Apartment hunting can be an exciting and/or daunting task, no matter your location. While there are many factors that overlap whether you are in Japan or your home country, there are many differences to be aware of as well. There are many articles out there giving instructions and tips on how to find an apartment in general, but I have yet to stumble upon any thorough English-language guides regarding going beyond the bare basics. Reading the American sources only made me depressed—things such as “Check the thermostat, oven, carpet, and garbage disposal” (all almost nonexistent in Japan) and “What appliances are included in the unit?” (apartments here are often completely unfurnished, down to the washing machine and stove), and “How much counter space do you want?” (equivalent to an endangered animal if you’re not in a family-size apartment) only served to make me homesick and ready to give up on Japan.
Therefore, I have compiled this guide to finding the best apartment for you in Japan, based on materials and information from various Japanese sources (listed at the end) and from talking to realtors directly. While this is not necessarily the most comprehensive guide, it includes the most important tips and checkpoints that are mostly (but not all) Japan-specific (to me as a Midwest American) and not (often) listed in any of the English-language resources I have listed as examples at the bottom. (I recommend you read the basics first in the resources listed below, and then refer back to here for a deeper look at the process.)
Note: in this article, I’m using “apartment” to refer to both アパート (apaato) and マンション (manshon). However, here is a quick, general distinction:
Apaato: short (3 floors or less) and usually made out of lightweight steel or metal
Manshon: taller (3 or more floors) and usually made from concrete, giving better protection against noise and fires
Much of this may also apply to houses and condos as well.
First Steps: Looking Online & Gathering Information
- Search Japanese sites directly. Housing listings on sites such as GaijinPot that are aimed for foreigners have the benefit of being in English, but listings are relatively few and often not the best.
- Different housing information websites (such as Suumo, Chintai, and Home’s) will have some overlap. This means that some apartments will repeat across companies, and some will be different, so it is worth checking out at least a few.
- For every listing online, the realtors/housing information companies will often have at least 3 more listings. (I’m just spewing out a random number, but the point is, the information in-house is more than what’s online.) Do some research online, but also do not forget to visit one in person.
- If you decide the place is at least 80% to your liking, go check it out, especially if it is likely to be competed over. (The early bird gets the worm, and you can’t tell everything from the internet and photos.)
- Sign up for email alerts for apartments that fit your conditions. Most websites will have a button for you to set this up, so you can be first in line to check out new rooms as they open up. (Look for something like この条件の新着メールを受け取る.)
- Start your search with the most conditions and filters, and gradually ease up on them. Lucky you if you find your perfect apartment; however, most of us will need to prioritize and consider what we are willing to negotiate.
- Get a feel for floor space as well as how many rooms there are. A 2DK may be more cramped than an open one-room apartment. Don’t judge the amount of space just by the L’s and D’s and K’s.
- Check that the land was not previously a wetland by looking at old maps. Converted wetlands have weaker stability and are more prone to earthquake damage.
- Check if the apartment is child, instrument, and/or pet-friendly. Walls in many apartments (especially wooden ones and apaato) tend to be thinner; wooden floors carry noise, and tatami can be easily damaged, so many landlords may turn you down for these factors.
- Suumo recently announced that they will post information for LGBT-friendly residences.
- Newly built apartments are often listed before they’re actually complete. If it is 90% to your liking based on the images and information provided, apply for it as soon as you can so you can get first in line for the most coveted of buildings. Applying is not the same as signing the deal—you will still need to visit the apartment and then, if it tickles your fancy, sign the contract then; you can always pull out, but this just gives you dibs.
Next Steps: Visiting the Apartment
- Take thorough notes and pictures to record your impressions and jog your memory. Make sure you don’t have any lingering questions or doubts due to forgetfulness when you think back on the apartments you’ve checked days or even hours later.
- Does your apartment have a veranda (with a roof) or a balcony (without a roof)? This will affect hanging laundry out to dry on potentially rainy days, etc. This is especially important for the top floor. If it is close to other buildings, your room may be easier to break into as well.
- How does your apartment smell? Check both inside and the outside—if you have a heavy smoker for a neighbor, the smell may seep into your room or drying clothes.
- Do you have an interphone for your room and security cameras in the building and elevator (if applicable)?
- How much storage space do you have? Do the closets have bars to hang clothes, or will you need to install one yourself?
- What floor is your apartment on? The first floor is often the least coveted as humidity and bugs tend to gather in lower floors, and it is more prone to theft (watch out for your laundry) and noise/lack of privacy from outside. However, you would not need to worry about treading lightly on your wooden floors lest you wake a downstairs neighbor (and cockroaches tend to find their way in anyways).
- What direction do the windows, rooms, and veranda face? With a bedroom with east-facing windows, you may wake up to the brilliant, 4 am sunlight in the summer unless you have heavy-duty curtains. Verandas and balconies are best facing the south to pick up the maximum amount of sunlight. However, even south-facing windows and balconies will be moot if overshadowed by a tall, neighboring building.
- If looking for a corner room, make sure that the benefits are sincere. A corner room may still be close to other buildings, affecting noise and privacy.
- What kind of gas does the apartment have—LP gas (orange hose) or toshi (natural) gas (beige hose)—or is it all electric? While there are pros and cons to both, natural gas tends to be somewhat cheaper, and all electric even cheaper.
- How well insulated is your apartment in terms of noise (遮音 shaon) and heat (断熱 dannetsu)? Check with the windows open and closed and both during the daytime and night if possible.
- How well protected is it from earthquakes (耐震 taishin) and fires (耐火 taika)?
- Take a marble, bead, superball or something of the sort and put it on the ground. If it moves, your apartment is tilted, which may be a red flag for an unstable foundation or loose build.
- Does the size of your refrigerator and washing machine fit the spaces provided? Measure all dimensions beforehand.
- Check where the washing machine will go. Some apartments will have them outside on the veranda/balcony, some will have them inside. Placing them outside will save space and making hanging laundry more convenient, but may be uncomfortable in the cold winter months.
- Is the apartment close to a river or park? A river may be viewed positively as providing calming nature to some, and negatively as close to smells and bugs and disasters (flooding, etc.) to others. A park may be viewed similarly—as either close to nature or as close to bugs and noise.
- Ask if the key has been changed. Unless there has been some incident or reason to believe in any risk, the next tenant will inherit the former tenant’s key. Some apartments will have an upfront fee for lock changing as well.
- Does your post box have a key? What happens if a package is delivered and you’re not home?
- Will some renovations be necessary to allow internet? While many larger apartments may already be internet-friendly, some smaller, very old, or new apartments may need some construction (which would take about 2-3 weeks) for you to set up internet. You may want to directly ask if you can use the internet in the apartment from day one of moving in.
- Check the number and location of air conditioning & heating units. Japan uses individual machines attached to the walls for air and heating, unlike America and many other countries with central heating. They can be expensive to buy individually, costing about 50,000 each. Imagine being in each room of your apartment in the middle of winter and summer, and visualize which rooms/areas of the rooms will have access to the unit.
- How close is the nearest supermarket, station/bus stop, hospital, 100 yen store, convenience store, drugstore, and police box?
- Visit the apartment (or at least the area) both during the daytime and at night, on a weekday and weekend, to get a better feel for security, noise, and neighbors.
- Check the humidity in the apartment. You may even want to bring a humidity checker with you. Is there any mold or condensation on the walls, ceiling, windows, etc.?
- Are there any rain leaks in the ceiling? You will be able to tell by any marks or yellowing on the ceiling.
- Does the landlord live in the same complex? This may affect how quickly they can respond to any problems, such as a water outage, broken AC, or mold infestation (and check if things like these are the landlord’s responsibility).
- Check the common spaces such as post boxes and garbage collection areas. Many apartments have a monthly charge for public space maintenance (共益費 kyouekihi or 管理費 kanrihi) on top of normal rent and utilities, and you’ll want to make sure this money is being used effectively. It is recommended to directly ask what it is being used for as well—vague responses that cannot be proven are sketchy.
- Is the apartment equipped with fire alarms?
- Directly ask if any accidents or unfortunate events have happened in the apartment before (事故や事件のあった部屋ではないですか Jiko ya jiken no atta heya dewa nai desu ka?) While some people may openly target 事故物件 (jiko bukken, or apartments in which something unfortunate, such as a death or injury has occurred) because they can be sold for extremely cheap, make sure you aren’t tricked, or otherwise know what you’re getting into. For example, there may be a major difference between whether the previous tenant died of a heart attack versus asbestos versus a violent stalker. They are legally bound to divulge this information if asked, but may try to hide it otherwise.
- Check if the apartment has been cleaned or not. Thoroughly inspect the floorings, closets, entrance, doors, windows, walls, ceiling, and bathroom. Not only will this tell you what kind of person manages the apartment (are there any weird smells, holes, mold, or gunk anywhere?), but it can also potentially save you some money. Some apartments will ask for “cleaning fees” before the tenant moves out or before a new tenant moves in—sometimes both—so negotiate well and don’t be duped.
Final Steps: Negotiating
- Ask why the previous tenant left. You don’t want to be surprised by crazy neighbors or an uncomfortable room after signing the contract.
- Ask directly what the middleman fees (仲介手数料 chuukai tesuuryou) and the contract renewal fees (更新料 koushinryou) are. The middleman fees refer to the cut that the realtor gets for introducing you to the apartment, which tend to be about 0.5-1 months’ rent. Renewal fees are usually paid directly to the landlord and tend to be about one month’s rent. Note the uncertain language here—payment could be 2 month’s rent, and it’s possible that the realtor will demand renewal payment as well. Don’t leave room for unpleasant surprises. Remember that the same listings may appear on different housing information websites, so if you feel the middleman fees are too high, try another company with the same listing.
- Key money (礼金 reikin), basically free money to the landlord to “thank” them for letting you live here, is technically illegal. However, is so ingrained to Japanese society that it is still very much common and almost impossible to negotiate out of without a catch. However, many more Japanese people are being put off by key money, and some apartments have done away with the custom.
- Ask what the deposit (敷金 shikikin) covers, and make sure you know exactly what the conditions are for you to get it back. Some landlords will use it for the “cleaning fees” when you move out, etc.
- You may have more negotiating leverage if you move in after April. April is the beginning of the new fiscal year in Japan, so most turnover in apartments happens around then—therefore, the competition is up, and drops dramatically after.
- Get every single price and negotiation in writing. A landlord or realtor’s oral word is essentially worthless. Make sure you check the paper documents as well to ensure there are no mistakes, which are not as uncommon as you may think.
- This should be obvious, but even if they are in Japanese, read and understand all materials before you sign anything! Whether or not you need a guarantor, you are strongly recommended to bring along a Japanese friend or coworker to help you if you are not comfortable doing all of this in Japanese.
English References & Guides
This dog-loving former Tochigi CIR hails from its sister-state of Indiana and loves traveling the world and eating everything. She graduated after completing a thesis discussing the links between human trafficking and idol culture, and now works in Tokyo for an international human rights NGO.