May 3, 2017
Home is where the mansion is
If you do not plan on staying under a bridge when you come to Japan, you are going to need a roof over your head. Preferably with four or more walls to hold up that roof.
The housing market in Japan is extremely varied; you can find buildings ready to fall apart at the slightest breeze up for hundreds of thousands of yen just because they are a convenient walk away from a main station. On the other hand some new buildings, literally built yesterday can go for very cheap because of a slightly dark neighborhood or a mild inconvenience.
So, it is very important to look carefully when choosing your future home. In many countries moving in an apartment is a breeze. Your realtor finds the site, you sign a few contracts and suddenly you are standing in the empty living room, surrounded by boxes and holding a lonely spatula.
In Japan, the process can be horribly daunting. There are bumps and traps around every corner and one misstep can cause your favorite apartment to go to the Jones's who just coincidentally were looking at exactly the same apartments as you were. You must not let them win!
There are a few things to know when looking at apartments in Japan and we are going to look over them right now. Mind you I am no expert; all my experiences come from getting help from very skilled negotiators and people more adept at life than I can ever be.
Back in the old country the act of procuring an apartment for rent is ridiculously easy. Like mentioned above, it is basically signing a few papers, bing bang boom. No problem.
Imagine my surprise when the same level of trust wasn’t being offered when I, a bright eyed ALT landed in Narita
Looking at the apartment
Naturally, before you sign ANYTHING, you need to look at the place you are planning on getting. But it does not stop there. You need to really really look. Because around any good looking view, any beautifully feng sui creation lies a ton of cheap options and cut corners. Why do you think you are getting this apartment so cheaply anyway. You cannot expect them to gold plate your walls and not make you pay for them. Which is why you need to know about all the little things that make your perfect apartment not-so-perfect. For example, flooring. Is it scratch proof (or at least do inevitable scratches show easily), is it even or does it bulge somewhere? What about creaking? Are you going to be waking up everyone in the household every time you go to the bathroom at 4 in the morning?
Walls are another thing too. Is the wallpaper going to fall apart after the first year? Where can I hang my Matisse painting? What kind of curtains can I hang (not IKEA?), How is the kitchen fan? Does the stove come with a CO2 detector? Also, where is the fire extinguisher located?
Also, how is the traffic outside? Am I going to be listening to the sweet symphony of twenty motorcycles touring the neighborhood every Sunday?
I actually had a big scare on my first day of moving in. We opened the balcony door and a high-pitched noise coming from the neighboring metal working company filled the apartment. My blood pressure dropped when I realized I would have to live with this noise every day for years to come. Luckily the noise never came again, and the neighborhood has been relatively quiet since, but MAN did I feel utterly helpless for a few days afterwards.
These are but a few questions that come up with every single apartment visit. And they are important questions too. Try going online and printing out a list of things to check out. You will be surprised at the things you forgot to mention.
Choosing a good realtor
This one is a bit harder in practice. The realtor is a creature that thrives on making you feel secure and friendly, but underneath that mask may be a ruthless salesperson who does not care about your well being as long as he or she gets a sale.
I am not a good judge of character, but as luck would have it, my SO is as cunning as a Wall Street stock broker. So if you are not one yourself, find a friend or relative (or even your kind boss) with the ability to make any office worker sweat with fear as they might lose a sale. Someone who does not get emotionally attached and is ready to haggle for the smallest of things. It is nerve wracking to be sure, and I am not able to do it, but it is immensely entertaining to watch from the sidelines.
Which brings me to the next thing, negotiation.
Having a strong Japanese speaker on your negotiation table can and will be a huge help in getting that perfect apartment five minutes away from your favorite train station. It can mean the difference between settling on a 15 year old house with holes in the ceiling (for ventilation?) and a choice between any apartment in the building that was literally built yesterday. (By the way, it is a wonderful and totally not a horror-film terrifying feeling, knowing that you are the only people officially living in a 9 floor apartment building. And then hearing knocking on the walls…)
Of course you are supposed to pay for living in the apartment of your choice, but how much are you willing to pay and how low is the house owner willing to go before giving up on you entirely. It is all liquid and can really depend on which realtor company you talk to.
For example, on the first apartment I rented in Japan, the realtor initially said there would absolutely no problem with me signing up for the contracts. Two days later they called and said I had been declined. My trusty army of negotiators came by the office and sat at the big table discussing and discussing before a decision had been made. The name on all the renting would be on my SO’s father’s name, and it would be officially his ‘summer house’, even though he never even stepped foot in the prefecture the time we were there. But more importantly, we (I say we, but let’s be honest here) managed to get a nice discount on the first few months of rent for the apartment. Partially because the company got all awkward about having said yes in the beginning.
For our second apartment, we got a really good realtor who seemed to want to do everything for us. He was kind, gentle, had all our interests in mind.
Imagine his face when we informed him that his rivaling company had offered us a discount on the commission fee for the exact same apartment. I’d like to think his heart shrank a few sizes as he saw his salary decrease by a few ‘man’ just because of one phone call.
These are just a few things to think about when looking for apartments. Other things include:
Having a Japanese speaker
Getting a guarantor
Remember: there is always room for a discount
Location is everything
Have fun apartment-hunting!