The first home for many foreigners working in Japan is some form of short-term rental situation. After you have gotten somewhat settled and want to improve your living arrangement, it is time to house hunt.
Like many other things, house hunting in Japan can be a little different from what you are used to back home.
Assuming you are already in Japan and have a job, this post will hopefully help you like a map or a drawing of the challenges you could be facing.
Where to start looking?
Private ads from landlords do exist but are extremely rare. Most, if not all property deals are done by using one of the many online portals or going directly to a letting agency.
The way you are supposed to use a real estate web portal is to find a property you like and contact one of the agents in charge to see it.
Often, the agent will tell you that you can bring in listings that are not in his or her care (something you found on your own on the net or a different agent has shown you). Sometimes you might even get an offer to sign the contract for a property a competing agent has introduced you to. That would mostly mean a cheaper service fee. If you are going to cut someone short anyway might as well go in for a pound and haggle for a no fee.
To be blunt, the quality of the service your average real estate agent provides you with does not justify the fees he or she will hope to get from you.
There are some agencies and agents who do their job very well. Provided you manage to find a good one or get a recommendation (recommendations go a long way in Japan) 'just' walk in and state your conditions.
Where do you want to live? The area or around a specific station?
What would you like the property to be (house, bedsit, flat, etc.)?
Make sure you understand the terms such as 'apartment' and 'mansion'. It is 'Japanese-English', and the meaning is slightly different. To explain it very broadly an 'apartment' is constructed from lighter materials, whereas a 'mansion' is a flat or an apartment that is a cement construction.
Also, be sure of your priorities. Like does it have to be close to the station or would you enjoy the lower rent option that comes with a brisk morning hike?
What to prepare?
Lots of money
Depending on the property you are going for, your job title and some other things you might find questionable, moving to a new house could set you back half a years’ rent.
The 'common' example is as follows:
'Key Money'- one to two months rent (won't come back)
'Security Deposit' - one to three months rent (some of it might come back)
'Agency Fee' - one and a half months rent (won't come back, but there are ways around this)
'Guarantee Fee'- If you are a foreigner and don't have a Japanese guarantor, you might have to use a guarantor service. They usually charge a month rent as the 'Guarantee fee' and usually an annual service fee that is somewhere around ten to twenty thousand yen (not coming back).
'Various Costs'- Like cutting the keys and maintenance fees. Usually, less than fifty thousand yen.
All this plus a month rent in advance.
Proof of income and employment
A valid visa
Proof of registration at a previous address
These are the most basic ones. It might vary depending on the estate agency and the landlord's terms.
Make sure you leave a trail when transferring money. Never hand it over as cash. Although Japan is a very safe country, real estate scams do happen. Make sure the agency you use has a proper office and also run a search on the bank details they give you.
Even though the whole moving business is an expensive one, there are plenty of good options and provided you to do your research, and the timing is right (off-peak moving season starts from April and runs through the summer) you can get more than your money's worth (in the form of a new home).
The service the real estate agents provide might leave an impression, leaning either way. It is vital to understand that the real estate agencies are more brokers than they are scouts. Using a legitimate agency should give you the ease of mind not having to deal with an overzealous landlord or any other complications that might ensue.
Try to enjoy your house hunt in Japan. It is one of these experiences where you realize it was worthwhile after it is over.