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Know the fees you may have to pay when you leave rented digs in Japan

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Contributing Writer

A reader sent in this query about a payment demand from the manager of an apartment in Tokyo that the reader vacated in a hurry:

I signed a two-year lease for an apartment in a beautiful area of Tokyo. I cleaned the apartment and left after living there for 1½ years. I had to return to the U.S. to help my dad, who’d fallen sick. I only had enough money for a plane ticket.

The company that manages the apartment where I lived contacted me and said I owe them 1) a ¥225,000 fee for cleaning, and 2) the rent for the rest of the term of the contract.

I don’t have the money. What are my rights?

In most lease contracts, there is an article stating that the tenant has to restore the apartment to its previous state before they vacate the building. So, in theory, the tenant has to pay a fee for cleaning and restoration if they damage the property or leave it dirty. Usually, this fee comes out of the deposit (one or two months’ rent is the standard) that most real-estate agents demand up-front when you sign for an apartment or house.

But regardless of the article in the contract, the tenant doesn’t necessarily have to pay the entire amount the owner asks them to. The tenant has to restore the property if they damage it, but only if the damage was done intentionally or through negligence. In other words, the tenant doesn’t have to restore the room to its original condition nor pay the restoration fee if the damage is just general wear and tear through daily use.

To prevent disputes over this issue, the government set some guidelines about reasonable costs that owners can charge tenants for cleaning and restoration after occupancy. So, the reader would be advised to check if the invoice is in the line with the guidelines or not. As the guidelines (bit.ly/jprentguidelines) run to 169 pages in Japanese, it may be advisable to consult an expert. If the amount demanded in the invoice is much higher than the guidelines recommend, the reader should check the reason why and, if it seems unreasonable, ask the owner to reduce the amount.

Regarding the rent for the rest of the term of the contract, most contracts will include a termination clause, and most of these clauses will say the tenant can end the contract and move out provided they give one or two months’ notice. If, on the other hand, it is stipulated that the tenant must pay all the rent for the rest of the term of the contract if they vacate the premises midway, that clause is valid in principle.

However, there is an important court precedent to keep in mind, in which an owner brought a case against a former tenant who had left a property after 10 months of a four-year contract. The owner demanded the tenant pay the rent for the remainder of the contract — all three years and two months of it — in accordance with a clause in the contract. The court ruled that the demand was unreasonable because it went against the standard norms of society, but decided that the tenant should still stump up a year’s worth of rent.

In rare cases where there is no termination clause, in principle the tenant cannot end the contract without the consent of the leasing agent, and if the agent doesn’t agree, the obligation to pay rent remains. That said, it’s highly likely that a court in such a case would use the same reasoning as in the case above — that such a situation goes against Japanese societal norms — to free a tenant from such a contract, although it may cost the tenant several months’ rent.

The lesson here is simple: Before you sign a rental contract, make sure you know how to get out of it — and never sign one without a termination clause.

Jun Kajita is an attorney with the Foreign nationals and International Service Section at Tokyo Public Law Office, which handles a wide range of cases involving non-Japanese in the Tokyo area (03-5979-2880; www.t-pblo.jp/fiss) FISS lawyers address readers’ queries once a month. Your questions and other comments: lifelines@japantimes.co.jp