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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Housing glut opens door to foreign tenants


Staff writer

As the country's foreign population keeps growing and the declining birthrate and oversupply of housing result in more and more vacancies, it is time for real estate agents to create a more welcoming environment for foreign customers, according to people who work in the business.

News photo
Niche market: Takahide Ezoe, head of Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute, speaks about ways to avoid trouble with foreign tenants at a Tuesday forum in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"Housing discrimination against foreigners still remains in Japan today. . . . We have a lot of vacant housing that needs to be filled. And there are many (foreigners) who want to rent housing in the country," Noriaki Shiomi, vice deputy chairman of the Japan Property Management Association, told a forum in Bunkyo Ward, Tokyo, on Tuesday. "What we must try now is to gain knowhow to smoothly accept foreign customers."

Efforts to provide foreigners access to rental housing have become increasingly important amid the surge in vacancies in recent years due to oversupply and the shrinking population, according to the association.

The Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry reported there were 4.127 million unoccupied rental housing units in 2008, up 451,900 from five years earlier.

The Justice Ministry meanwhile said foreigners in Japan numbered around 2.217 million in 2008, up from 1.512 million a decade earlier.

About 170 real estate agents and landlords participated in the forum, which was organized by the Japan Property Management Association to help bridge the gap between foreigners and property agencies. The participants shared their experiences of dealing with foreigners to enable the industry to reverse its longtime practice of avoiding them.

"Real estate agents and landlords often say they are interested in renting out houses to foreigners, but they hesitate to do so due to concerns," said Masao Ogino, chairman of the association's international exchange committee, pointing out that many worry about the language barrier.

The association's members comprise about 1,100 real estate agencies nationwide.

According to a survey conducted by the association in 2003 on 275 landlords nationwide, over 60 percent of landlords said they worried about dealing with foreign customers when there is a problem because of difficulties in communicating. Over 50 percent of landlords also said they were concerned about differences in customs relating to living.

"What landowners want to know is that when something happens, they will have support from real estate agencies," said Ogino. "In other words, if the owners know that the agencies will deal with foreigners when they have trouble, many are willing to rent out their properties to foreigners."

Takahide Ezoe, head of Shinjuku Japanese Language Institute, said that a key to avoiding trouble is to explain clearly to foreign customers the rules and procedures in renting housing before signing a contract.

"If you are Japanese, you know that you don't usually get the full amount of deposit back. But to some foreigners, a deposit is something that will be returned fully upon leaving a property," said Ezoe. "To avoid such a misunderstanding, it is important to make sure the tenants understand the system clearly."

The Japan Property Management Association provides printed guidebooks and DVDs in Japanese, English, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Portuguese designed to help foreigners gain basic knowledge of searching for and renting housing. They can be found at the association's member real estate agents.

The guidebooks explain step-by-step procedures for renting apartments, including tips in visiting real estate agencies, explanations of contracts and the rules of everyday life.

In addition to the booklets and DVDs, the association said another key for the industry to become more accessible for foreign customers is to hire foreigners.

One such example is Flat Agency Corp., a real estate agency in Kyoto, where three Chinese have been working for 1 1/2 years.

"After hiring Chinese employees, the number of foreign customers has increased. They come to our office, after hearing that we have Chinese staff," said Noriyasu Seki, a manager of Flat Agency's Kyoto-mae office. Seki said because foreigners tend to find agencies through word of mouth, they have many customers introduced by other customers.

"In the past, we had a foreign customer who introduced eight people to us," Seki said.

Lin Mei Xiang, a Chinese employee of Global Trust Networks Inc. who came to Japan about eight years ago, explained that in many cases, foreign employees can understand the needs of foreigners as well as translate the nuances of the Japanese language, which many foreigners find difficult to understand.

"As a foreigner myself, it's easy for me to understand the exact needs of foreign customers," said Lin.

Lin also noted that the presence of staff from the same country gives customers a sense of security.

"I had a hard time finding a property in Japan. When I thought I finally found one, I couldn't pass (the agent's) screening. In the end, I had no choice but to move in to the only available apartment, which I didn't want. There are many foreigners who go through the same experience, and I want to help those people," said Lin.



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