Moving to Japan tips - House hunting

Now that the sea shipment is unpacked and this move which feels like it's taken 4 months is over, I figured I'd write a post which would have been great to find at the beginning of the process. I guess a couple of qualifications first:1) I am in Nagoya, I'm sure that there are many differences moving to, say, Tokyo or to a rural area; 2) My experience is not as someone moving to Japan by the seat of my pants or without a job (albeit my husband's job not my own) it is most definitely the point of view of an ICT (Inter Company Transferee)/ICT wife. I found very few blogs relating to ICTs but since 176 of us arrived just for our company in the one week then it's certainly not an irrelevant point of view!

Tip 1: Get help!

Unless your Japanese is nearly fluent AND you can read Japanese legalese AND you know how Japan works - get help. If you are an ICT then your company will no doubt arrange/choose a company or consultant to help you out. If it is just a suggestion or an optional extra - take it! Even if there is some arrangement whereby you will get some extra money if you don't use the consultant, take the help. Japanese rental contracts are HUGE (in comparison to Australia anyway) and there are all sorts of things which need negotiating which you wouldn't think of in a million years!

The truth is that even if your Japanese is excellent, unless you have some kind of intermediary in the form of a consulting company or even the HR dept of your company you will find your choices limited to say the least. Japanese estate agents don't want the trouble involved in dealing with someone with whom they cannot communicate with ease. That doesn't just mean language either, Japanese bureaucracy has its very own style and they don't need to be part of your learning curve coming to terms with it!

Which brings me to:

Tip 2: It is how it is because it is how it is.

This is possibly the most important thing to grasp as quickly as possible in Japan but you probably won't till you've experienced it yourself (I certainly didn't quite believe the people who told me.)

Whether you're dealing with an immigration issue, trying to get a bank account or license or just trying to buy a movie ticket in advance online - you will not change the way the process is done there is no point in arguing ... with anyone.

You will definitely find yourself in situations in which you think a little "logic" or "common sense" will speed things up or get you round an administrative obstacle but do yourself a favour and just breathe, let it go and come back with the right piece of paper or whatever it is that is required of you. It's not that the Japanese are not logical, nor are they stupid (as I've heard many a gaijin mutter under their breath in the short time I've been here) - they are perfectly intelligent and may even be able to see your point but it will not make a difference and they won't do that "I understand you, sir, but I'm powerless" thing that western customer service reps do nor will they explain why something is as it is - they will just smile gently and repeat themselves over and over. Things are simply done the way they are done, IF any change happens it happens slowly and won't be the direct result of your (possibly perfectly understandable) tantrum!

A kiwi friend of mine who has lived in Japan for many years now says the best thing to do is to expect that everything you attempt will take you three tries to get right - that way if it takes less it's a bonus, if it takes four well it's only one more than three!

Ok back to real estate specific tips!

Tip 3: Up front costs

If this is not the first article you've found while researching you will have come across the phrases "key money" and "non-refundable deposit" as well as the more usual "deposit" and the first month's rent. Both of these are essentially once-off gifts to the landlord - that's all. If you are inclined to jump to the conclusion that they are bribes (as I have heard others call them) well, you may not think they are right or fair but they are not bribes because anyone will have to pay this amount (and the amount should be set in advance) so no-one is getting any advantage by paying it.

Japan has a long 'gifting' culture and this is simply part of it and you will most probably have to lump it - most companies that are picking up your moving or accommodation expenses should include this as it is a standard cost (unless it's a particularly exorbitant one in which case you will prob need to choose another property).

In the scouring of ads that I did, I rarely saw a demand for both of these - 99% of the time it was one or the other.

Tip 4: On-going costs: Beware! It's not just the monthly rent!

Assuming you have any choice in where you live and are not just being deposited in company owned housing, you need to be aware of expenses beyond the monthly rent which you need to be careful to factor into your budget.

Parking: I start with this because if you live in a large city chances are you know parking is extra but it can be extra here even when it's built into your own building! I saw parking costs from 3000Y ($30 a month) to 20,000Y ($200 a month) so watch out for it!

Maintenance: Most of the houses and apartments I browsed on the web had a maintenance fee of some kind.

The above costs should be listed on any property ad but there are some costs which you should ask about if it is not in the ad. A standard Japanese rental property will NOT include the following and you will need to buy or (more likely) lease them and so will be a further monthly expense:

Window treatments: Curtains, blinds etc... some of the cheaper apartments will actually have brown paper over the windows when you go to view them!

Air-conditioning/heating units: Any property built in the last ten years or so will have the holes in the walls and the electrics all set up for you but you will need to rent the actual units themselves - and you WILL need them, don't skimp on this you will need them for cooling, dehumidifying and heating in winter! If you want to save money - seriously, don't do it with air-con!!

Light fittings! This is the one that really surprised me - electrics done in the ceiling but no bulbs or fittings of any kind whatsoever.

There are some places which include some or all of these things but they are by no means the majority and do tend to be the higher priced homes. If you are thinking to yourself "I wouldn't know how to go about leasing such things" again, that's where having local help comes into play - it's all commonplace here so just ask your consultant or HR bod.

Tip 5: Be Involved -  create a home, however humble!

Tip 1 was to get help but here I am also advising that, unless you are the worker heading over with no family and you are absolutely certain that you will be working every hour god sends AND will never have a low point or be ill... don't just leave it up to your consultant to find your Japanese home for you.

I am using the word 'home' throughout this post because you really need to think to yourself what it is that you need around you to feel you have a home and try to set that up here. Living in another country is an emotional roller coaster - things you would take in your stride where everything is familiar will be magnified tenfold or more depending on your state of mind. The very fact of spending your entire day actively having to strain to understand the language (or wild hand gestures) around you is exhausting and being exhausted makes anyone irritable.

You need somewhere you can retreat to.

If we had wanted to, we could have simply chosen an area from the area descriptions given to us by our consultant and then flown over here to be shown what they thought was best for us during our orientation visit. It was tempting to do that, there was so much to be done anyway BUT I am positive we would not have ended up in as great a place as we have. Why? Well, first of all we were able to work out exactly what we were willing to spend to get a home we could enjoy - just because your company gives an accommodation allowance doesn't mean you have to stick to it if you can afford it. By scouring our consulting company's listings and emailing the ones I was interested in I discovered that by going up even just 13,000 yen ($130) a month put us into an entirely different level of accommodation simply for going over a certain price point (every city has these price points you just have to find what they are.)

Also, by looking for ads that attract you and sending links to your consultant she/he will get a much better idea of what you are looking for than by just writing them a list. They can also check things for you in advance (like whether your pet is allowed - cats are much harder to get accepted than dogs btw) so you don't waste time when you are actually here.

By the time we got to Nagoya for our house-hunt trip we had a list of properties to see which had been well and truly streamlined. We were able to be fairly quick and decisive and, most importantly, I knew the market and so we weren't in the position of thinking "hmm I really like this one but I don't want to apply in case there's something hugely better" - in fact we beat out at least one other couple for this place because I was really only confirming that it was as good as it seemed on the Internet and I immediately put a hold on it so that we would have first dibs! We looked at the last few places just in case but I had no qualms holding this one because I was pretty sure.

You may, as I did, feel like you are being the most annoying client in the world but it's a toss up between being annoying before the house-hunt trip but being efficient when here or being the vague one asking all the questions and not being able to make a decision when you get here! Also, though, you are actually helping out your consultant, she or he may have 20 other clients they are juggling and you can't expect them to be able to do what you want if you don't communicate with them and be willing to remind them of who you are (we were "the ones with the cat" I'm sure!)

Of course, if your company doesn't provide for a house hunting visit then it is even more important that you get stuck in and ask as many questions as you want!

That will do for this post - next instalment: To ship or not to ship and furniture leasing!

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