On Sunday I signed a contract to rent a new apartment, which I will move into next weekend. Currently I’m living in a kind of Granny flat (called an ohanare) behind the home of my landlord, in South Kichijoji near the famous Inokashira park. I like Kichijoji a lot, so our new apartment will be in nearby Mure, about 5 minutes’ walk from Inokashira Park, and 1 minute’s walk from the sports fields and other recreational parts of the same park. It’s probably 10 minutes’ walk from the Studio Ghibli Museum, so my cat can hunt Kodama. It’s a ground floor apartment, what in Japan is called a 2DK and would in Australia be called a 1 bedroom apartment with study.
Finding an apartment in Tokyo is so much easier than anything like it in Australia. Every year at least the Sydney Morning Herald produces a report like this that tells you what you need to do to find a rental apartment in Sydney: prepare a CV (including one for your dog!), dress nicely, form a personal relationship with a real estate agent, and offer more than the advertised rent. My experience of house-hunting in Sydney was terrible: queues of people turning up to look at one apartment, only to have the agent be late or not turn up; looking at apartments while people still lived in them (and being interrupted by unannounced inspections when I lived in an apartment!), and routinely being lied to about the place: turning up to a “3 bedroom” house to discover it was actually 2 bedrooms and a living room, for example. Also, rents are shocking: the most recent census tells me that median weekly rent in Australia is $285, and my last two apartments were considerably more. Six years ago in Sydney I paid $360 a week for a 1 bedroom + study apartment in Stanmore, about 45 minutes by public transport from the city centre. Before I left Sydney I paid $190 a week for a 1 room apartment in Redfern – Sydney’s most dangerous suburb – on a street with signs warning against car-jackers. It had a shared laundry that occasionally would be smeared with vomit. Before I left London I was paying about 60,000 yen a month (about $150 a week) for a single room barely larger than a walk-in closet, in a share house with three other people and no real living room.
My rent in my new apartment is about $1200 a month – about $300 a week – for a house with 2 air-conditioning units, 15 minutes walk from Kichijoji station, in the area that is voted number one place to live in Tokyo every year. It’s trivial to find a one room apartment in the heart of Kichijoji for $190 a week, and there’s zero risk of car-jacking. I also didn’t have to fuss around with open inspections, offering higher rent, or special CVs. I just visited a few real estate agents, told them what I was looking for, and they drove me to a variety of apartments around Kichijoji.
In essence, it’s easier and cheaper to rent an apartment in Tokyo than it is in Sydney. Finding an apartment is a very smooth process, and if you don’t have a pet there’s a huge range. Going even a small amount above what I am paying gets you a very large and comfortable place. If you want to live in Shibuya I think it’s a very different story, but then, on on the flipside, Chiba is even cheaper. The big down side to renting in Tokyo is the upfront money – it’s not 100% of apartments, but for the majority of places you’ll have to put down 3 months’ rent upfront, of which you will only get back 1. If you have a cat, it’s 4 months rent upfront. It is possible to find places that don’t make this demand, but they’re often older or not so common. Still, the average real estate will have 2 or 3 such places, and there is a huge number and range of housing stock.
I’m not sure why this difference exists, but it’s one of the key reasons I think the cost of living in Japan is low. Share housing is not very common even in Tokyo, because it’s quite easy to live alone in the suburb of your choice for between $500 and $800 a month – even students can live alone. I think it’s a mixture of things, but I wonder how much of it is a legacy of the 1980s housing boom, how much of it is ageing population, and how much of it is weak property rights. I suspect a lot of it has to do with the latter, which makes it easy to throw up new buildings higgledy-piggledy even in expensive suburbs. Also there seems to be a lot more corporate investment in housing – why, I don’t know. Tax arrangements here seem to be less favorable to family homes, though I don’t know the details. But renting is cheap and easy, and real estate agents – precisely contrary to their behavior in the west – are polite, honest, and very helpful. It’s as if renting were a respectable lifestyle decision, and a viable way to live. Have you ever heard of such a notion?