In the few years that I've lived in Japan, I've had 3 apartments. One was provided by my university, the second one in a big city, and my third one is in a smaller city. While some of us have a fixed period stay, some of us have decided to stay longer too. And if you’re working full time, then taking the time to visit agencies, scheduling house inspections, and signing/understanding/providing documents for your contracts can get stressful !
Since I’ve tried moving prefectures, my experience taught me that moving in Japan is pretty straightforward. BUT it could be much, much easier if you know the language or are lucky enough to have friends who speak the language and are willing to help you out. I’ve had to ask at least 2 Japanese(-speaking) friends, my boss (as guarantor), and the office secretary to help me with the housing company matters, and the moving matters (hire a truck? Takkyubin?DIY?). The least embarrassing way is having a very kind Japanese friend with you. The housing companies are mandated to explain the contract to you, too. It’s better to know what you’re signing up for!
The general steps in finding an apartment (especially when you’re already in Japan) are:
1. Find a Housing Agency
2. Choose your new home
3. Pay Initial Fees
a. Key Money
c. Agency Fee
d. Cleaning Fee
4. Move In !!
Here I'd like to discuss how to choose an apartment!
It’s a great advantage if you live close to a train or bus station. We’re usually on the go here, so you have to imagine dragging your luggage or imagine coming home tired from work or imagine going home after a night of partying. My present house is close to both a bus station and a train station. Unfortunately, my bus stop doesn’t have a roof over it! It’s a downer sometimes, but we have to manage.
Rain, heat and snow are also another thing to consider. I now live in a city where it snows in winter, so I was advised not to choose an apartment where I’d have to walk in deep (or slippery) snow for more than 2 kilometers.
Scout your potential neighborhood. Mark how far the closest grocery store,school (if you have children),kombini, restaurant, clinic, Koban (police station), etc. are located.
How big would you like your apartment to be? 3LDK? 1DK? 1K1R?
There are some things that are a must in an apartment, and this varies from person to person. In my case, it’s the need for a balcony, or a little extra space (when I also lived on the first floor). To a close friend, he requires the toilet and bath to be separate. For another friend, she gladly sacrificed living on the 4th floor (without an elevator) to save a few thousand yen a month, with some bonus on free forced exercise? ^.^
How about internet? In smaller cities, this usually comes free with the apartment! In bigger cities, if you end up in an apartment close to universities, there's a chance that some internet service providers have already set-up in the building, and internet service can be free if slower internet speed is ok with you (you should thank your landlord for this).
Where do you wash your clothes? Is there a coin laundry? Is your washing machine going to stay outside or inside the house (either way, you have to stay polite and never wash after 10pm!) Do you know how to clean a tatami room? Does your apartment even come with lights? Do you have bicycle parking, car parking?
And one more important thing is the structural foundation. If your house is built with ‘wood’, there is a risk that your apartment is a little colder than others in the winter. If the foundation is ‘steel’, it actually means that the walls are hollow, there is a chance that you hear your neighbors once in awhile. But generally speaking, your rent doesn’t dip so much because of your home’s foundation. I generally hate the winter, but I survived in my (awesome) wooden apartment by using a hot carpet and some insulating drapes.
Finally, here is the commitment on your end. There are a lot of fees you’d have to pay in the beginning of it all. You haven’t even moved in, but you’ll probably first pay a small amount just to reserve the house, and then pay the rest when you’re able before they start doing your paperwork.
The budget is totally up to you. You have to set a maximum amount you’re willing to pay, and you and the housing agent will work around your conditions – the amount of money you need, the location you desire and the facilities that you’d like to have. If you're lucky, there are some places where utilities are fixed - for example, unlimited water for only 2,000JPY/mo.
It’s also best to inform your agent that you would prefer a place with no key money right at the beginning, or let them know the maximum amount you’re willing to pay. I’ve had a friend who found that perfect place and decided to let it go because the key money was two months worth, and she was only staying for 6 months. It’s also good to ask if you get the deposit back in case you don’t finish your contract (like that friend I just mentioned). And finally, get a good deal for your insurance.
It’s actually quite fun if you’re not in a hurry. Some apartments just make you want to say, “This is it!” because of how everything falls into place. Some apartments would make you go “Really?!” (such as a perfect apartment with a very reasonable price, because.. (drumroll), there’s no shower!).