A Few Tips on Renting an Apartment in Tokyo

Home, Japanese StyleEarlier this month, after three weeks of exhausting non-stop search (times two people, plus countless awesome friends lending us their help), we finally signed the rental contract for our new Tokyo house.

Although it eventually worked out and we are very happy with the place we found, the process was far from smooth and painless (despite having a fair bit of experience with the whole thing).

Anyway I (/we) did learn a few things in the process, so I figured I’d share with Google.

Behold:

Dave’s 8 Tips on Renting an Apartment in Tokyo (/Japan)


1: Be Japanese.

The population renting out apartments in Tokyo naturally skews toward the old, conservative… and xenophobic.

There are usually two (more or less valid) strains of explanations for the fact that Japanese landlords will flat-out refuse to rent to foreigners: fear of language barrier issues and fear that you will smuggle your entire extended family into the country and live in squalor and poverty at 20 in a one-room apartment.

If upon double-checking, your parents assure you that not a drop of Japanese blood has accidentally made its way into your lineage, your next best option is to be a citizen of a Western country.

If you happen to be Chinese, based on some of the ridiculously offensive statements I’ve heard from real estate guys during our search1, you probably should just give up and wait another decade until an aging and emptying Japan starts actively courting you to come spend your yuan here.

2: Have some very good Japanese friends that can vouch for you.

Since neither you (nor any member of your family, presumably) are Japanese, you’ll have to find a Japanese citizen who accepts to be on the hook when you eventually trash the place, pee on the tatami, rape the landlord’s daughter and flee the country (never mind that you just paid 6-month rent to move in).

Luckily, the requirements on the guarantor’s status are not stringent (beside the ‘being Japanese’ thing, they’ll need to be employed and that’s about it), but don’t expect your bar buddies to jump at the occasion to be your guarantor: this is the kind of favour you can only ask from really, really good friends. And even then, some might not feel comfortable potentially signing their life savings away if you screw up.

Note that “Guarantor companies” (保証会社) also exist, that are supposed to serve exactly the same purpose as a personal guarantor: for a fee (usually half-to-one month rent per year), they will sign as your guarantor and step up if you fail to comply with your financial obligations toward your landlord. However, for no reason that I can fathom, most landlords will not accept a guarantor company alone2. Years ago in Kyoto, due to some misunderstanding, one real estate agent thought I only had a guarantor company and accordingly showed me only listings that did not require a private guarantor: I would much sooner sleep under a tarp in Yoyogi park than in any of the dumps I was shown on that day.

3: Be fluent in Japanese.

Granted, for some very loose definition of “fluent” (Amaterasu knows I wouldn’t call myself fluent). But if your Japanese is limited to how many beers you want to order, better give up on the standard real estate search right away3.

At the very best, you might find some foreigner-friendly real estate people who will put up with whatever mix of Japanese and English you throw at them, but ultimately, when it comes time to sell you to the landlord (and they will have to sell you), if they cannot answer the question “Does s/he speak Japanese” by anything but a “YES, so perfectly that you could never tell s/he’s a barbarian from the West”, your chances of landlord approval go from roughly 50% to 0.1%. The real estate guy is on your side (as long as they stands a chance to make a commission off you, that is), but there’s only so much white lying they can go to.

Back then, I managed to work around the limitations of my pathetically inept Japanese by having good friend and modern-times samurai Atsushi handle most of the talking, while only contributing enough bits of conversation to give the illusion that I understood the rest. This will only work if you have a very dedicated native friend on hand (and at least some proficiency).

4: Kill your cat.

You thought the odds looked bad until now? Try adding a pet into the mix. Whether you have one or plan on getting one in the near future, things will get a lot more complicated if you need pet-friendly housing.

Standard leases in Tokyo come with a strict ‘no pet’ clause. Merely ticking that ‘ペット可能性’ filter box of any apartment search website will remove 80-90% of all listings (and the remaining pet-friendly ones will always be at the lower end of the quality/price ratio).

It is worth noting that such leases (the vast majority) are actually not legally enforceable: Japanese courts have ruled many times in the past that having a pet (like a baby) is a tenant’s inalienable right. Meaning that if it came to it, you could sign that lease and walk into the place with Mr. Biggles under your arm. Other than cursing you and your race of uneducated foreign devils, the landlord presumably couldn’t do much about it.

That being said, I don’t think you want to be living in open war with the owner of your roof (especially in Japan, where chances are high they are also your direct neighbour). The law might be on your side, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make your life hell.

5: Sell your kidney.

Hopefully you knew that before you even started reading this, but renting an apartment in Japan will cost you a lot. A fucking lot indeed.

Things vary a lot from one ad to the next, but ballpark estimate should include: 1 month “key-money” (礼金), 1-2 months deposit (敷金), 1 month real estate commission and at least a few ¥10,000s in miscellaneous fees: cleaning, bug-spraying, key-copying, rental insurance… Top it with an extra 1-2 months deposit if you have (or plan to have) a pet, don’t forget the guarantor company fee (if your landlord requests one), add first month rent and you should be expecting to pay anywhere between 4 and 6 months rent just to move in.

By the way, despite what you are being told, most of that money goes straight into the pocket of the real estate agent (yes, now you know why they are so eager to help you): Tokyo landlords are desperate to rent out their place4, but they do not want to lower the rent… Instead, they will keep piling up on the reward for the real estate agents until they eventually find a suitable sucker tenant.

Also: beware of the monthly “management fee” (管理料金) that sometimes get added to the officially displayed rent price: depending on the type of property and how greedy/lazy the landlord is, management fee will easily go up to ¥5,000-¥10,000. Supposedly, the fee goes to a specialised company that manages the property and deals with maintenance issues (e.g. cleaning common areas etc). In practice, this is often just another way to artificially make the rent seem cheaper.

5: Use the web.

Most people (Japanese included) show up at a real estate agency, state their detailed wishes and constraints, and wait for the agent to pull out the listing of their dream. Don’t.

First, because what the agent will do, is essentially open a web browser to their own agency’s website, enter your search criteria, and print out the first result. Something you will do a lot better (and more competently) from the comfort of your home.

Second, because in addition to doing what you could just as well do yourself, Japanese real estate agent will traditionally print out one or two listings (three if you are lucky), put them in front of you and wait until you say “Yes, let’s visit it”, or find a very compelling reason not to (the concept of wanting to see more than a couple for the sake of comparison, will be entirely lost on them). Furthermore, you can be sure that the items picked by the agent (out of whatever hundreds listings match your query) will not be cream of the crop: you will have to crawl through a lot of hard-to-sell, slightly sub-par, items before they resign themselves to show you the easy-to-sell stuff (the ones that aren’t old, dirty or overpriced).

Nearly all rental ads in Tokyo show up on at least one of the big aggregators like Suumo or athome (to find more, Google is your friend), which have the nice bonus of a standardised (and usually well-designed) interface.

6: Cast a wide net.

Even with all the aforementioned conditions, it shouldn’t take too long to find at least one ad that looks great on paper (/pixels). Do not stop there. In fact, do not bother going to an agent without at least 5 or 6 ads that you really like (and preferably another dozen backups). Beside the obvious possibility that a place might not look as good in reality as in the pictures, you should first expect a good half of the listings you bring to be nixed by the landlord5 or simply gone already.

When searching listings on online real estate websites like Suumo or athome, you will be given a designated real estate agent to get in touch with. In practice, we found it a lot easier to just bring all our listings to a single local agent and let them do the lengthy inquiring (better yet, if that’s the second encounter: emailing them the ads ahead of time, so it’s all taken care of when we get there). As long as the ads come from the same network they are on, they don’t seem to overly care and will obtain the keys from the original agency6.

7: Look for recently posted/updated listings.

Especially after you’ve been looking for a while: make good use of that ‘show only listings updated in last n days’ filter on ad websites. As mentioned above, Tokyo rental market is seriously screwed up: prices should logically go down, if not for cultural and sociological resistance from landlords who seemingly prefer to keep their places empty for half a year than adjusting their price to pre-bubble market (not to mention companies specialising in speculative real estate investment). This tension means that, more than anywhere else, strong disparities will exist between the mass of listings that refuse to budge on price and those few with more realistic offers (the former often moving into the latter category when the landlord comes to their sense after a few months without a tenant). These better listings unsurprisingly get snapped extremely fast compared to the rest (days vs. months)…

The listings we saw during our search fell very clearly in either of these two categories: an ocean of mediocre ads that all had at least one serious flaw (distance to station, rent price, dirtiness…) and a couple recently edited items with consistently better quality/price ratio (many of these were old items whose rent had just been lowered). We originally made the mistake of sleeping on one such item, to find out it was already gone by the time we decided to go for it. When we found another pearl that had just got updated (rent lowered by ¥20,000), we visited and signed before they even had time to post indoor pictures on the ad.

Conclusion: be fast and don’t waffle too much if you find something that looks too good to be true.

8: Negotiate. Well, try anyway.

As should be clear at that point, Tokyo rental market prices are vastly overvalued, meaning that there is theoretically a lot of room for negotiations.

That being said, there is also the whole Devil Barbarian From Abroad thing that generally plays against you in the fight for your landlord-to-be’s affections. While a perfect Japanese candidate tenant would stand good chances to get the key-money waived on an average listing, your pale ass might have to make do with a few ¥1,000s off the monthly rent price. Either way, it’s always worth asking if you feel you’ve got a chance7.

Anyway: good luck, don’t despair and make sure to invest into some nice blue tarp just in case (but I hear finding a spot to pitch your tent in Yoyogi is even harder than finding an apartment nowadays).

PS: Given the very google-juicy topic of this post, a special message to all two-bit “SEO specialists” and other parasitic marketing lifeforms of the Internet: do not even bother sending me offers to do “link exchange” with this page, or write “useful content” for my site in exchange for a link back, or even just pay me for an ad on this page. Your emails go straight to the spam bin on my email client.

  1. For some reasons, most Japanese tend to think that it’s OK to share their xenophobic opinions with you, as long as it’s against other non-Western foreigners. []
  2. Some landlords, however, will request that you provide a private guarantor and sign up for a guarantor company. []
  3. There are real estate companies that specialise in catering to foreigners. These tend to be about 30-50% above market rates and are definitely not the topic at hand. []
  4. an oft-repeated statistics give the unoccupied apartment rate at 18% for Tokyo []
  5. “Sorry, no gaijins. But dogs OK!”. No, I am not making that one up. []
  6. I suspect there might be some sharing of commission involved, meaning they make less on these. But times are tough and anything is good to take, it seems. []
  7. In our experience, real estate agents were a lot more open to rent negotiation (money out of the landlord’s pocket) than negotiation on key-money (money out of their’s, in many cases). []