Renting an apartment in Japan can be simple, but for a foreigner, it is generally very difficult. The first thing one must do is look for a good location. It is no different than in any other city; location is the most important part of looking for an apartment. From there, things get a little different. Unlike my hometown, Vancouver, the need to use newspapers and online listings are low. Most people in Japan use real estate agents. There are hundreds of different companies in Tokyo alone, and many of them have affiliates all over Tokyo. The most famous international brand would have to be Century 21, but they are by no means the biggest agency in Japan. When you do find an area that you like, you have to physically go there and look for a real estate company that will help you find an apartment. You can simply just walk out of the station, head somewhat towards the direction you want to live, and find one of the nearest real estate agents there. This is by far the easiest way to find a place. You don’t have to physically go to the location you want to live, but it makes things easier. If you want to live in Shinjuku, but you go to a real estate agent in Ginza, the agent will be limited in the number of available apartments that they know of. In this case, being a local works to their advantage.
There is one major problem for a foreigner when renting an apartment. Almost every renter needs to find a guarantor. This is a person who will provide “insurance” to the apartment owner if you do not pay your rent. For those who don’t make a lot of money, they tend to use their parents, or a sibling. They actually co-sign on the rental agreement and promise to pay any rent due if the renter takes off. For a foreigner, knowing someone who will be a guarantor can be very difficult. If you work for a company and they send you to Japan, it is likely that they will act as the guarantor, and it’s also likely that they will have their own apartments so that you don’t have to worry about apartment hunting at all. However, for the majority of people, this is not the case. When you don’t have a guarantor, you have to get a “commercial guarantor”. There are various companies out there that will look at your credit history, or not, and force you to pay either a lump sum up front or monthly instalments. Think of this as an insurance scheme. You have to pay for the service which ends up returning nothing aside for safety for the apartment owner. The major problem with this is that the fees can be expensive and you receive nothing back in the end, even if you don’t use the service.
Another major difference between renting apartments in Japan is the amount of fees that you will have to pay before you can even enter the apartment as a renter. Recently, things have changed, but typically, you have to pay up to 6 months of rent to the apartment owner and real estate agent. A real estate agent will typically take 1 months rent as an agent’s fee. This can be lower, and it can be negotiated, but don’t expect much bargaining if they don’t want to do business with you. The other 4 months depends on the apartment owner. 1-2 months of rent are typically used as a deposit. 1-2 months are used as key money. Think of this as a combination of changing the locks and saying “thank you” to the apartment owner. There is also a deposit given to the real estate agent when you apply for an apartment, but that’s not always necessary. Many companies will ask you to sign an application form and then once your money is with the company, you are formally introduced to the apartment owner. You usually pay this only needed when you truly want an apartment, and the money is either refunded or paid into the agent fees. Recently, the key money has been no higher than 1 month, and in some cases reduced to nothing. Deposits will depend on the owner. As a foreigner, they may ask for 2 months rather than 1 month for a Japanese national. This is due to the fear that foreigners will damage the property more than a Japanese national. If you take care of the apartment, you can usually get most of the deposit back, but you will still have to pay for the cleaning service when you leave the apartment.
When signing a contract, you are entitled to stay for at least 2 years. This is typical for all apartments. While you can break the contract, it’s usually stipulated that you must give a month’s notice, and pay a month’s rent to break the contract. This makes it difficult to leave an apartment. After the 2 years have been completed, you will then be asked to pay a 1 month “contract renewal” fee to keep your apartment. Many people who stay for extended periods tend to be shocked when they hear about this as they are not expecting it. It’s typical in Japan, and all Japanese people pay this. When compared to the cost of moving, 1 month is actually cheap. There is no real reason for this fee aside from the fact that the apartment owner can charge it.
When leaving an apartment, it’s best to leave it in an immaculate condition. You should do your best to clean everything and repair any damage. You don’t have to clean it completely, but you do have to do your best to remove any scratches from the floor, stains from the wall, and hopefully there are no holes in the wall. If you have a tatami room, you are more than likely paying for new tatami. Any damage must be repaired at your expense. Usually, when the contract has come to an end, the owner, or agent, will meet you at the apartment and inspect everything. As long as it all looks good, you will pay a standard cleaning fee and that’s it. If the apartment is extra dirty, they may ask you to pay a little more for intensive cleaning, or for any repairs, but as long as you did a good job, you shouldn’t have to worry. In the worst case scenario, you will be asked to pay even more to repair any damage. Rooms must be immaculate when rented out to potential new renters. It’s not common for rooms to be shown before they are cleaned, but recently it has started happening as the owners want the fastest turn around as possible.
If you are worried about getting an apartment through an agent, there are long term furnished apartment rentals available in Tokyo and Japan. They tend to require a minimum 2 week stay. They are furnished and capable of housing one person comfortably. If you are staying for a month, 2 people can live there, but I wouldn’t suggest it for over a month or two if two people are sharing. These apartments also tend to be very small, but they have everything you need to live. Utilities are paid for, TV is free, and you have a bed and small table. While you do have to take out the garbage, you don’t have to worry too much about the cleaning, and damage isn’t a big problem either, unless you put a big hole in the wall. These tend to be foreigner friendly and easy to get, but as it’s a furnished apartment, you tend to pay more per month. If you want something cheap, you can always go to the typical guest house or share house, but if you need a place of your own, renting is the only way to go.
When looking for a long term apartment in Japan, you don’t have to go to an agent to find an apartment but it is best. You can always look on the internet and find apartments that way. They usually have phone numbers you can call to set up an appointment to visit the apartment and see if you like it. I would avoid this as the agents tend to not care that much about you. The best way to find an apartment is to ask an agent to find one for you, but they can become annoying after a couple days. They will call every day trying to find an apartment for you, and they tend to raise the price of rent. If you say 80,000 for a one bedroom, they will look for something around 90,000-100,000 yen a month. It’s annoying, but as long as you are forceful, you will be safe.
Renting Apartments Information:
Note: Any and all websites are NOT endorsed by me. They are just a few sites that I thought are nice and easy to begin a search.
Chintai (This is a Japanese online source for Apartments. This site is available only in Japanese): http://www.chintai.net/tokyo/search/
Tokyo Apartments (This looks like a decent place to start looking in English): http://www.tokyoapartments.jp/