo, and see how it applies to most major cities, including locally here in Sapporo. While many of Hokkaido’s smaller cities are depopulating, the population of Sapporo has mostly increased for the last ten years, based on increased concentration in cities, as well as an influx of foreign residents into Sapporo.
Dillon is right to bring attention to demographic change in Japan; as smaller, outlying towns lose residents, there is often a loss of value of the real estate in those places. And at the same time, there can be an increase in value (or at least a kind of stability) in the major cities. Even though most cities in Hokkaido have fewer residents than 10 years ago, Sapporo (which also has increasing property values) has mostly increased in population, and new developments like the shinkansen in Hokkaido bring a positive outlook for other cities including Otaru, Niseko, and Hakodate.
Getting a Mortgage in Japan as a Foreigner
Dillon makes an effort to go into significant detail about financing real estate in Japan, including a 20+ page chapter on mortgages.
On page 179 there is a story about an expat that wanted a mortgage in Japan in the late 1990s that Dillon refers to as “The Herman Case.” This example details a particularly bad experience of an outsider looking to use Japanese financing to make a property purchase in Japan.
Landed Japan includes specific comments about lenders making loans to foreigners, some specific notes about foreign banks that might lend money for Japanese property, and a section on financing for non-residents.
We did our own extensive report on real estate loans for foreigners in Japan, and used some of Dillon’s research to compliment our work. While foreigners (and most certainly non-residents) will find real challenges qualifying for loans from Japanese banks, such opportunities are possible. For residents (even non-permanent residents), loans for property in established markets like Tokyo or Sapporo are possible (we have clients that have completed loans to buy property in Sapporo).
Closing out that section of Landed Japan, Dillon gives some excellent notes on how to prepare for the process of applying for a mortgage loan in Japan.
Renting an Apartment in Japan
It seems likely that most of the readers of Dillon’s Landed Japan will be buyers, investors, researchers, and real estate professionals. However, having read Dillon’s book cover to cover, there are details in his book that can help renters to better understand the process of renting an apartment in Japan.
Dillon helps break down many of the fees associated with renting an apartment in Japan, including key money, the deposits, real estate agents’ commissions on apartment rentals, insurance, and apartment guarantor fees. This information may be useful to renters, and also to buyers investing in rental property in Japan.
The need to pay key money and limits on landlord’s ability to raise rents… discouraged people from moving. A survey published in 2003 found that just 8.3% of Japanese renters move each year, compared with 25.6% in the United Kingdom and 30.1% in the United States.
Looking at the rental data from clients (and our employees), we can affirm Dillon’s comments. We provide our own case study in our post about the cost to move into an apartment in Sapporo.
There are a few topics that are consistently common in Japanese real estate, and the minpaku concept is one of them. Minpaku is the Japanese word for Airbnb-style rental accommodations. Like many communities around the world, minpaku have created both new opportunities and new problems for real estate markets in Japan.
If you’re buying a home for minpaku use, ensure that you comply with national and local laws… Ask your real estate agent to check the buildings rules to see if short term rentals are banned. In response to Airbnb’s popularity, many owner committees have prohibited rentals of less than 30 days. Owners committees in desirable buildings claim to scan listings on sites like Airbnb in search of owners who are violating the regulations.
We have a common scenario here in Hokkaido, where a foreigner wants to buy a vacation home in Niseko, use it a few times a year, and rent it out on other occasions. Some buildings that might sell individual condominiums (or what the Japanese call mansions) may have rules against using a unit for short-term rentals. In other cases, zoning issues may present other legal challenges. There may be some instances where a local Niseko property manager is a better option than a minpaku approach. An experienced local real estate agent can help you avoid those scenarios. As a best practice, buyers should ask these questions themselves, and ensure there are no issues as they review the “explanation of important matters.”
Property in Hokkaido Japan
As our business focuses on helping clients buy property in Hokkaido, we were interested to note that Landed Japan dedicates an entire chapter to Hokkaido.
With over one-fifth of Japan’s land, Hokkaido is the nation’s largest source of agricultural products, including seafood, beef, milk and cheese, rice and vegetables. Tourism, forestry and food related industries play important roles in the economy.
There are comments about Hokkaido related to changes in the population of Japan, general comments about the climate, the history, the native Ainu population, the relationship with Russia and the more contentious relationship to North Korean missile testing, and then more specific comments about Hokkaido property.
As all real estate is essentially local, we took particular note as Dillon spends time on the cities of Niseko and Sapporo.
Foreigners Buying Property in Niseko
As our experience with Hokkaido real estate expands, The Niseko Story continues to be a curious phenomenon. Is Niseko “the smallest famous city in Japan?” That does seem to be true. And as Landed Japan dedicates substantial word count to Japan’s most famous tiny ski village, Dillon’s book is another example of the tremendous media attention that Niseko receives.
Niseko is famous for the quality and quantity of its snow… a long ski season have made Niseko popular with Australians – who represent 32% of foreigners room nights in 2014/15 – and growing number of visitors from Hong Kong (18%), Singapore (9%), China (6%), Taiwan (6%) and South Korea (4%).
It is true that Niseko does have fantastic snow. Many mountains in Hokkaido also have spectacular snow, but fans of Niseko will claim that is especially true of Niseko’s resorts. We like Dillon’s quote above about foreigners in Niseko; as it correctly references the Australian influence (which takes shape in the 1990s), but also references the interest from Asian countries (which are increasingly relevant). It is our experience with current real estate trends in Niseko (and Furano), that Asian buyers are a real force in Hokkaido real estate.
In the section on Sapporo (which we’ll reference below), Dillon says that “[t]he city government actively promotes Sapporo as a destination for Asian tourists.” That may be true; Sapporo does see a strong flow of tourists from Asian countries. And while that is true of Sapporo, Niseko is also a very popular destination for Asian buyers looking for access to the snow.
Much of Asia is warm. As Hokkaido is relatively far north, there is a lot of snow in the winter, and visitors from Asia can find Hokkaido’s ski resorts to be relatively close to home. Some of those tourists turn into buyers, and real estate agents in Niseko will tell you that real estate investment from Asian buyers helps drive a lot of the local market.
In the last 20 years, many of those Asian investors in Hokkaido real estate have been Chinese, and Chinese investors in Niseko remain important. However, at the time of this review (2023), the Chinese yuan has less buying power in Japan versus other Asian currencies. Requests to buy property in Niseko from citizens of Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are increasingly common.
Niseko is evolving from a winter resort to a year-round destination. As a result, rental revenues from your property during the off-season will range from low to zero. The local tourism community is working to attract more visitors during the summer – organizing bicycle tours, whitewater rafting and hot air balloon rides – but Niseko remains best known for its skiing.
This last comment is somewhat dated as of this review, but the substance remains entirely accurate. What the local Niseko tourism industry calls “The Green Season” generates very little revenue, versus those few months of perfect snow. It is not easy to find renters and tourists outside of the peak snow season. This can create a challenge for Niseko property investors hoping for rental income, but also for many of tourists that come for the snow season and try to find apartments in Niseko for those most popular months.
Developers [built] custom-built vacation homes in Niseko. Decorated to international standards, these condominiums and houses allow residents to walk out their front door and onto a ski lift.
That is true. Many of the local Niseko real estate agents, as well as many of the architects working in Sapporo and Niseko, cater to foreign money. While the local Hokkaido governance would like the Niseko/Kutchan area to become a more robust community, the allocation of services and opportunities remain very focused on the affluent. Apartment stock for local workers is low. And short term apartment rentals in Niseko during peak season are very difficult to find.
Investing in Real Estate in Sapporo
One of our only criticisms of the book is that Sapporo receives very little attention (particularly versus Sapporo’s “baby sister” Niseko).
At nearly two million residents, Sapporo is a proper city (the fifth largest in Japan). The vast majority of the real estate transactions in Hokkaido happen in Sapporo (and the surrounding cities, particularly between New Chitose airport and Sapporo).
Dillon gives Sapporo several paragraphs of coverage, but almost no details about Sapporo real estate. While Sapporo represents the largest and most mature real estate market in Hokkaido, the capital city will have to do more to attract international attention if it wants to get a larger share of media coverage.
For now it is true that Sapporo has a strong real estate market, with many instances of property appreciation, and a much more stable, predictable real estate market for investors. While the Niseko market (as well as Furano) is speculative, Sapporo offers more access to capital and more predictable, year round returns from tenants.
We’ll leave it to Sapporo to continue to establish a strong reputation such that it might be reflected in future media coverage.
We have tried to give you a serious look beyond the cover of Landed Japan. And even with the depth of this review, we haven’t really given much away. Our copy (from 2018) is 332 pages long. The index alone (which is a very useful aspect to the book) is seven pages of detail to help you quickly find the information you need (we refer to it often). Dillon took his research seriously, he cites his sources, and there are 20+ pages of endnotes to help you go deeper on your own.
Landed Japan was a pleasure to read. We had a chance to review several books as we put together our list of Japanese real estate books, and Landed Japan remains a favorite. We hope you will take a look at Dillon’s book Landed Japan for yourself. And we hope to see more writing from Christopher Dillon in the future.
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For More Information:
— Our collection of articles on real estate in Sapporo
— Some details on buying a house in Niseko and more
— Research on property in Otaru
— More general articles about Hokkaido real estate
— Some particulars on real estate taxes in Japan