The first move I made was from the house the city kindly provided for me to live in when I first arrived in Towada to an apartment of my own choosing. I made the decision to move in the spring, about 2/3 of the way through my first year. The first few times I went to visit various real estate agents, I was accompanied by co-workers who were either Japanese or could speak Japanese well. But when I actually decided on a place, I went by myself, armed only with my trusty electronic dictionary.
Looking back I was really lucky in a lot of ways. The landlord was and is super nice and has never once demonstrated or voiced any concerns/qualms about renting a place to a foreigner. Another friend in Towada had to get our supervisor to sign off as a guarantor in order to be allowed to rent an apartment, but that was not an issue for me. My landlord is so nice that even when, due to a misunderstanding on my part, I was actually a full month late paying my second month's rent (I foolishly thought the landlord could do the paperwork for automatic bank withdrawals for the rent, when of course I needed to do it myself), my landlord was totally OK about it.
But anyway, the first time I moved, I really had no idea what I was doing. If she had wanted to, my landlord could have ripped me off, but instead she offered to cut a lot of the initial costs for me. As I said, I was very lucky.
The second time, however (just before the end of my JET contract), I didn't need to rely on luck since my grasp of Japanese was much better, I was a lot better informed, and I knew enough to ask for advice/suggestions from co-workers, friends, etc.
So here are some of the things I have learned from my apartment hunting.
(A cautionary note: Keep in mind that all of my experience is from apartment hunting in a small, rural city. Some of the stuff is probably generally applicable, but other things are probably not applicable to apartment hunting in a bigger city.)
Apartment Size/Amenities, etc.
Although some places do tell you the size of the apartment in square metres, apartment sizes are usually described by the number and types of rooms in this manner:
[number of rooms (not including toilet/shower or dining//kitchen area)] [description of dining/kitchen area]
The description of the dining/kitchen is usually something along the lines of:
K = kitchen
DK = dining and kitchen area
LDK = living and dining and kitchen area
In terms of size, K < DK < LDK
For example, my old apartment was 1DK meaning there was one room and a dining/kitchen area. My current place is 2LDK meaning there are 2 rooms plus a living/dining/kitchen area. The LDK part is about equal in size to my 1DK place, so my new place is about twice the size of my old one!
In terms of the rooms, there are usually two types洋(室) you(shitsu) = Western style room (usually flooring) and 和(室) wa(shitsu) = Japanese style room (usually tatami). I've never seen carpeting in any of the apartments I checked out--although people often roll out carpeting over tatami.
Rooms sizes are often described not in square metres but in terms of the number of tatami mats that could be laid down in a room (denoted with a J, for the tatami mat counter, "帖 = jou" or with just a number). Even Western style rooms are measured with tatami size, e.g. 洋6 = Western style room, measuring 6 tatami mats in size. A 6-mat (6J or 6帖) room is considered typical, 4.5J is rather cramped, and 8-10J is quite spacious.
But keep in mind that there isn't a completely set standard for tatami mat sizes. For example, in Kyoto it's ~1.91m x 0.955m, in Nagoya it's ~1.81m x 0.91m, and in Tokyo it's ~1.76m x 0.88m (source: Tatami Sizes) So presumably a 6J room in Nagoya would be bigger than one in Tokyo, but smaller than one in Kyoto.
Other room/amenity-related terms:
- 有（り）ari: available
- 無（し） nashi: not available
- 面積 menseki: area in square metres
- 角部屋 kadobeya: corner room
- 最上階 saijoukai: top floor
- 構造 （(軽量)鉄骨造・木造）kouzou ((keiryou) tekkotsuzou/mokuzou): structure/materials ((light-weight) steel frame/wood frame)
- 築年・月chiku nen/getsu: year/month of construction (often described using the Japanese calendar system, e.g. 平成/H24 = 24th year of Heisei = 2012 - anything NOT Heisei is really old--pre-1989!! See this Japanese calendar year converter for more info)
- フローリング (hardwood/particle board) flooring
- 畳（たたみ）: tatami
- エアコン air con(ditioner)
- ストーブ stoubu: heater
- 灯油ヘーター（カートリッジ式） touyu hiitaa (katorijji shiki) : cartridge type kerosene heater
- FF暖房（機）（ガス・灯油） FF reibou(ki) (gasu/touyu): FF=forced draught balanced Flue, basically it's an outside ventilated heater, i.e. exhaust should be forced outside; it can run on gas or kerosene
- トイレ toilet
- 便所 benjo: toilet
- WC water closet: toilet
- シャワートイレ shawaa toilet: shower/bidet toilet (will wash your behind!)
- 洋式(トイレ） youshiki (toilet): Western-style (i.e. NOT a squat toilet)
- 水洗（トイレ） suisen (toilet): flushing toilet
- 洗面（所）senmen(jo): (face/hand) washing area
- 洗面化粧台 senmen keshoudai: washstand (usually meaning a mirror/sink unit)
- 脱衣（所） datsui(jo): (clothes) changing area
- 浴室 yokushitsu: bathing room
- ユニットバスunit bath: bathtub and shower unit*
- 風呂 furou: bath*
- 追（い）炊きバス oidaki bath*
- シャワー: shower
- ガス給湯器（プロパン） gasu kyuutouki (puropan): gas water heater (propane)
- (室内)洗濯機置き場 (shitsunai) sentakki okijo: (interior) space for a washing machine
- ガスキッチン gas kitchen
- 押入 oshiire: Japanese style closet (meant for storing futons, etc. so it's divided by a shelf around the middle, in newer places may or may not have bars for clothes hangers)
- クロゼット closet: Western style closet (usually no middle shelf and bars for clothes hangers)
- 収納 shuunou: storage closet/area
- （外部）物置 (gaibu) monooki: (outside) storage unit, storeroom
- 玄関 genkan: entrance area
- (ビデオ)インターホン (video) interphone (i.e. intercom)
- ベランダ veranda
- バルコニー balcony
Other than the rent, there are a lot of initial and other fees that you should make sure to ask about before signing any contract. Be prepared to
- 敷金 shikikin : security deposit ~1-2 month's rent
- 礼金 reikin: key money - a fee paid for rental rights ~1 month's rent
- 家賃 yachin: monthly rent
- 仲介手数料 chuukai tesuuryou: brokerage (agency) fee ~1 month's rent
- 火災保険 kasai hoken: fire insurance ~15,000-20,000yen?
- 共益費 kyouekihi: a fee for common services - not common around here--I only found one place charging this fee and it was 2000yen (per month? year? I don't know)
- 管理費 kanrihi: management fee/charge - never found a place that charged this fee, so I don't know the typical costs
- 駐車所料金 chuushajo ryoukin: parking space fee ~3000yen (again, this is a rural area, probably much higher in urban areas!)
- 契約期間 keiyaku kikan: contract term - not an actual fee, but important in relation to the koushin ryou (see below)
- (契約)更新(手数)料 (keiyaku) koushin (tesuu)ryou: contract renewal fee ~15,000-20,000yen, usually payable about every 2 years (I never paid this even though my initial contract was only for 1 year and I ended up staying for nearly 5 years...again, lucky!)
- （退去時）掃除分担金 (taikyo toki) souji buntankin: a share of the cleaning expenses (upon departure) ~15,000-30,000yen usually includes costs of cleaning the air conditioner and "stove" heater so you'll probably have to pay even if you cleaned the place really really well before leaving,
- 万 man: 1 man = 10,000 yen, so for example, a rent of 4.3man = 43,000yen
Some random things you might not otherwise consider/think to ask about:
- Timing: Many people move around the end of March/beginning of April when new school terms begin, most job transfers are decided/announced and employment offers are made. There is also a smaller, second round of hiring/transfers in early summer (June? July?). If you avoid these times, landlords are more likely to be willing to negotiate for discounts, etc. because chances are that if you don't rent their place, it will remain empty for the rest of the year (**Again, this is probably less true in large urban areas)
- Room/window direction (向き muki): 北 kita = north, 南 minami = south, 東 higashi = east, 西 nishi = west: depending on your area, certain directions may be more popular (and possibly slightly more expensive or harder to find), for example east-facing rooms will get a lot of morning light while west-facing rooms will get afternoon light; in Towada, apparently the prevailing winds come from the west, so a west-facing room might be better for catching breezes (important when you lack A/C!) But then again, a west-facing room overlooking a field might be bad because you'd get dirt blown in if you opened your windows
- Location. Obviously proximity to grocery stores, banks, local transit, and other services is one major factor in pricing, but here are some other considerations
- First floor rooms are generally cheaper than second/top floor rooms because of the noise (from movements above) and in places that experience cold temperatures/cold, there's also a higher risk of water damage from an upstairs neighbour's water pipes freezing and bursting (or even just any sort of flooding from upstairs)
- End/corner units are usually more expensive than middles ones (again, the noise issue)
- In Towada, rent is more expensive on the west-side of the city because the way the land is earthquakes are less strongly felt in the west than in the east
- Also being within the boundaries for certain elementary/junior high schools is sometimes a selling point
- Pets: If the building allows pets you may be bothered by barking at night or dogs running around and barking at you (maybe it's just my building or this area, but a lot of people don't leash their small dogs even though they really should because they're poorly trained and don't stay when they're told to)
- Neighbours: Noise may be an issue if you're going to be living next to a family with a baby or small children, or even around a lot of university students... Plus you may want to find out what type of people are living in the apartments beside/above/below you so you know what type of gift to get and what time would be appropriate to deliver it if you decide to do the traditional aisatsu (greetings) before moving in
- Snow removal (除雪 josetsu): In places where you get snow in the winter, you may want to ask if the landlord will provide any snow removal services--a lot of places don't
- Landlord: Particularly if you're planning on staying for a fair length of time, you want to be able to have a good relationship with your landlord; first impressions aren't the be-all-and-end-all, but if you get bad vibes from a potential landlord or s/he doesn't seem willing to discuss/negotiate much before you've agreed to a contract, you might experience difficulties later on if some issue crops up later
- Availability: Most of the places I've looked at are available for occupancy (nyuukyo kanou hi 入居可能日) immediately (soku(ji) 即（時））,but occasionally there are places listed online that aren't unavailable until the spring or a month or two later
- Measurements and photos: When you go to check out places, be sure to bring a camera to take photos and measuring tape to measure door frame widths!! One problem I had was that I have a front-loading washer-dryer which is a little wider than typical Japanese washing machines, so in a lot of places the entrance to area for the washing machine was too narrow for mine!! And after deciding on a place and before moving in, it's also a good idea to take lots of photos of even minute things--like electrical outlets or the fit of doors against the door frame--so that if when you move out there comes a question of damage, you can prove the condition of the place before you moved in.
- Phone, electrical and TV jack locations: It's not a huge thing to consider necessarily, but you might want to take a look at where phone, electrical and TV jacks are located in a place you're strongly considering moving into. For example, the sole phone jack in my current place is located on the small section of wall between the doors leading to the two rooms in the LDK area. There isn't an electrical outlet anywhere nearby. So I had to buy a super long internet cable and run it from the jack to the next room (where there was an outlet to plug in my modem/phone). Not a huge deal, but a little inconvenient (and poorly designed!) so it was good that I had noticed and taken that into consideration before my decision was made. (For some reasons, all the apartments in this area only seem to have a single phone jack and a single cable/TV jack in the entire place--so different from Canada where there's a jack in nearly every room!)
- Bargain!! Most places (particularly in rural areas where the population is dwindling) are willing to negotiate and give you a discount on the rent, cut out some of the initial costs/parking fees, etc.
As a final note, for those who can read/navigate in Japanese, a useful online real estate search engine is SUUMO. You can search for available rooms/houses to rent or buy and it has some other tools related to housing/real estate as well (although I've only using the rental search function). There's also a SUUMO app, I believe.
(Post script: I admit, one of the reasons I wrote this was to avoid facing/dealing with the mountains of unpacked boxes still littering the floor of the apartment nearly two months after I moved in! =P )