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If you are going to spend a significant length of time in Japan, I am sure that you will consider the option of renting a flat of your own. Although it is, to most people, a sign of ultimate achievement in terms of settling in Japan, it is also the hardest of all procedures that I have faced so far in the country. After talking to you about how to get a working holiday visa and how to find a job in Japan, I will try in this article to give you the nuts and bolts of apartment search in Japan.

In all fairness, I did not start with the best cards in hands: I was a foreigner, I was single, I spoke no Japanese, I had no guarantor, I did not have long term contract but instead three contracts covering about a year and a half, my initial pay was lousy, I was on a one-year working holiday visa and on top it all, I wanted to live at the heart of Tokyo, no more than 10 minutes-walk from Shibuya station! Well, in spite of all these difficulties, I did manage to find a fantastic place at the heart of Shibuya and I am now going to explain to you how I did it. As usual in this series of articles, I will only focus on the material I know, in this case the apartment renting market in Tokyo.

As you probably know, the Tokyo-Yokohama Metropolitan Area, with 33 200 000 inhabitants, is the largest city on earth. Obviously, an urban landscape of that scale brings problems of equal proportions, particularly in terms of housing and commuting. Also, landlords in Japan are very different to what they are in Europe. Having lived in the United Kingdom and Ireland for many years, I got used to a certain ease of finding quickly and cheaply an accommodation, sometimes without even signing a lease. No questions asked as long as the rent was paid on time.

In Japan however, things are quite different. The housing market is such that even the Japanese people are having significant difficulties in renting a place. This is one of the main reasons why they live with their parents well into their mid-thirties, waiting for a suitable partner and also saving serious money. Besides the exorbitant cost of settling in a new place (including the infamous compulsory "bribe", to the landlord), one must also have a guarantor who will pay in place of the tenant if the latter becomes unable to fulfill his obligations. Given the significant financial and legal burden that the guarantor will be submitted to if he signs, it is not surprising to find that most people will be more than reluctant to grant you this favor, even to a member of their own family!

The who is who of apartment search in Japan

Real estate agents

my apartment in Tokyo before moving in

my apartment

Apartments are usually rented through real estate agents rather than landlords. Let's face it; the rental system is not foreigner friendly. Landlords will often be more than reticent to rent their properties to a foreigner, especially if you don't speak Japanese. It makes sense in a way as they really want low maintenance tenants with whom communication remains as rare as easy. Be patient, if you can't speak Japanese, you will be turned down many times. Don't lose courage and keep searching and eventually, you will find an understanding landlord.

The basic rental contract is often for two years which make it difficult for people on a one-year work visa to commit to. In Japan, real estate agents are more tightly involved in the renting process and they may often serve as intermediate between you and the landlord or the service providers (gas, electricity, Internet, water...). Their job is to ensure that you enjoy your rental because after all, "they" selected the place for you! You should therefore not hesitate to call upon them if you need something, especially in the first months of your lease. Their fee is quite substantial after all. Personally, I have had my real estate agent sort out paperwork with the Internet provider, the gas company and they even waited for the gas company technician at my place when I could not take time off work.

Real estate companies for foreigners (Gaijin Houses)

my apartment in Tokyo before moving in

my apartment

Some real estate companies specifically target foreigners and they are found mostly in large metropolitan areas. Sharing is not the norm in Japan but these companies do offer this possibility as well as private apartments. They also propose short term rental contracts and the initial fee is usually lower than the one mentioned above. Usually, the properties are fully furnished and the cost for utilities may even be included in the monthly rent.

Although they are not really within the scope of this article, these companies offer weekly or monthly contracts and they might be a good option for you in the beginning while you look for a proper accommodation. Some people even stay there for years. Premises are rarely brand new but utilities are often included in the rent and the apartments come fully furnished.

The guarantor (hoshonin, 保証人)

The guarantor has to be a Japanese national or a firm with at least one registered office in Japan. Also, the guarantor has to have a stable financial record and a minimum monthly income of approximately three times the monthly rent of the property concerned. Employers used to act as guarantor for their staff but from my experience, this is less and less frequently accepted by landlords. Once again, this is a big commitment to be the guarantor for somebody and I personally would not know anybody whom I would dare to ask to be my guarantor, even my girlfriend.

Guarantor companies (hoshonin-gaisha, 保証人会社)

outside view from my apartment in Shibuya

outside view from my apartment

Guarantor companies specialize in acting as guarantor for people who cannot find a physical person to assume this role. Their screening procedure is essentially the same as the one of the owner but more often than not, I have been turned down by the guarantor company rather than the owner, and without both, you obviously cannot rent a flat. The guarantor company fee is about half a month's rent. Nowadays, landlords seem to prefer tenants to use a guarantor company and they will often cut you a deal if you opt for this option rather than having an individual as a guarantor. In some rare cases, I have seen ads requesting for both a guarantor and a guarantor company! Needless to say that I did not bother calling...

Things to take into account for a successful search

Location, location, location...

In a city the size of Tokyo, your first priority is to make sure that you either live near your work or close enough to a station that provides easy access to your work place. Remember that Tokyo is the commuter's nightmare and that you definitely do not want to have to change trains too many times in your daily commuting route. Try to avoid major hubs like Shinjuku station that can be a real nightmare in the morning and at night. It will really improve your quality of life if you can make sure you have an easy ride to work, even if it means actually spending a little more time in the train itself.

Personally, I work quite far from where I live but it is a straight train ride from one terminus to the other and I always get a seat on the way in and out. I find it much better than having to change lines and walk through miles of tunnels. I hop on the express train, choose a nice seat, take a nap, and 35 minutes later, I am there.

Be careful of adds stating that you are X minutes' walk from such and such station. Do check it yourself when you go to visit the place, especially relative to the actual line that you are going to use as it can significantly affect this estimated time.

Once you have found a place that you like, make sure you check out the surrounding at night, especially if you live nearby a drinking place since the ambiance might change drastically when salarymen are out to get drunk. Also, you don't necessarily want to step in vomit every morning when you go to work.

Shibuya

Time is of the essence

The month of March is the busiest month for real estate agents. It is the end of the academic year and everybody seems to be moving at that particular time. Companies relocate their staff at that time of the year. Try to conduct your search before this time.

Age of the building

Real estate agents will often ask you, in addition to the specific location that interests you, the age of the building you would like to rent. Japanese people loving anything that is brand new, this is a major criterion of choice for the flat hunters. As a foreigner, you might not care so much whether your building was built in 1999 or 2006. Keep in mind however that things like double-glazing are still relatively new and only the newer buildings will be equipped.

EDIT post-Tohoku earthquake of March 11 2011: I overlooked this consideration when I wrote this article but since, North Japan was hit by the most violent earthquake in its recorded history which brings to me a brand new meaning to the age of buildings. Of course, the most recent ones are the most likely to resist to high amplitude tremors since they are built according to very strict guidelines. While my own building resisted very well, this is really something that I will keep in mind next time I move.

Thermal isolation

Isolation is really a very important factor in Japan where winters can be bitterly cold and summers, incredibly hot and humid. Most flats have only electric air-conditioners for temperature control and they are very expensive to run at any season. Make sure that the thermal isolation of your flat is up to standard if you want to keep the electricity bill at a reasonable level while still be able to dry your clothes.

Size of the apartment

the floor plan of my apartment

my apartment floor plan

You should know that most flat sizes are expressed in number of tatami mats (jo). One tatami mat is equivalent to 180 cm x 90 cm. I would strongly suggest you to sacrifice a few square meters in exchange for a convenient location. Home parties are rare in Japan as most people live in small places and fee embarrassed to show them to friends. Also consider how long you are really going to spend at home each day. I don't think you are coming to live in Japan just to spend all your weekends at home are you?

Financial information

Real estate agents will always request financial information including your salary, the length of your employment and your visa status. In most cases they will ask for a copy of your work contract and a recommendation letter from your employer.

Like for the guarantor, the rule of thumb is that your monthly income should at least amount to three times the monthly rent. It obviously helps to have a contract and a visa that run over the whole length of the lease.

The expected cost of moving

Renting a place in Japan, especially in Tokyo, is extremely expensive, particularly at the beginning. After signing up for a new flat, most people are broke for a few months and have to wait a bit before buying furniture. Most initial fees are non-refundable and they can add up to 10 times the monthly rent. If my memory serves me well, I had to spend about 650 000 ¥ on the day I signed my contract... in cash. Also keep in mind that on top of that, you will have to pay at least one month rent in advance. The common expenses are as follow:

Reservation fee (tetsukekin, 手付金)

This fee is used as a guarantee that the apartment you chose will not be given away to anybody else before you sign the contract. It also prevents you from opting out easily. This fee is usually either refunded or used to pay parts of the initial installation fee when you will actually sign your contract. It can range from a half to a full month's rent.

Deposit (shikikin, 敷金)

The deposit can range from one to several months' rent. Unlike in Europe, it is rarely refunded and it will be used for cleaning and repairs once you leave.

Cleaning fee

This amounts to about half a month's rent and is used for cleaning the apartment before you move in.

Key change fee

When you move in, you should be provided with a brand new set of keys and the lock should have been changed. This usually cost about 10 000 ¥.

Key money (reikin, 礼金)

Shibuya seen by eBoy

Shibuya seen by eBoy

Reikin means "gratitude money". It is a mandatory payment considered as a gift to the landlord and it is not returned after the lease is canceled. It can amount to anything from one to six months' rent. In recent years, an increasing number of landlords and real estate agencies have begun to offer "reikin-free" rental housing but don't be fooled, the money saved is often compensated elsewhere and the total fee is relatively similar to what it would be if you had to pay it.

Real estate agent fee (chukai tesuryo, 仲介手数料)

It usually amounts to one moth rent (+10 % tax) in order to pay the real-estate agent.

Guarantor company fee

If you are going to use the services of a guarantor company, it will cost you about half a month's rent.

Rent and maintenance fee

As stated above, most expenses are based on the monthly rent. In addition, you might have to pay a maintenance fee for your building (cleaning of common areas, waste disposal etc.). In my experience, it usually costs around 10 000 to 20 000 ¥.

Signing the contract

Your contract will be written in Japanese so make sure you bring a Japanese friend along with you. The real estate agent will be present too and will translate for you but you might just want an additional impartial advice before signing. Bring an inkan as it will surely impress the landlord.

Once you are in

Utilities

This is a typical bill (this one is from TEPCO!) to be paid at the bank or at the combini

This is a typical bill (this one is from TEPCO!) to be paid at the bank or at the combini

Utility bills can be paid at the utility companies' offices, banks, postal offices, convenience stores and trough automatic transfer from bank accounts. I personally pay all my bills at the 7/11 combini (convenience store) across the street but it can however be a problem when I leave Japan for a long period of time.

Address Registration

Don't forget to register your new address with local authorities at the local city hall or ward office. They will write the new address information on the back of your Alien Registration Card. Check out with your bank too.

Furniture

Apartments usually come unfurnished so that cost has to be added on top of your installation fee. Fortunately, there are some cheap furniture shops around like Nitori and Ikea. Utilities are not included in the rent and you will have to sort this out (often with the help of the real estate agent) after singing your contract. Pets are rarely allowed. It is usually forbidden to make holes in the walls so don't bother bringing your framed pictures and posters; they will most likely remain in boxes until you buy your own place.

Renewing your lease

Once your two years are up, you have the possibility to renew your lease but this comes at a price. You probably will have to pay a month or two worth of rent to the landlord, possibly a fee to the real estate agent, and also another fee for the guarantor company. The details are usually recorded on your lease and mentioned when you sign it.

Conclusion

I hope that this information was useful to you. Flat hunting is a very stressful time of life, especially in a foreign country. Japan has difficulties of its own and the astronomical costs involved require you to think very carefully about how and when you want to make the move. I wish you the best of luck in your search and may you find the place of your dreams!


More info on life in Japan:

Useful links:

  • Real estate agents

MAST ICHII's housing is the company that found me my current flat. The agent I dealt with had very good English and was very helpful. Their branch office is located in Akihabara.

Tokyo Apartment Inc. deals specifically in real estate for foreigners so this might be a good one to try.

  • Guides to housing

Japan Guide has good information on how to find an apartment in Japan.

  • Apartment search engines

As always, GaijinPot is a great resource for finding a flat and contacting real estate agents.

  • Gaijin Houses

Sakura House is the leader for Gaijin Houses in Tokyo.

  • Furniture shops

Ikea, the famous Suedish furniture shop has branches in Tokyo.

Nitori is the Japanese alternative if you are looking for more Japanese style furniture.

About the author
Guillaume Erard
Author: Guillaume ErardWebsite: http://www.guillaumeerard.com
Biography
Founder of the site in 2007, Guillaume has a passion for Japanese culture and martial arts. After having practiced Judo during childhood, he started studying Aikido in 1996, and Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu in 2008. He currently holds the ranks of 4th Dan in Aikido (Aikikai) and 2nd Dan in Daito-ryu Aiki-jujutsu (Takumakai). Guillaume is also passionate about science and education and he holds a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology since 2010. He currently lives in Tokyo and works as a consultant for medical research. > View Full Profile

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