Photo:hiromitsu morimoto on Flickr

Home Sweet Home: How to Rent the Perfect Place in Japan

They say the 3 most stressful things in life are getting married, changing your job and moving house. Well, when I came to Osaka 2 years ago, I found myself doing the 2nd and 3rd points simultaneously. Unfortunately point 1 remains a work in progress.

Of course moving house is stressful enough in its own right, but when you are moving to a completely new country, the problem is amplified tenfold.

To the uninitiated, Japan’s rental property market can seem like a never-ending spiral of confusion, frustration and disappointment.

Photo : Vic on Flickr

It doesn’t have to be that way however, and with a little bit of knowledge and some ingenuity, finding a good place to live during your extended stay here can actually be pretty straightforward.

Firstly, it is important to consider what type of apartment you want to go for. If you are going to be staying in Japan for a year or more, then you may wish to get an unfurnished apartment and craft your own “home away from home”. It’s important to note that the vast majority of properties let out by Japanese realtors are unfurnished.

Also, bear in mind that the startup costs for an apartment in Japan are considerably higher than in most other countries. I’m not sure how it is in the US or other parts of Europe, but when I got my first apartment in Scotland, all we had to pay was the first month’s rent, a one month deposit and a broker’s fee equivalent to two weeks rent.

In Japan, the situation is more complex.

In addition to your first month’s rent, one can also expect to pay about 2 months deposit, an agency fee (usually one month’s rent) and a non-refundable gratuity to the landlord (known colloquially as “key money”). Key money can also be as much as two month’s rent, meaning that in total, a new tenant may have to pay out the equivalent of up to 6 month’s rent before moving into their new place. This is before we factor in the cost of furniture, and the set up costs of internet, gas, electric and so on.

Photo : Dick Thomas Johnson on Flickr

However, if you are only going to be in Japan for a few months, then such an apartment would be both expensive and impractical.

There are alternatives though. In light of the current economic climate, a number of rental agencies and private landlords are beginning to adopt a more realistic and pragmatic approach. Charges like key money are increasingly becoming negotiable. In some cases, offering to pay slightly more each month in rent will allow a tenant to escape paying the charge altogether. For a short term stayer, this makes a lot of financial sense.

Being a non-Japanese can, unfortunately throw up some difficulties of its own. In short, the property market in Japan is not regulated as heavily as it is in some other countries, and there are no actual laws directly pertaining to racial discrimination. As such, some landlords and by proxy the agents who represent them will just flat out refuse to rent to foreign tenants, regardless of their Japanese speaking ability.

Thankfully such attitudes are in decline as people are increasingly putting the value of the money in their pocket ahead of any outmoded personal prejudices.

If this is your first venture into the Japanese rental property market, then you may wish to try one of the many “foreigner friendly” agencies in Japan. Of all of these the biggest is probably Leo Palace.

Photo : Single Rent Inmobiliaria on Flickr

Leo Palace specializes in providing low cost housing solutions to foreign residents in convenient locations in cities across Japan. Most of their apartments require only a one month deposit prior to moving in. The apartments usually have at least some furniture and often basic internet access is included in the rental fee.

However, there are of course a few drawbacks. Given their urban location, Leo Palace apartments can often be small, somewhat cramped and a good bit more expensive than other, similarly sized options. But then the higher rent is reflected in the lower move in cost. As a short term fix, these places are good, but probably they aren’t an effective long term solution.

Somewhere between the stiff inflexibility of conventional Japanese estate agents and the accommodating but costly Leo Palace lies a new type of rental opportunity.

Increasingly, Japanese property owners are utilizing English-speaking intermediaries to rent out their property to foreign tenants. One such agency is Osaka based AB Housing. AB Housing offer a choice of properties in a variety of sizes and in both the furnished and unfurnished flavours. Again, like Leo Palace you may pay slightly above the going market rate for properties in these areas, but this is balanced out by the fact that the move in cost is just one month’s refundable deposit, plus your first month’s rent. Rental contracts start from as short as one month, up to 1 year.

Smaller agencies like AB Housing operate primarily on word of mouth and recommendations from existing clients, hence I tend to find companies like this will give you a better service.

If an apartment is too much of a commitment to make, and you are travelling light, then staying in a guesthouse may also be an option. You will find several of these dotted across the major cities of Japan. The guesthouse lifestyle usually involves having your own room, but sharing communal facilities such as bathroom, showers, kitchen and living room.

Photo : Richard Lee on Flickr

If you’re only going to be in Japan for a couple of months then something like this may be a good option for you. It’s also a great way to meet new Japanese friends and also like-minded travelers from all around the world. However, if you’re going to be in Japan more than a few weeks, you may wish to get your own space.

As you can see, Japan has no shortage of options for the medium to long-term visitor. Wherever you end up, here’s hoping your visit is a memorable one.

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