Our 2-year lease for a single room apartment in Tokyo was coming to an end and I was really looking forward to move in a new, bigger flat. Well, I didn't know how hard it would be to find a foreigner friendly apartment in Tokyo!
I moved to Tokyo about 4 years ago and experienced moving from one apartment to the other only once. At the time, however, I had no time to search for the perfect home and couldn’t be picky. I had only 1-week to pack and move, so I chose the first property whose owner said “yes”.
2 years later, I’m ready to find a new apartment in Tokyo. Game on.
My second flat was a 1K room in Shinjuku district with a major road nearby. Night road construction works were constantly happening and preventing us from sleeping. I’m not talking about a few bangs on the walls. From 8pm till 2am, they would destroy the pavement, to do God knows what from 2am till 4am (electricity, gas, water pipe…). And from 4am till 6am, they would redo the pavement. Only to demolish their work the following night, week or month.
As my husband finally came back from his 10 month mission abroad, this was a good opportunity for us to look for a bigger place. We already had a budget in mind and since we were now married, we stupidly believed my foreign status wouldn’t be an obstacle. That’s forgetting we’re in Japan.
I thought I would enjoy looking for a new place.
I can speak Japanese, I thought, so it will be a piece of cake this time. In reality, the process of finding a new apartment in Tokyo was a nightmare. It took us almost 8 months to move out and felt like flying to Mars would be an easier process.
Looking for properties on a daily basis, I know by heart how to navigate quickly on all the most popular Japanese real estate websites (Suumo, Chintai et Athomes). I can check all the right boxes in a matter of seconds. That’s a two-way street. They know me well too and until today, I still get pop-ups on my social media accounts.
I spent countless nights reading their ads, trying to figure out which ones are fake. Japanese agencies have a tendency to misplace addresses, to use wrong pictures or simply to make up a property on purpose, just to get you to their offices. They trick you into scheduling an appointment just to tell you “oops, sorry, this apartment isn’t available, but we have much better options…”.
What a waste of our time. Ultimately, we would ask to set the appointment directly at the property, or we wouldn’t show up at all. As a consequence, we were told many times that said flat wasn’t available. But we could see the ads online.
Being a foreigner makes it hard to find an apartment in Tokyo.
When the apartment was available, owners would refuse foreign tenants. To be honest, real estate agents did their best not to be rude, but that was still hard to swallow. Many Japanese owners have prejudices against foreigners, regardless of their origins, language level or income. We were turned down for an apartment about a dozen times because I’m a gaijin, a foreigner. My marriage with a Japanese citizen wouldn’t help. Being French wouldn’t help. Having a seishain (long term employee) contract didn’t help. Damn!
The worst experience I had to go through was this one time in a small agency near Nakano station. We had just come back from a visit, an apartment far from looking like its ad, and our agent promised he had better options. The air was thick and humid, and two other couples were sitting at the other desks. A tiny radio player was on, broadcasting some bad electronic music. The background noise made me dizzy and the lack of discretion of our agent, speaking loudly about our financial and marital situation displeased me a lot. Since I’m a foreigner, he didn’t want us to waste our time visiting flats we couldn’t apply for. So he called the owners, one by one, asking it would be alright to rent to a foreign person.
This was a humiliating process.
– Hello, my apologies for the inconvenience, I’m currently with a couple who’d like to visit your apartment… I’ve got to warn you, the husband is Japanese but the wife is… Oh. Oh, I see. I understand. Even though she’s Russian?
(Hello I’m in front of you and French!)
– Hello, this is Nakano agency. I’m so sorry for bothering you, but I’m with a married couple interested in your property. Yes, so the wife is Russian…
(Moron. He did it again!) … Oh, no? I see. No problem.
– Hello, yes, this is Nantoka from Nakano agency. How are you doing? Good, good, ah ah! So, yes, I’m with a young couple… No, no children. But, ah, the wife is French. Is this a prob… I understand. Thank you for your time.
We were upset and tired. I stood up, my husband quickly following, and we told hum we were leaving. I know, deep down, that he wasn’t responsible for the owners’ opinions. But we were angry.
In Japan, there’s an appropriate “season” to search for a new place.
As time flew by, we were also told by countless agencies that we were too late. The best opportunities were gone, and the leftovers didn’t match our criteria. Surely, Japanese people tend to move before April, which marks a new start for schools, universities, companies and the fiscal year. The “flat-hunting” season is more around December and January.
Point is, looking for a new apartment in Tokyo after April stinks.
A one-way road to bankruptcy.
Although we went through a roller coaster of disappointments, we didn’t give up. We visited less flats and were more cautious about information we were given. We gave up some of our requirements…
– Are you aware that, *cough*, moving in Japan is quite expensive?
– Well, it doesn’t look like we have a choice, right?
The agent we were talking to smiled and stayed silent for a minute or so. So here’s a bit more about the cost of moving in Japan.
- 敷金: security deposit (1, 2-month rent)
- 礼金: key money (1, 2-month rent)
- Agency fee: 1-month rent
- Cleaning fee: can cost up to 1-month rent. Keep in mind that if you’re moving out, you’ll also have to pay a cleaning fee for the flat you’re leaving (in our case, about 30,000 yen).
Alright. You’ve got yourself some savings. You can pay. Then come all the various and weird insurances (fire and so on) depending on the building management company. Ok. Bring it on, more money wasted, but you don’t care, you need a roof over your head.
But then. Then.
– I’m not sure you’re aware of this but, *cough*, well… Even though your in-laws are your guarantors, you’ll most likely have to pay for a guarantor company. You know, owners are worried about foreigners.
– Wait what?
– Yes. Usually, you have to pay a guarantor company once the owner agrees. It should cost less than a month rent but, you’ll have to pay the fee every year.
When my husband heard about the guarantor company thingy, we looked at each other and without sharing a single word, decided it was time to give up our search for an apartment in Tokyo and get back to enjoying our free time. Sure. Our 1K room is tiny. But tiny is cozy!