How-to Guide: Rent an Apartment as a Foreigner in Japan

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Renting an Apartment in Japan: When language barrier can be costly

You finally made it to the land of the rising sun, with a proper visa and occupation, and you are now looking for the best place to live. But you’ve heard so many things about how hard it is for foreigners to rent a regular apartment … Well, although it’s tricky, it might not be as hard as it seems. Especially if you talk to the right people (i.e. foreigner-friendly real estate agents).

Here is my How-to Guide on how a foreigner can find a very nice apartment, based on my personal experience.

  1. Real estate in Japan: Business Practices & Fees
  2. Paperwork: all the documents you need
  3. My personal situation: From a Sharehouse to a brand-new apartment in less than a month + Tips
  4. Bonus: Full Budgeting for a Move-in & How to save Money.

Disclaimer: Before you start reading my guide, since this is based on my personal experience as an employee in Japan, it might slightly differ from yours, if you are a student with for example a shorter visa.
Either way, I recommend that you contact the same agency I used if you have any specific questions.

Disclaimer 2: I am (unfortunately) not affiliated with any company, I just share my honest opinion

1. Real estate in Japan

1.1 The Japanese Real Estate Industry

In Japan, the real estate industry is a bit special as it very regulated by the government. In other words, the government knows exactly which proprety is being rent, at what price etc… and failing to be registered in that database is illegal.

Whenever landlords want to rent out their apartments, they go to a real estate agency and the registered data becomes public. Eventually, the original agency might have a special deal (that we will cover that just below) but bascially any agent in Japan has access to that data and is able to introduce that apartment to their customers.
It means two things: you can go to any agency and they can introduce you any (or almost any) apartment BUT the competition to get the best apartments is higher than in other countries.

Also, as a foreigner, you won’t be able to apply to all apartments. Actually, I would say that you can access about a third of all the offers. You shouldn’t think too much about it and just accept it as it is, it is useless to complain.

1.2 Traditional Fees

  • The First Month rent. It probably makes sense but if you move-in on the 15th of a given month, you might have to pay 1.5 month of rent to cover until the end of the following month. Choose wisely your move-in date based on your finances.
  • The Maintenance fees (管理費 kanrihi). It is basically a fee that you pay every month that is supposedly going to your apartment building/area association. If you “true” rent is 95.000 JPY and the maintenance fees 5.000 JPY, you will be paying 100.000 JPY every month.
  • The Deposit (敷金 shikikin). It is basically a security for the owner, usually worth a “true” month of rent as a fee (so 95.000 JPY if we use the example above).
    In theory, you are supposed to get the deposit back but the cleaning fee when you move out will be subtracted from it most of the time. When signing the contract, it is usually written how much that cleaning is supposed to cost (expect 50% of the rent).
  • The Key money (礼金 reikin). It has a historical origin, back when people used to bribe landlords to win their favors and get access to housing, in a Tokyo city that had very few houses — due to the city being destroyed. Basically it is non-refundable and will go to the landlord’s pocket. It is also usually worth about one month of “true” rent. Everyone hates that fee, so you will find a lot of advertising about “No Key Money” apartments/sharehouses.
  • The Agency fee (仲介手数料 chuukaitesuuryo). Also usually worth a month of “true” rent — sometimes tax is added. Some agencies won’t make you pay that fee for some of their apartments, if they are the original contractors (see above). But they usually make up for it in other fees, so be careful. When using At Hearth, they give you up to 60 days delay to pay that fee, to reduce the stress on your bank account, which is pretty convenient and super rare.
  • The Guarantor fee (保証会社代 hoshougaishadai). As a foreigner, you probably don’t have Japanese parents to be your guarantors, so you will need to sign up for a company to be doing that role. In other words, it makes the landlords sleep better as they know they won’t be missing out on money. It costs varies but is usually 40/50% of a “true” rent for the first year and then 10.000 JPY per additional year. I have a small story about this fee that you can read below.
  • The Insurance fee (保険料 hokenryou). You can apply to it during the process and it costs depends on how much you wish to cover when it comes to apartment damages. I opted in for the one with the highest coverage and it was about 25.000 JPY.
  • The Key Exchange fee (鍵交換代 kagikoukandai). Non-negotiable, the company supposedly changed the lock so that the previous tenants aren’t able to use their past keys.

So, all in all, First Rent + Deposit + Key money + Agency fee + Guarantor fee = 4 to 5 times your monthly rent, so about 450.000 JPY if we use the example above. Keep in mind that you’ll need to buy furniture, so it will go even higher (see part 5 of that guide on how to get good deals). Now you may understand why it is very convenient and appreciated to be able to pay the agency fee 60 days later!

2. Paperwork: the Nightmare … or not

Now that you know about the costs, you may ask yourself about the documents you need to gather to apply for your dream apartment.

As I was trying to find my new apartment, I went to several traditional agencies and although my Japanese level is enough to understand and read most of it, the application method was still not foreigner-friendly. That’s why the online method from At Hearth seduced me, although it is obviously more and more common. You can now just send all info and documents, and they will apply on your behalf.

Here is a list of the documents & information I had to send, to apply for the apartment I chose:

  • ID: passport & foreigner resident card (having a 24 months+ visa is better)
  • email, phone number (the guarantor company will call in Japanese so you might want to find a way to have someone answer for you if you have 0 understanding).
  • current adress and rent
  • company information if you’re working, (probably university contact if you’re studying)
  • company pay slip or contract to show the annual salary (as a student you might have to justify how you are going to pay your rent)
  • emergency contact in Japan, and some information about that person, preferably Japanese
  • emergency contact in your country

And then, when comes the final contract signing time, I had to bring:

  • bank card / bank book, which means you need to have a Japanese bank account to pay the rent by wire transfer
  • hanko — the japanese seal — is best to sign official contracts

3. My Personal Situation & Tips

I officially moved to my new apartment less than 2 months ago, so memories of the whole process is still fresh. Before that, I had been living in 3 different sharehouses for all my stays in Japan.

Living in a sharehouse has its convenient points: no key money, 1-month contracts etc… but I wanted to live by myself at some point. Still, since you need a place to live and so an adress to get a phone number, a bank account etc … I recommend that you first live in a short-term contract sharehouse and then try to look for an apartment.

Since I decided to move out, I first checked apartments online, mainly using Suumo, a service that gathers information about vacant apartments and introduces you to real estate agents. But as I mentioned earlier, any real estate agent can introduce any apartment. And thus, you might see amazing apartments online but when contacting the agency, they will tell you that the data hasn’t been updated and somebody is already living there — but they would be happy to show you other properties.
I suspect that they just do that on purpose to increase their potential customers database.

Anyways, I gave up online research and directly went to an agency next to my station. I wouldn’t say that my experience was terrible but I could feel that being a foreigner isn’t the most advantageous position (if you’re an expatriate, your company might be able to ease that process for you). The thing that shocked me most would be all the fees that would be added just because I was a foreigner, for example an additional 20.000 JPY so that an english-speaker can help out to sign the contract, while the rest of the process was all in Japanese.

But right before I had almost given up on moving out, I found a company that was a lot more foreigner-friendly (i.e. not 20.000 JPY to speak english with me) and I managed to visit several places, applied to 2 apartments (and got accepted in 1) within a couple of weeks. On top of that, whenever I had a question after my move-in, I was able to quickly connect with my agent through messaging apps and he could answer me within a day.

As a final tip, I would say that as a foreigner, you should always apply pretty fast and eventually withdraw your application if you change your mind (it’s free). The reason is, if 2 people apply at the same time, the landlords will tend (not to say always) to choose the Japanese person over you.

4. Bonus: Budgeting

While trying to look for an apartment to move in, you will realize very fast that budgeting expenses is gonna be very important. In this part, I’m explaining how I managed to save time/a lot of money during my move-in process and how you can do it as well. Visit my blog to read all about it! (it’s free don’t worry)

That’s the end of the article, feel free to contact me if you have any question, suggestion, comment…
I would love to hear from you.

More about the author — Baptiste Delannoy

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