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A block away from the Tokyo stock exchange in the centre of the Japanese capital, a design firm has moved into the top two floors of a long-vacant 1970s office block. A few kilometres north, a young couple have made a comfortable home for themselves and their daughter in a railway company’s formerly decrepit employee dormitory. On the city’s west side, five people have begun sharing a half-century-old, two-storey house decked out with tatami mats, exposed wooden beams and ceramic roof tiles.These are the kinds of stories that you hear when you spend time with Masataka Baba, a co-founder of website Real Tokyo Estate. Baba’s speciality is finding new uses for tired old buildings whose owners have all but given up looking for tenants. Where they might see a building that’s ripe for tearing down, Baba sees the chance for a makeover.

Rinobeishon (renovation) is now part of the vernacular in Japan, unlike when Baba and his partners Hiroya Yoshizato and Atsumi Hayashi launched their website 13 years ago. “People used to have a bad impression of old buildings,” says Baba.

Their foray was well timed. In 2003, two high-rise developments in Tokyo – Marunouchi Building and Roppongi Hills – marked the start of an office-tower construction boom that made property owners anxious about an exodus to new buildings. Two years later, Japan’s population began its long-term decline. The result has been a gradual mindset shift in the property market.

An architect by profession, Baba never planned to work in property development. In 2002, while office-hunting for his architecture firm Open A, he noticed a gap in the market. He was looking for a rental property in Tokyo that he could fix up but when he floated the idea with the owners of shuttered shops and empty office buildings, most refused.

He set up a blog detailing his discoveries around the city and received so many inquiries that he decided to start Real Tokyo Estate to assist others with their searches. The website is part property catalogue and part online magazine and the company’s operations have expanded to eight cities around the country. Every month its staff post about 100 stories chronicling recent renovation projects and new diy ideas.

That’s where Yuki and Mari Hiraiwa read about the rows of two-storey houses that train operator East Japan Railway had converted, with Real Tokyo Estate, from employee dormitories. The family moved in last September, installing shelves for tableware and shoes and hanging antiques on the walls. “We rent but we’re allowed to customise,” says 33-year-old Mari, cradling her four-month-old daughter. “My husband is a designer and we didn’t want a typical apartment. Our parents’ generation doesn’t understand this new style of living.”

“Everything started with the search for this office,” says Baba, sitting at a steel table on the ground floor of Open A’s two-storey office, formerly a garage. Baba works on various architecture projects here – and on properties at Real Tokyo Estate’s office across town – but often the two businesses are hard to tell apart. “Real Tokyo Estate was just something we started for fun but lately it has started to feel more like a business,” he says, laughing.

A few days later, Baba meets officials from a subsidiary of Mitsubishi Estate, one of Japan’s largest property developers. Since last autumn he has led the Mitsubishi Estate-financed renovation of half a dozen offices in Tokyo. “Mitsubishi has only built standard office buildings before so this is an experiment. But they’re serious: when it comes to investments, the sky’s the limit,” he says. “When we go in with Mitsubishi Estate, property owners are a lot more welcoming.”

Baba’s latest pet projects have taken him away from Tokyo. His Real Public Estate website, unveiled in March, lists schools, city-hall buildings and fire stations for sale in far-flung regions that are hard-up for funds. Baba’s hometown of Saga in southwestern Japan recently approached him about rejuvenating the city centre, which has been hollowed out by businesses and residents fleeing to the suburbs. “This is a new venture for us,” he says. “We had only worked on individual buildings but now we have the chance to do something on a city scale. It’s a reminder that what we do isn’t just redesigning an office or apartment; it is about bringing out the hidden value of a place.”

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