Getting Accommodation - Part Two
I was asked by a reader (thanks C.A.) to outline the actual process of getting an apartment, following on from my column several weeks ago. So here goes... I'm assuming that you're doing things for yourself and don't have a secretary to look after things for you...
Once you find a realtor who is actually willing to help you, and several landlords who don't reject foreign tenants out of hand, you will be invited to go see some available apartments. The cheaper the rent, the poorer the facilities and location. I usually advise my newly arrived employees to shoot for a rent of around JPY150,000 per month and about 20 minutes out of town -- you can usually do well at this range, getting somewhere newer and with the landlord considering your money more important than your nationality.
Some of the things you're going to want to check when you do your inspection include: how thin the walls are -- i.e., whether you're going to upset neighbors by having a friend over, whether there is a western toilet, the availability of air conditioning for the summer, the level of traffic noise and dust, and things like that. Also in buildings older than 1985, you probably don't want to consider apartments on the 5th or 6th floors because prior to that date the building code didn't require the same strength of construction above the 5th floor. As a consequence, in the 1995 Kobe earthquake, many buildings collapsed at this floor. Either way, if you must be in an old building, if there is an earthquake it's better to be on the top floor.
The cardinal rule when inspecting premises is to dress well and behave well. If you don't like something, save your comments until you're away from the Landlord, so that you don't embarrass the realtor in front of them. Also, when it comes to bargaining terms and conditions, unless you're shooting for an expensive (over JPY250,000/month) apartment -- don't. All you'll do is wind up aggravating the realtor and the fact is that there are very few landlords are prepared to negotiate. On cheaper properties,there is always a line of willing students and others wanting to move in.
If you decide to take an apartment, the next step is to get the paperwork done, which may involve getting a hanko (more about this next week) and making the appropriate payments. Starting with the money side first: check whether the cash should be paid to the landlord's account directly, or through a management company -- which is quite common. Also, occasionally the realtor may be the property manager.
The amounts of money to be paid have been the cause for many outraged web postings by foreigners over the years - but they're part of how things are done here and there isn't much point getting upset about it. Basically your move-in payments consist of three parts: 2-3 month's deposit, known as "Shikikin", which is partly refundable on departure (after cleaning expenses and repairs are deducted you can expect to get less than 1 month back). Another 2 months non-refundable "present money" called "Reikin", and 1 month's advance rent. In total, that comes to 5-6 months upfront payment. Thus on a JPY150,000 apartment,you need to have about JPY900,000 ready. It's not cheap!
Next comes the paperwork. You need a set of documents that includes a Certificate of Alien Registration, you get this from the local ward office. This proves that you're in Japan legally and have duly registered yourself. Secondly, you may need an income statement from your company, proving that you can indeed pay the rent. Thirdly, you will need Certificate of seal impression (for foreigners,hankos are not always necessary, and you may be able to get a certificate for your signature instead), also available from your local ward office.
After collecting the forms, you then need a guarantor, a "Hoshonin", which is usually a Japanese person with a full-time job, clean financial slate, and good credentials. The function of this person is to guarantee to the Landlord that the rent and expenses will be paid if for some reason you don't - so clearly this person carries some exposure to risk on your behalf. For this reason, the Hoshonin should be someone who knows and trusts you, and you should remember not to treat the favor they are doing for you lightly.
Thus, if you've just arrived and haven't developed your personal network yet, you should ask your company if they will guarantee the apartment for you. If not, then ask your girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, or the spouse's parents. If you still have no one to help, then I believe that there are commercial guarantor services which I have heard charge about 5% of the amount in question as a fee. These companies frequently advertise in the local English-language free press. I don't know how reliable they are.
Lastly, there is the contract to be read and signed. For this you will definitely need a Japanese friend to help you. It's not that you are going to be seeing things that you can change, but nonetheless, you should at least know what the terms and conditions are - if only because you need to know the level of exposure to your Hoshonin. The contract is typically a 7-8 page document, and will most likely be quite dense - much the same as Western contracts are.
Next week we talk about getting a Hanko so you can actually execute the contract. In the meantime, you can read a bit more about this subject at: