1. Get a Japanese friend to help you.
A majority of realtor agents will not speak English. The contracts will be in Japanese, all contact will be in Japanese, and often realtors or apartments will require a Japanese person to co-sign with you or act as your guarantor. My fiancé (who is Japanese) co-signed with me while his father, a policeman with a stable income, acted as our guarantor.
This seems pretty racist, but it does make sense. Foreigners are wild cards; most are perfectly acceptable, knowledgeable about Japanese culture, friendly, and fairly quiet. However some aren’t. Some are loud, destructive, won’t pay rent on time, and don’t understand the rules of garbage.
If you have a Japanese friend who is willing to co-sign with you (and stake their reputation on the line), then that means:
- You’re probably not a horrible, destructive person. If you were, no one would want to co-sign with you.
- You have a Japanese friend who is willing to “show you the ropes” of renting an apartment in Japan.
If you are new to Japan and don’t have any Japanese friends, you can ask a professor, family friend, or acquaintance to act as your guarantor – but realize that this may put them in an awkward situation. People do not like to act as a guarantor because that means they are responsible for your well-being and living situation.
2. Find a realtor agent. It is impossible to rent an apartment without a realtor (or at least, I haven’t found a way to).
There are large directories realtors online; here are some of the more popular ones in the Tokyo area.
- Real Estate Japan (in English)
- UR Rental (No realtor or agency fees) (in English)
- UR Rental Review (in English)
- Under 50,000 yen Apartments (all apartments under 50,000 yen – about $500) (in Japanese)
- Tokyo Apartments (can rent furnished and unfurnished apartments) (in English)
- Tokyo City Apartments (in English)
- Cheap Apartments in Tokyo (in English, great reviews)
- Tokyo Craigslist (always has interesting ideas) (in English)
- Roomorama (in English)
Depending on where you want to rent, your choice of realtor agents might be different.
3. Tell them your preferences.
My preferences were cheap and close to campus. They got me a two-room apartment for about $500 a month that is literally touching the walls of ICU campus.
However, when we were signing paperwork, I found out I had to pay an extra $20 a month for apartment insurance. At the last minute, they will probably try to throw in a bunch of extra costs.
4. Look at some apartments together.
I rented the first, and only, apartment that I looked at. While I was in class, Ryosuke went and looked at another one for me – but we decided against it (it was a one-room apartment for the same cost). Make sure you check all the details (how many people can live in the apartment, can foreigners rent, what if you don’t have a Japanese person to co-sign with you, do you have to sign up for a yearly contract?)
A majority of apartments I looked at had a mandatory 2-year renting period; I couldn’t rent those apartments because I was only going to need an apartment for about 11 months. If you ask, some apartments might make an exception for you and let you rent for less than 2 years (but might charge a higher rent).
Theoretically, you can look at as many apartments as you want for free.
5. Make a bid on the apartment.
The problem with looking at too many apartments is that if you find your dream apartment, but keep looking for something better, someone else can make a bid on your apartment and get it. Whoever makes the bid first, wins. And, once you make a bid, you have to pay within two weeks, or you forfeit your right to that apartment. And make a lot of people angry.
6. Go to the realtor office to sign the final paperwork and get your keys.
The entire process took about half an hour. I can easily speak conversational Japanese, but anything technically usually goes beyond me. I tried reading some of the paperwork – none of it made sense. My fiancé just leafed through the paperwork, knocking his family stamp every once and a while and sliding the occasional paper for me to sign.
The agent gave us two large, silver keys in a small envelope. The apartment was mine!
Then came the price.
7. Pay a shockingly large amount of money as a “down” payment (that you won’t get back).
I had to pay over $2,000 up-front for an apartment with a $440 dollar rent.
- $500 (key money / reikin / 礼金) which is a mandatory “gift” payment to the landlord. It typically costs the same amount as the security deposit (shikikin), usually one month of rent, but can cost between 1 -3 months of rent. This is non-refundable.
- $500 (security deposit / shikikin) is your security deposit. Nearly all tenants never get this back; it is used as a sort of “cleaning fee” to process the apartment for the next person. Shikikin typically costs one month of rent, but can cost between 1- 4 months of rent. If the state of your apartment is “worse” than expected, landlords can also charge more when you move out.
- $300 (20 day’s rent, since I was starting my least part-way through the month)
- $700 (realtor fee / tesuuryou). This is the realtor fee. There is no way around this, most apartments refuse to directly communicate with a potential renter. They prefer to use submit their property to multiple housing agencies and let realtors find potential tenants. This is non-refundable.
When I paid my fee, I was shocked. And angry. To rent this apartment, I had to pay about $1,700 that I will never get back. It is normal for apartments to charge the equivalent of two month’s rent up-front, where you’re kind of paying for the right to move in.
Even now, when I think about it, I’m still sore.
I’ve heard of certain realtor businesses that don’t charge that ridiculous amount up-front. Try to find one of those, so you can save a couple hundred dollars.
8. Move in.
I moved in the day after I signed paperwork at the realtor office. Everything was normal, my apartment was beautiful. The hardest part was figuring out how to turn on the breaker box. Thankfully, I had my Japanese friend to help me along the way.
9. Pay rent electronically every month.
Nearly every apartment in Japan does not give the option to pay in cash. Sometimes, in areas with large numbers of foreigners (like at ICU) you can find a landlord who accepts cash. Mine doesn’t.
For the most part, you have to pay each month by directly wiring money into your landlord’s account.
The problem(s) with doing a direct wire transfer:
- Most landlords won’t let you pay for multiple months at a time. I have to make this transfer at around the same time every month.
- There is a roughly $50 wiring fee (per month) to transfer money from an American bank account (mine) to a Japanese bank account (my landlords).
- Even if I used a Japanese bank account, but not the bank my landlord uses (Mizuho bank), I would have to pay a roughly $20 wiring fee (per month).
- I couldn’t open a bank account at Mizuho bank because I hadn’t been living in Japan for at least 6 months, didn’t have a name stamp, I couldn’t prove I could read the paperwork- they want to make sure foreigners know exactly what they are signing up for, and was under the age of 20).
My fiancé had a Mizuho bank account and since we co-signed, he could make the wire transfer each month to my landlord. I just paid him in cash each month for rent [I don’t recommend this method, since it is very risky. Couples have a tendency to break up – the last thing you need is to be scrambling for a new way to pay rent while simultaneously mending a broken heart].
If you have any questions/comment about renting an apartment in Japan, please leave a comment in the section below.
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