Looking for an Apartment Tokyo: Top 11 Things First-Time Apartment Renters Regret Not Asking

Finding your ideal apartment in Tokyo is no easy task. First is the language barrier. Most real estate agents in Japan do not speak English and housing discrimination against foreigners does exist. Even if you work with a bilingual real estate agent in Japan and are looking at foreigner-friendly properties, there are other issues.

On average, move-in costs in Japan are much higher than in other countries. You should expect to pay three to six months’ rent upfront when you sign a standard two-year lease in Japan.

Aside from financial considerations, however, are questions about quality of life and what you’re willing to sacrifice in return for lower rent or being in a specific location.

Here’s a quick list of a few things that we’ve found out apartment renters wished they had researched a little bit more before signing that contract.

1. How much time do you want to spend commuting?

As is the case anywhere, the first three rules of real estate in Japan are: location, location, location.

  • In Tokyo, for example, apartments outside the Yamanote line, on average, are less expensive.
  • The further a property is located from the nearest station, the less expensive it is (average rent especially drops for properties located more than 20-minutes away from a station, or which require a connecting bus ride).
  • Apartments located near smaller stations (not on an express line) also tend to charge lower rent.

If you’re on a strict budget, you might have to choose a lower-priced property in exchange for a longer commute, at least for your first apartment.

If you have a bit of leeway in your budget, here are  some questions to ask about the property location:

  • How close is the apartment to the nearest station?
  • How many transfers will I need to take to get to my workplace/school? If you’re looking at around 2-3 transfers for your commute, you might save yourself some future stress by looking for a more convenient apartment.
  • How far is it to transfer between stations? Sometimes (take Asakusa Station for example) you’d have to walk roughly 600 meters to transfer from the Tsukuba Express Line to the Ginza or Asakusa subway line.

2. When was the building built? If it was built prior to the 1981 and 2000 new building codes, has it been retrofitted? What is the building’s structural material?

Japan is a seismically active country, and earthquakes are a fact of life. When you look at a property listing (whether you’re renting or buying) it’s important to check the year that it was built.

  • Before 1981
  • Between 1981 and 2000
  • After 2000

The reason this is important is that the building standards law was changed significantly in 1981 and again in 2000. Residences completed after 2000 are subject to stricter construction codes for earthquakes than residences completed between 1981-2000, and residences built before 1981 were built subject to even looser construction standards. For an in-depth explanation of the main factors that affect a building’s earthquake resistance, please see this article: Top 3 factors that affect a building’s earthquake resistance: What to know before you buy a home in Japan

It’s also important to note that not all pre-1981 buildings necessarily have lower earthquake-resistance than new buildings. This is because some owners have retrofitted buildings in order to bring them up to code and other pre-1981 buildings are actually compliant with newer building codes.

In the property listing, the agent will also list the building’s main structural material. The main ones are: steel frame, steel-reinforced concrete, reinforced concrete, and wood.

  • Steel frame construction is considered the most earthquake-resistant but is also the most expensive and least common.
  • Steel-reinforced concrete has been shown to be more earthquake-resistant than reinforced concrete.
  • Wooden construction is considered the least earthquake resistant.

More more in-depth information, please see:

3. How close is the apartment to train tracks or other noise sources?

You might find a listing that seems too good to be true, only to find out at the room viewing that it’s right next to train tracks. Try to be aware of the apartment’s surroundings when performing the room viewing. Don’t get too caught up in the excitement of finding a place you like, only to later realize that every couple minutes you’re going to have a train rumbling outside your window.

Other possible sources of noise include large construction projects and fire stations.

Ground-floor apartments also tend to slightly less expensive than similar units in the same building. This is because you’ll be closer to street-level noise.

4. What kind of conveniences are near the apartment?

Are there any nearby parks? Department stores? How close are supermarkets to the apartment you’re looking at? It’s a great idea to figure out where you can pick up all your living necessities in your neighborhood.

5. Are you ok with the toilet being in the same room as the shower?

Lots of studio apartments (1R/1K) use a unit bathroom setup to save space. This means the bathroom sink, shower, tub, and toilet are all in the same waterproof room. It’s not the most elegant solution, but it does save space. You might see apartment listings mentioning “bath/toilet separate” to indicate that not everything is located in the same room. If you’re looking for a space-saving studio apartment, you might want to ask yourself if you’re ok with a unit bathroom like this or if you’d rather look for something with bathroom and toilet separate.

What a unit bathroom with tub, sink, and toilet in the same room can look like. Photo: Real Estate Japan

6. Where is the washing machine hookup?

In older apartments (or for space-saving purposes) you might find the washing machine hookup located outside on the balcony or terrace. Not the most ideal place for when you want to do laundry. Some apartments don’t even have a hookup for washing machines – meaning you’ll have to take your laundry to a laundry center.

Other things to note about washing machines is that while you’ll often find washing machine hookups around the bathroom, you’ll want to examine the layout of the apartment in question to find out where the washing machine hookup is actually located. Some apartments will have the hookup located near the kitchen for example.

7. How much storage space do you need?

1R apartments will often not even have closet space for storage. Instead, renters will need to pick up some sort of clothing rack and leave it in the room. 1LDK apartments and larger will often have some sort of closet space available to store clothing, but still, it’s not always the case.

8. Is it important for you to have a full kitchen?

If you are a budding home chef and need a reasonable amount of counter space and a gas burner for your creations, it’s important to know that most studio  (1R or 1K) apartments are usually equipped with only compact kitchenettes.

You should also check to see if the apartment comes with a gas burner, electric burner, or no built-in stovetop (as is the case with super budget apartments).

If a full-kitchen is a must-have, you will want to look for an apartment with a 1LDK (one-bedroom) layout or larger.

9. Do you want to have a 24-hour garbage room in the building?

This is a certainly not a dealbreaker for everyone, but for some, it can really improve quality of life to be able to dispose of garbage outside your apartment whenever you want, instead of having to wait until trash day. This is especially true in the hot summer months.

Trash collection in most cities in Japan takes place three days a week, with different types of garbage (burnable, non-burnable, and recyclable) picked up on specific days. Outside of these days, it’s generally frowned upon for you to leave your garbage by the side of the road on non-garbage days.

Buildings with a 24-hour garbage room (or an outside designated garbage area) give you the convenience of getting rid of things you don’t really want to “store” until garbage day.

10. Is access to natural light important?

One piece of information that you’ll find on Japanese property listings is the “direction” in which the property faces. This is something to consider in terms of natural lighting, drying clothes, and to a certain extent heating.

South-facing apartments are the most desirable because of Japan’s northern latitude. Buildable space is also scarce in all major cities in Japan, and to make sure that people have at least minimal access to sunlight, there are zoning laws in place as to how much floor space certain buildings can have and how tall they can be.

If you rent an apartment in an older mid-rise or low-rise building, however, you might find that you are living mostly in the shadow of taller, newer buildings.

  • South-facing (南向き, minamimuki):
    Usually the ideal direction for apartment hunters. This should result in plenty of natural light during the day, making drying laundry a simple affair.
  • East-facing (東向き, higashimuki):
    Bright in the morning, great for those who are early birds. It will be best to do laundry in the morning to take advantage of the sun’s position to dry your laundry quickly.
  • West-facing (西向き, nishimuki):
    Will remain slightly brighter as the sun sets in the evening. Can keep the apartment warmer in the evening as long as the sun is out. Mornings will tend to be darker as the sunrise won’t reach apartments facing the west.
  • North-facing (北向き, kitamuki):
    Poor amount of sunlight. One often overlooked aspect of this is that moisture and condensation won’t dry as well, which can lead to an increased risk of mold around windows. It can seem a bit cooler in the summer since the brunt of the sunlight won’t be heating the room directly, but this also means winters will be chillingly cold.

It’s rare to find dryers inside apartments in Japan. Most people will air dry their laundry. If the weather is nice, you should be able to hang your clothes outside to be dried in the sun. Usually, you’ll find hooks and rings for supporting a laundry pole (物干し竿, monohoshizao) out on the balcony of your apartment. Or, if your apartment doesn’t have a balcony you might find some on the exterior around a window. And if the weather is not cooperating, some apartments have indoor racks for laundry.

11. How much stuff do you want to buy?

Most long-term rental apartments in Japan are unfurnished. Standard apartments are not equipped with a fridge, washing machine, or any furniture. In some cases, they may not even have a built-in stove. Curtains and lighting fixtures are also not included in some apartments. When you view the property, remember to make a note of what you’ll have to buy to furnish your new home.

If you don’t want to buy a lot of stuff, it might be more sense to consider a furnished apartment or a furniture rental service.

Overall, the best advice might be to just be thorough with your apartment search and ask your real estate agent about any questions that you might have.

How to Rent an Apartment in Japan

If you’re looking into what the apartment hunting process in Japan entails, here’s our quick rundown of what to expect. Knowledge is half the battle, and you’ll want to be prepared since the battlefield of apartment hunting takes no prisoners.

Tokyo Area Guides

Where should you live in Tokyo? Check out all our Tokyo Area Guides to find the perfect place!

Lead photo: iStock

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