Renting an apartment in Japan during COVID-19 and why you shouldn’t expect to get an exception to rules

We all know contracts are important. In the midst of the ongoing global pandemic, you may have heard that some real estate companies in various areas of the world are being more lenient with their contracts in order to help out their tenants.

In Japan however, a contract with a property management company is a hard law that can seldom be altered due to hardship. While this is admittedly not the most happy or exciting topic to write about, if you’re considering a move to Japan soon, or are living here already, I think these are important topics to know about.

Just as a quick clarifying note, the GaijinPot Housing Service is not a property management company or service ourselves! We work with various property management companies to offer their properties to foreign tenants, so we are beholden to their rules as are our tenants. The following information is based on experiences we’ve had with property management companies or heard from people we know personally, and your mileage with your property management company may vary.

Case 1: If I start a lease for a property from overseas, but then something goes wrong and I am unable to enter the country, am I able to cancel the lease without cost?

Recently, with Japan starting to slowly open up the borders to new workers and students again, there’s been a resurgence of people from overseas looking to move to Japan. Of course, even if everything seems to indicate that you will be able to enter the country without issue, it’s only natural to worry about something unexpectedly going wrong. 

If you applied for a property from overseas and you haven’t actually made your payment or the lease hasn’t started, then you should still be fine! Before payment, you should be able to cancel an application without issue.

After you pay, you might have to forfeit a portion of the fees (usually the agency fee or something similar) but you should still get most of your money back.

However, if the actual lease start date has come and gone, and something major goes wrong and you’re no longer able to move, then you have a big problem.

In this case, you would need to terminate your contract using the same process as if you had lived there for two years. That probably means at least a one to two months notice, meaning more rent to pay. Even worse is that even if you’ve never set foot in the unit once, you would still need to pay the baseline cleaning fee that is listed on the contract. What this means is that if you’re worried at all about the risk of not actually being able to move, you should probably hold off on applying!

Case 2: Is it possible to negotiate the rent to be lowered during the pandemic?

I don’t think this is going to be a surprising answer, but most property management companies I know of have been unwilling to make exceptions in regards to rental payments. This goes for both the actual amount of rent, along with when the rent can be paid. The main thing to keep in mind is that most of these property management companies have hundreds upon hundreds of units, so to keep track of everything they have to process, they use a strict bureaucratic process.

What that means is that exceptions for individuals are essentially non-existent. While property management companies themselves are usually not able to help, many wards and cities have started their own programs to help people struggling to pay rent. Off the top of my head I know that Setagaya Ward in Tokyo has a program for this, along with the city of Fukuoka down in Kyushu. For people struggling with rent recently, the two most common choices seem to be 1. Reach out to the local city hall for assistance or 2. Move into a cheaper apartment. 

You can also apply through the Housing Security Benefit system if you are having trouble paying your rent. This is a government program meant to provide financial support for people who have lost their job (or sole proprietor business) and who may be at risk of losing their residence as a result.

Case 3: Can I cancel the lease instantly without any fees if I have to leave the country due to a pandemic-related reason?

This is going to be very similar to the previous answer, but essentially: no, the property management will probably not make an exception even during a pandemic, and even if you are a foreigner. Actually, this ties in really well with the first theoretical situation where someone wants to terminate their lease for a property they haven’t actually lived in. The point being that, if there is a lease going on, you need to go through the standard termination process, regardless of your situation. 

I should quickly note though that many contracts do have a clause where you can instantly terminate if you pay a penalty fee, so do check out your contract. Generally though, there isn’t much financial benefit to doing this as opposed to just waiting the standard time of around one month. Plus, if you want to go that route, you’ll need to negotiate a lot more with your property management company, and you won’t be able to attend your move out inspection. If you aren’t there you can’t argue with the fee calculation. I mentioned in a previous article about apartment rules, but also if you leave anything in the apartment, you could be hit with huge fees.

Case 4: What if I need to be out of the country only temporarily during the pandemic? Can the rent for the period I am not in the apartment be waived?

Not to sound like a broken record, but the answer to this question is again no. Contract-wise, regardless of how much time you are actually spending in the apartment, if you are contracted to be leasing the apartment, you have to keep up with the rent unless you choose to cancel. Luckily these days, rent can usually be paid automatically via bank or credit card, so the actual act of paying usually isn’t too difficult. It isn’t exactly an exciting notion to have to pay for multiple months of an empty apartment if you need to go home for a few months during an emergency though. 

One important thing I should note on this topic though, is that it might be a good idea to speak with your utility companies if you will be out of the country for an extended period of time. If you don’t pay for the utilities for a month or two usually they will automatically be turned off anyway, but it can be a huge pain to fix your accounts once you’re back in the apartment. If you let them know ahead of time, you can minimize the amount of money you need to pay back, and make it easier to set things back up later on. 

In Summary

Property management companies really can’t make any exceptions for tenants having struggles, even amidst the current situation. What this means is that it’s more important than ever to research local resources to help with rent if you may have a problem, and have a plan for if something goes wrong and you need to leave the apartment earlier than expected. The ideal situation is that no one reading this will have to deal with any of these situations, but it is always better to be prepared than to be blindsided!

By Nathan

Nathan works for the GaijinPot Housing Service, helping foreigners find their home in Japan. He’s American and has lived in Japan for about three years. Read Nathan’s self-intro to find out what brought him here!

GaijinPot Housing Service

If you are looking for an apartment in Japan (whether you’re applying from overseas or are already in-country), check out the GaijinPot Housing Service. With the GaijinPot Housing Service, you:

  • Can choose from 3,000+ properties throughout Japan.
  • Don’t need a guarantor.
  • Can apply from overseas.
  • Pay all your upfront costs and monthly costs with a credit card.
  • Receive full English service, from the room view, to application, to post-move-in support.

Learn More About the GaijinPot Housing Service

Lead photo: iStock