Here’s what our reporter learned to avoid being led in circles by dummy listings. 

April is almost here, and as it’s the start of a new fiscal year in Japan, that means many people are likely heading for new stages of life–graduating, starting work, getting a new job, going to university. And with that comes the possibility of moving somewhere new, whether that means to new city, a new neighborhood, or a new apartment. But apartment hunting is really hard in Japan, and comes with lots of headaches. Not only do you have to calculate all the money you’ll have to pay ahead of time (including key money, fees, and deposits), but you also have to wade through all the dummy listings.

Our Japanese-language reporter Mariko Ohanabatake went through all of it last year. She looked at hundreds of listings on Japanese apartment sites like SUUMO and athome, but when she inquired about touring them, they were almost always unavailable.

Many times she would find an apartment that interested her and call the number of the representative real estate office, only to be offered a different apartment. Other times the real estate company would tell her she had to stop by their office first for some reason or other. Or she’d ask about a specific listing only to be told it had just been contracted.

Even worse, despite having already found listings on the Internet, they’d ask her to list the qualities she was looking for, and then present her with a new list of recommended apartments, ignoring the ones she’d already found. Some of them weren’t even in her rent range or close to her desired station.

It all left Mariko frustrated, wondering if anyone was actually listening to her. In the end she gave in and let them show her these undesirable apartments, but because they weren’t what she was looking for she always ended up rejecting them, much to the disgruntlement of the real estate agent. Their reactions made her feel like she was the one who was asking for too much, which, in retrospect, was quite strange.

When Mariko was close to giving up, a friend at last gave her a tip: look for listings with the label “Full-time agent (専任媒介)” on flyers at real estate offices in the community you want to live in. These are the least likely to have dummy listings because, in simplest terms, this label means that any properties they advertise are being managed solely by that agency.

Many apartments, in order to avoid a long vacancy, are listed by various real estate companies, which is why multiple listings of the same room will pop up on apartment search websites, and which is why, oftentimes when you call to inquire about the apartment, it’s already gone, or the agency doesn’t know anything about it.

That’s why “Full-time agent” listings are more reliable; because only one company is listing them, they don’t run the risk of being leased through another. It’s probably beneficial for both the landlord and the renter, seeing as landlords have a better way to vet their tenants, and tenants have an easier way to find a reliable listing.

Whatever the case, Mariko thinks that, at least in her experience, rather than searching online for available listings, going directly to the neighborhood you want to live in and finding real estate offices that look like they’ve been around for a while is the best path for finding real listings without getting the runaround. There you can also look at the apartments posted in the window and search for those advertised with the company as the “full-time agent.” Then you’ll know that those places are only represented by that one office, and it likely won’t be snatched up from under your nose.

Another issue that Mariko ran into in her apartment search last year was that when she visited a place, the interior would be completely different from the online listing, and since it was the first time the person from the chain real estate office would have seen the listing, they wouldn’t know what the room, the building, or the area actually looked like.

As such, Mariko came upon things that weren’t detailed on the listing that were definite dealbreakers for her, like the fact that it was a five-story building with no elevator, or the loft was just a crawlspace.

But local real estate offices know the area and manage the advertising and processing of the properties themselves, so they know all of the little details about it. In Mariko’s experience, they could tell her about the merits and demerits of the place and even what kind of people were living in the building, so she felt very reassured.

If you’re looking for a new place to live, Mariko also recommends Sha Maison, which are apartments by building company Sekisui House. Multiple people have told her that they were glad to have rented with them. Sha Maison has its own designated real estate office and website, so you’re also less likely to find dummy listings or unknowledgeable agents.

You might also try Hebel Maison by Asahi Kasei, or D-room by Daiwa House, which also have designated websites. Apartments built by large, nationwide home building companies like those tend to have solid builds, and they’re designed with the resident in mind, taking into account things like the direction of the sunlight and the layout of the floor plan.

Mariko actually lives in one of these apartments now. Though she’d been told the rent would be slightly higher than the market rate, in her opinion the apartment is more spacious and has better sound and temperature insulation than new properties in the same price range built by other companies that she toured, so she’s highly satisfied. Since she moved from a very cold apartment to a very well-insulated one, she’s relearned the value of a proper build.

Of course, finding a place to live has additional challenges for those from other countries living in Japan, but this might be a good place to start when hunting for a place to live in Tokyo, at least when trying to avoid getting duped or led by the nose. Rent is likely the highest bill you’ll have to pay, and you shouldn’t have to compromise on what you want, so do your due diligence to find the right place for you.

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