Apartment Hunting Adventures: What to Expect

So, you’re probably an English-speaking individual who wants to live in Japan. How exactly does one go about securing housing? If you google “apartment hunting Japan”, you’ll find plenty of advice about documents you need, how much money you should be prepared to part with (especially for things like key money), and the good and bad points of foreigner-friendly housing like sharehouses.

What I’ve noticed, though, is a lack of the step-by-step process of what will happen from when you find an apartment you want to when you get the keys in your hand.

Today, I’d like to walk you through the main points of what to expect while you’re apartment hunting in Japan.

Disclaimer: This focuses on the experience of a single person who is already present in Japan, and who therefore can go to apartment agencies in person easily.

First off, if your place of employment doesn’t offer housing or recommendations for such, you need to take stock of your language ability. If your Japanese is pretty good (JLPT N3+), you should absolutely make use of that during your search. If your Japanese isn’t that great, it’s time to flex your search engine skills.

Let’s say you want to find an apartment in, hmm, Kyoto. Thankfully, there are plenty of options that will come up for you, in English! Search through the sites that interest you, find an apartment that looks good/fits your particular needs, and go to the “request a viewing” or “reserve the apartment” button.

Fill in your details. They’ll want your full name, current address or phone number, when you expect to move, and they especially want to know if you have any special requests (like, “I really want an apartment building with an elevator”). Also, make note of whether it’s better for them to email or call you, if you live in the country already.

Wait a day or two. You’ll get an email telling you if the apartment is actually available for you to view or not, along with a request to book an appointment with the agency. Apartment agency chains will be spread throughout a given city, so make sure you choose one that’s in the general neighborhood of the apartment you want to see/the area you eventually want to live in. Again, let’s use Kyoto for an example. Let’s say you want to live really close to Kyoto Station. You should seek out the agency shop that’s closest to the station, then–if you end up going to, say, one near the Imperial Palace, then the shop will gently urge you to go to their other location anyway.

While you’re waiting, gather up your documents and, if necessary, a friend to translate things. Put it all in a clear file or envelope, whatever works best for you. Think of two or three things that are vital for your next residence, beyond what you already told them in your initial email.

On the day of, arrive around 10 minutes early. Present yourself and have a seat–9 times out of 10, you’ll be given a cup of tea to sip while the agent checks if the apartment you originally asked for is available. Regardless if it is, they’ll ask you to fill out a basic form with your information– name, address, etc. Fill as much as possible in, in Japanese. (Yes, this is a bit of a test as to how much you can actually use Nihongo.)

Once you’re finished, the agent will either confirm you can check out the apartment now, or will tell you it’s sadly unavailable for some mysterious reason. For the former situation, you’ll take off immediately. But let’s go with the worse scenario: now you have to search for apartments with the agent.

Remember that form? There were two important points on it they’ll want to know especially.

  1. What is your role? Are you working for a company or a student?
  2. Do you have a guarantor? If not, do you at least have an emergency contact?

These are key because the agent will have to call up every landlord before you view a place, and the conversation on your end usually will go like this:

“Hello, this is Taro-san from XYZ Housing. *Pause* I have a [businessman/student/etc.] interested in room [309]. *Pause* It’s available? Great! There’s one thing, the customer is [nationality]. *Pause* Yes, there is a guarantor/No, unfortunately there is no guarantor.”

Even if your Japanese is rusty, it’ll be easy to tell which places are willing to give you a chance. Those keep the agent on the phone longer. If the agent hangs up immediately, it’s bad news and you should just move on to the next option. Unfortunately, many places will deny you even a viewing simply because you’re not Japanese. This isn’t changing anytime soon.

Moving on. Let’s say the agent successfully finds a landlord willing to give you a shot. They’ll print out a sheet with the layout and general information of the apartment, and point out the key points–especially anything you said you wanted. If you’re interested,  let them know and you can view it. If not, straight up tell them you’re not keen.

Once you have two or three options, off you’ll go. Generally, the agent will drive you around in their car and make small talk with you while you travel. When you arrive at the apartment, it’s OK to take pictures–but always make sure to ask, just to be polite!

Go ahead and poke around the apartment as long as you like. Open the windows, see if anything’s dirty or missing, all that good stuff.

Let’s say you find the place of your dreams. Tell the agent this is the one, and you’ll head back to the agency.

Time for things to get real.

Remember those documents you gathered up in an envelope or whatever? It’s time to produce them. You’re going to have forms galore to fill out, the main one being your application for the apartment. Most of this is the same information you already filled out with your basic info earlier. However, you’ll also need to give more information about your life situation. If you work for a company, for example, you’ll need to provide the company name and potentially even how much revenue the company makes. Copies will be made of your visa, your passport, your… everything. Also, you’ll need to pay an application fee. At this point, your agent will hopefully give you a thorough cost breakdown of renting this new place.

Once the application is complete, the agent will say that’s all you can do that day. Thank them and head home, and wait to see if your application has been accepted.

You’ll generally get an email, though you may get a phone call if you requested they contact you that way. Once you get confirmation that your application was accepted, you make another appointment to go in. Prepare any additional documents as necessary, including your hanko. Yep, you’re going to need a stamp. But not just any stamp, you’re going to need what’s called a jitsuin (実印). This is the type of hanko you use for only the most important of documents, and should be locked away in a safe or something when you’re not using it. To prove it’s a jitsuin, you’ll need official proof that it was registered at your ward office, so you may need to take care of all that mess while you’re waiting for that confirmation if you haven’t done this before.

Get to the agency and prepare to sign forms upon forms, with your signature as well as your hanko. Hand over wads of money (most places still accept cash only), stamp where they tell you to, nod earnestly as they hand you documents telling you about direct deposit/fire insurance/whatever else they need you to do to finalize things. Once done, you are again dismissed until move-in day.

Upon which, you walk into the agency, and the agent smiles at you, hands over your keys, and wishes you good luck.

Now, some places will have more face-to-face time with a landlord. You might meet them during your viewing of the room, or maybe they’ll be present during move-in day so you can point out things like damage to them. In my case, I didn’t experience this.

As a review, here are my top tips for all of this nonsense:

  • Prepare your documents well in advance, even the ones you’re not sure you’ll need. Trust me, the ones you’re not sure about? You’ll need them.
  • Dress nicely. Wearing your work clothes (or if you’re a student, nice slacks and a button-down shirt) goes a long way.
  • Bring a friend, if you need one. Moral support is nice, even if you do speak the lingo.
  • Let the process take its’ own time. Some people try to rush everything. This will only slow things down further. Follow the rules of the red tape. If you don’t know the rules, look politely bewildered and nicely ask your agent to help you out. They’ll gladly walk you through everything so you only have to do it once.
  • Be prepared for unexpected fees. They’ll often throw in things like “24 hour support” and whatnot into your total cost to move in. When you’re calculating how much you’ll need, be sure to round up generously.

Now, this is my personal experience as a single American who can speak Japanese. Every experience will be slightly different, so I’d love to hear how things went for you.

Have you gone apartment hunting in Japan? Did you stick to English websites, or did you venture into the deep waters of Suumo.jp and its’ like? Was the process smooth or did you deal with bumps in the road?

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