Moving house in a pandemic: As our 6-year-old got older, we realized it was time for an upgrade

My wife and I began fantasizing about our dream home the day we moved into our first Tokyo apartment.

That place was meant to be a temporary solution until we found “something better” but, five years later, we still hadn’t found anything because we hadn’t really been looking. One day, our 6-year-old daughter, Hana, started crying, without any obvious trigger: “I want to go back to grandma’s and grandpa’s NICE place,” she whined. That particular place would be in Germany. Apparently, it was time to speed up our moving plans.

Everybody around us was buying houses, but owning wasn’t for us. With that kind of total freedom comes sole responsibility. We didn’t want to pick up all the pieces all on our own come next typhoon season.

Also, who would sell a house to a foreign freelance writer? There are months where I can pass as filthy rich (or at least reasonably well off), but those have to compensate for the months in which I make less than I used to as a teenage paperboy — realtors see right through that. Luckily, my wife is able to provide proof of a constant paycheck; otherwise, even finding a place to rent would be difficult.

Our house-hunting began at the height of what was considered the second wave of COVID-19 infections in Tokyo; the one that was more dramatic than the first one, though the general public seemed to find it much less alarming. According to who you asked, the pandemic was either an advantage or a disadvantage when looking for a new home: Fewer people were moving, so there was less competition. But fewer people were moving, so there were fewer places becoming available. In the end, I guess, things even out.

If anybody ever asked me how easy it is to find a place in Tokyo, my answer until this point would have been: very easy. There seem to be more real estate offices than convenience stores lining the city streets, and every other morning your mailbox will be jam-packed with colorful spam-mail offering the latest in comfortable-looking living spaces (as well as the usual sushi delivery and gym membership fliers). Not all that is out there will be right for you, but surely some of it must be.

Or not. The first thing I learned was that it’s easier to find something when you are on your own. Or with a partner, but without a child. Or with a partner and a child that doesn’t have more urgent demands than being fed and burped occasionally.

With Hana on the brink of starting elementary school, however, we needed to make this move about her. There had to be a school close by, preferably one that didn’t appear too scary. If possible, we needed a neighborhood where our child wouldn’t be the only one of mixed race. Since Hana would soon begin to explore the world without constant parental supervision, we required safe streets that weren’t too crowded or deserted. If, God forbid, something ever happened, somebody should be around to help or at least call for help.

On closer inspection: While the inside is important, if you have children then distances from schools and the nearest station will likely factor into a final decision. | GETTY IMAGES
On closer inspection: While the inside is important, if you have children then distances from schools and the nearest station will likely factor into a final decision. | GETTY IMAGES

Safety measures

It took a while and a lot of my wife’s guidance until my mind was calibrated correctly to discern between “too busy” and “lively enough.” Among the things I learned: Automobile overpasses are bad because hoodlums gather underneath them. Pedestrian overpasses are bad because they can be slippery in the rain and provide no escape routes when cornered by hoodlums. And speaking of rain, Japanese kids can never be subjected to any amount of it, so there have to be means of shelter — overpasses don’t count.

When it came to looking for the right place, my wife and I split responsibilities: She was the brains, I was the muscles. Mainly the leg muscles. She contacted realtors and longlisted properties. I was briefly in touch with realtors specializing in dealing with linguistically challenged non-Japanese, but their research always seemed to lag one or two steps behind our own.

So, I concentrated on walking. I walked from the nearest stations to the houses, from the houses to the neighborhoods’ designated elementary schools, which can be checked on the municipal offices’ websites (they are not always the most obvious ones). I timed my walks and judged environments with my newly calibrated safety radar, generating a shortlist from my wife’s longlist.

We found the perfect, reasonably priced three-story house in Ota Ward, ideally situated between a huge, friendly playground and a small, competent liquor store. Something for everybody. We liked it so much that we were even willing to move in a couple of weeks earlier than we had planned if that would secure the deal.

It didn’t. Properties like that, we were told, are very popular with companies to turn them into offices. Those companies can usually move in before the ink on the contract has dried. Of course, the owner preferred to start raking in rent as soon as possible.

The horror

We never found a house of equal appeal. One place was so close to the train tracks that my wife and I couldn’t hear each other while we were discussing whether the noise bothered us or not. Another — with dragon and demon ornaments, a garish red paint job and colorful stained-glass windows — looked like something out of the psychedelic horror film “Suspiria.” I liked that one, but unfortunately every single door frame was lower than my head.

We got to the point where we had to prioritize marital stability over the off-chance of finding our dream house, so we came to a decision: Include apartments in our search. It turned out, neither my wife nor I minded living in an apartment. We had just assumed the other one wouldn’t budge on the idea of a dream house.

Looking at apartments, we instantly had more options. Not that they all turned out to be great, mind you. The first one we really liked was in the process of being thickly carpeted while we visited.

“Don’t worry, at that price we can rip out the fluffy stuff and put down something decent,” I told my wife. The realtor interjected. Apparently, the fluffy carpet had to stay for noise reduction. We passed. Had we really become hardwood snobs? It seemed that way.

It came down to a big old place in a rather dull area or a smaller apartment (yet much bigger than the one we yearned to leave behind) in idyllic surroundings. We panicked and decided to go for the bigger one. On the evening of that same day, after much further consideration, we panicked again, called the realtor, and told him we had changed our mind and now wanted the smaller, nicer place. Yes, we were sure this time. We were also sure that we were in no condition to search further if this one didn’t work out.

This is the first in a three-part series about moving house during the pandemic. Andreas Neuenkirchen is a German novelist and essayist based in Tokyo.

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