Now that everyone is in the last semester of TUFS/Osaka University Language Program (wait, what is the proper name for this anyway? Handai something something?), I'm guessing you're starting to think about housing. I know I was worried about this time last year, and I'm pretty sure my cousin is looking too. So for her and all you kouhai's out there, here's a simple house hunting guide.
Step 1: Rent an Apartment or a Dorm?
The first thing you need to decide if you even want to rent an apartment. Some schools let you stay in a dorm for all four years, some only allow you to stay two years, some only six months - you should have all these information from the 大学説明会 last year.
For me, I didn't want to have to move twice, so I decided to rent an apartment. However, if you don't mind moving, or if the rent is too high (I'm looking at all you people in Tokyo), you might want to stay in a dorm for a while. Another reason why you might want to stay in a dorm for the first year is so that you'll know the place much more thoroughly and figure out where you really want to stay.
And even if you don't want a school-dorm or an apartment, don't worry, there's a third option. While I was searching for an apartment last year, I came across student dorms. These are privately run, provide meals, and you can stay there for four years (although the contracts are normally two years). The website where I got information about a few dorms are here: 学生寮 (gakuseiryou). The link leads to the Fukuoka site, but you can switch regions easily. Most of the dorms will send you an information packet (you can request it online, and they'll mail it to you, and you can even visit the dorms in person - one of the things you should do on your recce [I just realised this may be Singlish. Recce means the trip you take in preparation for the actual trip.] trip).
Step 2: Finding an Apartment
Congrats on choosing to rent an apartment! If you're going to stay in a school dorm, you won't have much problems and you can stop reading. If you're going to stay in a private dorm, you can skip to the part about the recce trip.
Unless you're living in Tokyo, you'll probably have to do some searching on the internet. I really suggest using a real estate agent and then emailing them about the apartments you're interested in. I used Mini Mini Fukuoka (they have branches all over Japan, so just search "mini mini (insert place)") and had a pretty good experience. Another site which seems to have really cheap apartments is Smile Plaza, although it might be limited to just Fukuoka. Keywords for your google search would be "(insert uni name)大学生アパート" and variations of it.
Now, where are you going to stay? Obviously near your campus, but if you're like me, you might have two campuses which are far apart. In that case, you have to choose whether you want to stay in the middle, or whether you want to stay near one, then move two/one and a half years down the road. Or you could just choose to stay near a shopping district :p. It's worth googling for advice, and for me, I actually decided based on the info provided by Mini Mini Fukuoka (which is why I chose them as my real estate agent). I should add now that I'm not being paid or compensated in any way to promote them, and they don't even know that I'm writing this post. It just happens that I had a good experience with them last year.
Next is, what to look for in an apartment? It depends on the person (some people need a separate bath and toilet, some don't. Some want auto-lock, others are fine without it), so it's good to make a list of what you want. Do you need internet? Lots of sun to dry your clothes? Enough space to put a piano? An oven? Try imagining, or noting down your daily routine and figure out what you need in an apartment. Most apartment descriptions will include if there's TV and Internet access (you can also ask your real estate agent for details).
A word about rent. Apart from looking at rents, you need to check whether there's 礼金 (reikin), which is money you have to pay to show you want to rent the apartment. There are apartments with zero reikin, like mine, which will help reduce your initial expenses. Another thing to check is for 共通費(kyoutsuuhi), which you'lll pay monthly for maintenance of your apartment. It's normally near the 家賃 (yachin) rent part.
Oh and please, please check how far you are from the nearest train station. And convenience stores. And supermarkets. It will be written down, and living near these three will make your life more convenient (yes, you can ride your bicycle, but it's nice to be able to just walk to a convenience store/supermarket for emergencies).
Step 3: Finding Guarantors
Ok, it was a neglect (or perhaps a willful denial) of this that led to a lot of panicked days on my part. If you're a worker here, your company tends to be your guarantor. If you're a MEXT scholar, MEXT is technically your guarantor, but you can't put MEXT down (Trust me, I checked). And a guarantor is a huge huge responsibility, so unless you have family/family friends here, it's not something that many people will take up.
So what resort do we have? We have 生協 (seikyo). Yes, the seikyo is more than the place where we buy books, snacks and stationary. The school (via the seikyo) can be your guarantor. If you're not sure what to do, ask your real estate agent. This is also why you more or less need to have your future university decided before you even start to house hunt.
Oh, before I forget, this is what you need to tell your real estate agent. Say "I am a foreign student. I need an apartment that will rent to foreigners." I couldn't rent the first apartment I wanted because the landlord wasn't willing for the seikyo to be my guarantor - he wanted a real person. And there are people who don't want to rent to foreigners (it's sad, but it's a fact of life).
Step 4: Recce Trip
This is the trip where you'll go down, view the house, make the down payments (if all goes well) and all that. Assuming you're staying a night, this is what you'll need to do: Buy air-tickets (go for JetStar or Air Asia or some budget airline), find a hostel to stay in for a night (unless you have friends/seniors that will put you up) - I used Hostel World -, and make an appointment with the real estate agent/dormitory.
You may be wondering if this is necessary. Trust me, it is. Firstly, pictures may or may not be inaccurate (depending on how old they are) - you'll definitely want to see the room in person. Second, seeing the room is how you know it's the right one. It's corny, but for me and my two friends, we fell in love with our apartments once we saw them. So far, we're really happy in our apartments. We all have lofts too (I'd totally recommend them if you want more space). LOFTS.
If you like what you see, you may want to make the down payment straight away. You can do it through a bank transfer, but keep in mind, the Post Bank (where all our MEXT money arrives), isn't set up with a bank transfer. And if I remember correctly, you'll need to have lived in Japan for a year before you can transfer money. I paid cash, and since there are Post Bank ATMs everywhere, there's no need to carry a lot of cash with you. Don't forget to email the estate agent and find out what you need to bring - if you don't have it, you can always fax it to them, but still, that's kind of troublesome. At the very least, bring your 外人カード(Gaijin card), and proof that you're a student here.
When the paperwork is done, all that's left is to decide when you want to pick up the keys and move in.
And that's it (save some paperwork left)! You have rented an apartment all by yourself :D
P.s. leave a comment if you want a post on moving (like what companies to use, when to move, etc. It may not be as comprehensive as this guide, but I can share my experience and what companies I used).