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Finding an Apartment in Tokyo

May 16th, 2007
The apartment I've got right now is pretty sweet. It's a big place for cheap. It even has a nice view. And I've stayed here longer than I have stayed in any one apartment in Japan. I just completed my seventh year here, which outdoes the two and a half I spent in a place in Koganei, which was the previous record-holder. In fact, since I moved out of my folks' house at age 21, this is the longest I've stayed in one place. Nevertheless, time moves on. I'm getting fairly deep into a relationship, but our living places aren't compatible. Hers is close in to Tokyo, but is way too small. Mine is big enough for two, but is too far out. Only the fact that I have a scooter has made it livable; otherwise the daily bus ride to the train station, plus twenty minutes combined waiting for the bus and train to come, make it an hour-plus trek to my job, with transfers and walks along the way. For Sachi, it would be even more of a trip. So now we're looking for a place that's both large (my condition) and close to central Tokyo (her condition). Of course, we'd both like both qualities. The hard part is finding them. Fortunately for us, we'll have two rather healthy incomes to put together; for less than we now pay combined in rent, we'll be able to get the kind of place that we want. So we've started the process, both of us understanding that it could be a long way to go. Maybe it's harder finding a good place in New York City, but it ain't easy in Tokyo, either. I also figured that this would be a good opportunity to get into explaining how one finds an apartment in Tokyo. I went into that before in this blog about two and a half years ago (part 1, part 2), but that was told more as a story, with facts about apartment hunting peppered in. Let's see if we can't go about it in a slightly more organized fashion this time. And hopefully, I'll be able to do it fairly well--after all, I've been through this process seven times in Japan so far (eight if you count finding my brother's place). It's been a while since I last did it (seven years, as I mentioned), but having gotten started again, it's all coming back.


Location: You know what they say about location, and it's no different here in Japan. Rule of thumb: the closer you are to central Tokyo (as measured by the Yamanote loop line circling the center of town), the more expensive it'll be--but also, it gets more expensive the closer you are to the local station you choose. You start by seeing where it is that you work, and probably discover that it's too expensive to live close to there. So then you start figuring what the train lines are like from work to various places. Some train lines are more coveted than others; they may have nice, major stations along the line (the Chuo Line, for instance); they may have nice express trains (express stops rate higher rents). Some lines, like the Nambu line, have no express trains and few interesting stops. So you choose a line which looks good for you, and has good connections to work and to other places you'd like to go. Then you choose the station itself. As I said, express stops are choice--it means a shorter commute into work. Factor that in along with proximity to central Tokyo and other desired locales. Sometimes you can actually find a place which is not yet "discovered," and has many good qualities without having prices that are too high. Sachi and I believe we've found that station for us: Musashi Kosugi, in Kawasaki City, just across the Tama River from Tokyo's Ota Ward. Kosugi is an express station, with no fewer than three major lines running through it (Tokyu Toyoko, Tokyu Meguro, and JR Nambu), and through trains to three different subway lines (Hibiya, Mita, and Namboku) through extensions--and a fourth, the Fuku-toshin Line, connecting in 2012 (a line that would take me straight to work). Of the six lines now operating out of Kosugi, three have their terminus there (Meguro, Mita, and Namboku); it is an express stop for all lines that have such stops. There is direct access to Shibuya, Ebisu, and Meguro stations on the Yamanote Line, averaging abut 14 minutes from Kosugi to any one of those stations. From there, you can transfer yourself to anywhere, and many of the through trains go to other major stations. Despite the choice station location, Kosugi is relatively low-priced. Just a few stations inward, Den'en-chofu is hugely more expensive, as an upscale neighborhood. Although being even more distant and less well-connected by train lines, Futago-Tamagawa and Mizonoguchi, across from each other a little ways up the Tama River, also ask higher prices. Kosugi seems strangely overlooked. One other element of location is distance from the train station--a key point if you are going to walk to the station every day. That's where my place lacks--it's a 20-plus-minute walk, or a 5-minute bus ride followed by a 5-minute walk, with hilly areas for the walking. Having to depend on a bus is also a pain, because they often come at inconvenient times. The bus from my place to the station comes once every twenty minutes--and arrives at the station just two minutes after the once-every-twenty-minutes express train has left. So having a place within 10-15 minutes' walking distance of the train station is a big plus. Size: this is the other big deal with apartments. There are two ways to measure the size of a place: the number of rooms and the floor space. In Japan, total floor space is measured in square meters. My current place is big, 84 square meters; Sachi's is about half that size. Individual rooms, on the other hand, are measured in tatami mats, each one approximately three feet by six feet. Standard is a 6-mat room, nine by twelve feet, as illustrated at right. The second way to measure is by the number of rooms. In Japan, the letters to remember are L, D, and K. "L" for living room, "D" for dining room, and "K" for kitchen. If two or all of those are combined into a single multi-purpose room, you'll get an LK, DK, or LDK, for example. If a number is added to the beginning of that, it means that there are that many extra rooms (usually bedrooms) in addition to the central area. (In Japan, bathrooms are not specified; it is assumed that there will almost always be one toilet room and one bath/shower room.) Sachi and I are looking for a 3LDK--what in the U.S. would be called a three-bedroom apartment. We're hoping for a room at least 70 square meters in size. I visited Kosugi recently, and finding such a place within our price range seems eminently possible. Type: In Japan, there are three basic types of places for rent: apartments, "mansions," and houses. The real distinction to be made is between the apartments and "mansions." Apartments are relatively cheap and of poorer construction; they are always rented. "Mansions," on the other hand, are not sprawling estates as are their namesakes, but rather more-sturdily-built apartments. Think condominium. Walls are thicker (often concrete), and soundproofing is better. I live in such a "mansion," and the folks who lived next door to me had a newborn baby when they moved in. Either that's the quietest kid in history, or the soundproofing in the walls is excellent (though it is always weakest in the ceiling, from the unit above). Mansions are sometimes rented, but often are bought. At the $2000/mo. level, I have also seen a surprising number of rental houses offered. Sometimes these are attached/semi-attached, but usually not. They are often a square layout with two floors; sometimes they are an elongated rectangle, three floors, with a garage at the ground level. Cost: Here's the real kicker. In Japan, moving-in costs can be prohibitive. There can be up to four separate costs for moving into a place in Japan, only two of which are common in the U.S.:
  • First month's rent: standard.
  • Deposit: in the U.S., it's usually one month's rent; in Japan, it ranges from one to three months' rent, though it is usually two months'.
  • "Gift" Money (also called "key" money): from zero to two months' rent, this is essentially a bribe, or a surcharge demanded by the owner. Worse, if there is any "gift" money demanded initially, another month's rent in further "gift" money is demanded every two years when the contract is renewed.
  • Agent's Commission: one month's rent. Granted, they work to get you a place, but they don't work that hard! Sachi and I will likely fork over the equivalent of US $2000 for an agent who will likely spend only a few hour's work getting us a place. True, they may only score a sale every ten or more attempts, but still, they have an amazingly sweet setup for themselves. Unsurprisingly, any agent will eagerly take down you phone number and address and try to get you to rent a place through them.
The common deposit/gift scheme is 2/2, meaning two months' rent as a "gift" and two more as a deposit. Which means that moving in will often mean plunking down six months' worth of rent before you can call it your own, only one month's rent of which will actually be applied to the rent itself. Sachi and I will pay about $6000 in fees and will have about $4000 locked up in the deposit when we move in, beyond the $2000 for the first month's rent. That's $12,000 to get into an apartment. That's not a down payment on owning the place. In short, it's a real scam they put you through. What's more, I just discovered an extra element that I had never encountered before: end-of-contract conditions. Most of the places Sachi and I have seen so far have conditions that prohibit us from keeping the place for longer than two, four, or five years. Probably a loophole to get the owner out from under rent control, it means that the owner can choose to completely re-negotiate after that amount of time passes. In Kosugi, I am guessing that four-year end-of-contract clauses will be common--that's when the Fuku-toshin Line connects to Kosugi, meaning a direct line through to Ikebukuro and other new, popular stations. Also, there seems to be a lot of new apartment/mansion development in Kosugi--it won't remain under-discovered for long. We may start by renting, but buying in the near future may not be a bad idea. One more important point about cost: the kanri-hi, or maintenance fee. This is added onto the monthly rent (though it is not included in the key money, deposit, or agency commission). It can sometimes be in excess of $100/mo. Ambience/Shopping: this can also be key. Sachi has a great location for shopping; just across the street is a big, long covered shopping street (it is named "Pearl Road," which, oddly, most such streets seem to be named). Two stations closer in from Kosugi is a station called Tamagawa; it has virtually no shopping. Kosugi is a happy medium: lots of shops and restaurants, but not a huge number, and the main street is nicely shaded with trees. We'll have to do more exploring, of course, to get a feel for the area. Key point: how many supermarkets within walking distance, and what are their hours? These are the major points. Other important points for a place include:
  • Age: when was the place built? More than ten years is pushing it. A place can be "reformed" (renovated), but newly constructed is most sought-after.
  • Exposure: where do the main room windows face? Southern exposure is best for sunlight, but you also have to consider where major roads are. Will there be a ton of traffic noise? Is there a train line nearby? Sachi and I were almost shown a place which appeared on an ad's map as in a nice spot; it turned out that it was actually on the corner of two major thoroughfares and an elevated expressway.
  • Closet space: naturally. Though it always fills up no matter how much you get.
  • Elevation: what floor is it on? First floor is considered bad in Japan, especially for women. It's about security as well as the view. Every apartment's description includes the total number of floors in addition to the floor the unit in question is on.
Then there are a larger number of lesser features:
  • Balcony space: usually very small, but some places can have a nice amount of floor space outdoors.
  • Elevator: important if you live above the 3rd or 4th floor.
  • "Autolock": a security feature, where you have to buzz in people for them to enter the building. As is true everywhere, it is questionable, as with most places it's easy to just wait for a tenant to come in or out and catch the door when it's open. associated feature: Video intercom (may be in color).
  • Cable TV/BS: the "BS" stands for "broadcast satellite," usually the NHK variety. Though with any place, you'll want to see if the other satellites are blocked out by buildings or terrain.
  • Internet: newer places may have shared fiber-optic high-speed Internet connections built-in to the building; you could get access without extra charge, and many new rooms have the Ethernet ports built into wall sockets along with TV reception, power, and gas.
  • Air conditioning: Japan's summers can be brutal. Frankly, I don't know what I'm going to do--I bought two air conditioners for my present place, and having them uninstalled-reinstalled may cost more than just getting new ones...
  • Flooring vs. Tatami mats: some people prefer tatami (thatched) mats, but wood flooring is pretty popular nowadays. Often, apartments have mostly flooring with one or more rooms done in tatami. Wood flooring may have "TES Yukadambo" (TES 床暖房), which means the floors are heated from underneath. This often applies only to the Living-Dining area. "TES" stands for "Tokyo-Gas Eco-System," and can be applied to a variety of new-fangled central-heating systems.
  • Other stuff: Are pets allowed? Could be good or bad, depending on whether you want pets, or whether there is good soundproofing. Your place might or might not come equipped with a gas-burning stove in the kitchen. (Japanese places very rarely have full-blown stoves, or dishwashers or trash compacters, for that matter.) The kitchen may or may not have a counter opening to the Living-Dining area. Kitchen layout and cupboard space must be looked at. Various water-heating systems may be employed. There may be a special area where parcels can be delivered without requiring you to be home. Is the toilet separate from the bathing area, and do you even care?
Once you have found a place that meets your requirements well enough, a little more investigation is called for. The real estate agent may show you the place at the optimum time of day, when the warts are the least apparent. You should visit the place at other times and camp out a bit. You may discover that trucks load right next door at 6:00 in the morning with a piercing backing-up beeping. Unexpected sounds or smells could make themselves manifest. And the noisy neighbor is always a frightening specter, hard to detect beforehand. So, all of this is stuff that you have to keep running in your head as you look for a place. I've already taken up way too much space just for getting the basics down. So, I will cover the actual looking-for-a-place part of the hunting process for a subsequent post, coming soon.

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  1. matthew
    May 17th, 2007 at 01:22 | #1

    Hi Luis,

    Why rent? Why not buy. The hefty price you pay upfront for renting could swing a down payment for a place to own. I have a great connection in the mansion department I could point you towards. I bought my place (mansion) four years ago and love it. And the down payment was what it would have cost me to move into a brand new rental.

    let me know if you want to contact the mansion guy I know.

    cheers,
    matthew

  2. Luis
    May 17th, 2007 at 01:26 | #2

    Matthew:

    I am thinking of that in fact. They’re building a huge new mansion (two in fact) right nearby Musashi-Kosugi Station, with 1400 or so units. Maybe that’s too pricey, I don’t know. Can your guy get me info on that?

    Whatever the case, please, go ahead and send me the info. Email to:

    commentsto@blogd.com

  3. Luis
    May 17th, 2007 at 01:30 | #3

    I might also want to chat with you about particulars–e.g., what does resale value look like down the road? What problems are there getting a bank loan, especially as a foreigner? What things should one look out for, or look for in particular? Any input would be great. If you’d be OK with Skyping on it or something, let me know by email.

  4. May 17th, 2007 at 06:48 | #4

    I, too, would recommend skipping the apartment and just sinking the same money into a home. My wife and I are now looking to do exactly that in a new “mansion” going up in our area (although I would much rather move closer to Musashi Kosugi myself–it’s right near my office!).

    As far as resale value is concerned, I’ve heard that it becomes more difficult to sell if you’ve lived in the place for more than five years, but you should be able to break even. If you are looking at a home purchase as an investment opportunity, that might not be what you want, but if you are just looking for a place to live, if you do your homework properly, you might find that you can buy a place for payments that are less than it would cost to rent something similar.

    Good luck!

  5. matthew
    May 17th, 2007 at 07:54 | #5

    I will send you the contact info this afternoon, as well as my skype address.

    matthew

  6. Paul
    May 17th, 2007 at 11:43 | #6

    Great rundown. Some of the stuff is the same anywhere, in terms of what you look for in an apartment. Some is pretty incredible- the “gift” bit for getting into a place is ridiculous.

    The only thing I can figure from that is that the vacancy rate in Japan must be very low, because of course in the US any time the vacancy rate goes up they wind up paying YOU to move in.

    For example, a little over two years ago I sold my house and moved to downtown Seattle. At the time they were offering half off on the parking (the apartment I moved into is part of a complex with a big grocery store on the ground floor, underground parking that’s shared with the apartments and store) and a month’s free rent, which you could prorate over the term of the lease or apply to your deposit or just take as a month’s worth of rent.

    The monthly rents were lower then, too.

    That was when the vacancy rates in and around Seattle were running 6 to 8 percent. Just after that, the market turned around; the rise in home and condo prices had lots of apartment owners converting their buildings into condos, and the vacancy rate fell to under 4%.

    And of course the incentives disappeared, and now you almost never see any of them. At the time I moved in, I saw plenty of places that were willing to take me with Indiana the Wonder Dog (70 pound golden retriever). Now it would be a lot harder.

    I wound up buying a condo, so it’s not a factor anymore. Yay!

    But if they’re clobbering you to essentially pay them a bribe to move IN, the vacancy rates must be low. Do you compete with people for a particular unit, or is that not how it works?

  7. Luis
    May 17th, 2007 at 11:50 | #7

    Paul: actually, it has little to do with vacancy rates; 2 months’ gift money is the norm. A small number of places ask for 1 month’s rent for a gift, a very very few pass on gift money altogether. Nobody ever offers free rent for a month or any other reversal like that. The “gift” money charge is more or less a tradition here, an industry standard if you will.

  8. ykw
    May 19th, 2007 at 04:48 | #8

    Congrats on your moving in w/ Sachi !!!

    If the avg realestate prices go up 5% to 10% a year, which has been the case in the usa during the last 30yrs, then buying is a great deal financially any way you look at it. Ask your folks !

  9. May 19th, 2007 at 08:50 | #9

    Luis, If you consider buying, I wouldn’t go for a mansion. Sometimes kanri fees can be up to 20,000yen and if you have a car you still have to rent the parking space. There are lots of used houses in very good condition that are a bargain if you look for them.

  10. Luis
    May 20th, 2007 at 09:37 | #10

    Roy: Well, the kanri fees could be high, but part of them sometimes contribute to a huge renovation project every 20 years or so which helps pump up the resale value, so it’s a bit of an investment. Parking space isn’t too much of a problem as I don’t plan to drive a car. As for homes, I would actually prefer to buy a house–but we need one relatively close in–like in the area of Kosugi–and I am going on 43, with maybe only 20 years of productive earning left, and not enough saved up in the bank to otherwise blunt a 35-year loan (no kids to pick it up, either).

    For me, the purchase is not an investment, but rather a way to recoup living costs when I retire, at least to some extent; I want it to be a kind of retirement fund in addition to other sources. It’s not a case of investing it some other way–it’s a case of either spending it on non-refundable rent, or paying roughly the same amount and then getting a lot of it back in 25 years time.

  11. Andy
    June 5th, 2007 at 08:09 | #11

    Hi Luis,

    I’ve also looked at a few “mansions” in Tokyo area, both new and old. It looks like when you first buy a place they will ask for about 300-600k yen to be put into a “repairments” fund. Then there is the monthly maintenance cost which I’ve found are about 18k yen per 70-80 square meter or so.

    Some of the older “mansions” — finely built and state of the art at the time — now have very high monthly “repairment” fees on top of maintenance fees. I’m guessing that some major repairs may run more costly than whats been put away thru the initial pool plus monthly maintenance fees, so they have to ask each unit owner to contribute more per month to cover it.

    Also, even when there is a pool of money put away for future repairs. When and if major repairs are made, they will ask residents to contribute more money so that the pool can remain at the same level. So I guess another way to look at it, all the repairs will be paid by residents pronto even tho there is money set aside because it needs to be maintained at a certain balance.

    So, to get to my question. The new mansions I’ve seen have monthly maint fees about 18k or so, but I’m looking to sell the place in 5 years when I move out of Tokyo. What I’ve heard from word of month is avg new mansion price drops by 10 mil yen as soon as you sign the contract. With 800-1600 units in the same complex, it could mean that your place is harder to sell unless its priced very competitively.

    Do you know what direction are generaly more sought after and why when chosing an apartment in a building? I know Southern exposure is the most popular and East isnt bad. But West could mean a lot of AC is needed in the afternoon. What about North? Ive heard people general dont want Northern side, but why?? I always thought its the same as Southern exposure.

    Which direction does wind blow in general in Tokyo metro area? North wind?south wind?

    Thx, sorry if I sound too curious. I need to find a place soon whether its buy or rent.

    Cheers,
    Andy

  12. Luis
    June 5th, 2007 at 12:33 | #12

    As far as I know, exposure is related only to sunlight, not to wind direction. East is probably better than west because it gets the morning light. Beyond that I really don’t know about such stuff. Wind generally blows in from the west, I think, but it varies.

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