Considering Israeli Real Estate? Read This Before You Buy
Fri, 05/23/2014
Nighttime in Yenim Moshe, an old neighborhood in Jerusalem that overlooks the Old City.
Nighttime in Yenim Moshe, an old neighborhood in Jerusalem that overlooks the Old City.

Say the phrase “home in Israel,” and it conjures up different images for different people. For some, the dream is an apartment for the chagim in Jerusalem, walking distance to the Old City; for others it is a Galilee getaway or a beachside escape by the Mediterranean for when the American winter sets in.

The process of getting from these images to bricks and mortar can be very exciting. But how do you make sure that your dream doesn’t get lost in translation?

The most important rule is to become location-savvy. Once you decide on the city or town where you want to buy, you then need to get specific and find out about the neighborhoods.

Israeli locales are full of sometimes-subtle distinctions that are easy for a newcomer to miss. A cluster of a few streets may be full of young families, while across an invisible and undeclared border is an area dominated by retirees. The housing development on one side of a main road may be predominantly secular, while the other side is mostly religious.

This isn’t to say that territorialism reigns in Israeli towns and cities. There are many neighborhoods that are diverse in all respects, and even in more homogenous ones, nobody is kept out. If you want to be the neighborhood elder among young families, or a secular presence among the Orthodox, you will probably be welcomed. However, it is best for this to be a conscious move, rather than the result of a misunderstanding of the local dynamics. Don’t rely on what the realtor tells you about neighborhoods — talk to locals first and work out the locations that suit you.

In the same vein, many Diaspora Jews look for second homes close to their children and grandchildren who have made aliyah. But before automatically taking the “security blanket” route and buying a few streets away from them, find out about the local community. Is there a neighborhood where older English-speakers tend to be concentrated, where it will be easier to make friends your own age? A few extra minutes from the family won’t stop them from visiting you, but it could make all the difference in terms of your social life.

Beyond the character of the neighborhoods, pay special attention to the physical surroundings. You go house shopping in the winter, and the street you are considering is a small hill. Will the hill still seem small in the blazing sun during the Israeli summer, when every walk seems three times as long and every hill seems four times as steep? Or, you view properties in the summer, and fall in love with a development with a beautiful garden and a shared pool. But is the area well maintained in the winter or does it become a depressing eyesore as some Israeli pools do from October through May?

When viewing homes in Israel, use your imagination. Internal building work is cheap, and stripping a place out to make the inside exactly how you want it may be much easier and less expensive than you think.

Many buyers have been promised that they will forever have a sea view or mountain view and then had it snatched away as a building is erected in front of them. Have your lawyer check the municipal plans regarding nearby building rights.

One of the most delightful aspects of acquiring a home in Israel can be the experience of planting and maintaining a garden. It really is the “Promised Land” when it comes to gardening, with plants and trees growing at a staggering speed. You can spend lots of time in your garden, so it is important to focus some of your attention on the garden, not just on the house.

Jump in to the Israeli mindset when looking at the outdoor space, regarding which hours you will use it — probably morning and afternoon, avoiding the hottest part of the day. Check where the sun is at the various points in the day, even if it requires several visits to the property, to see if the garden will suit your plans. Look carefully for shade. And find out from neighbors which direction the breezes come from and whether the garden catches them. All of this may sound overly technical, but it’s important for properly enjoying a garden in the scorching Levant.

After the fun of choosing your home and planning your garden comes the nitty-gritty of negotiating a contract and completing all necessary paperwork.

Closing deals can be a new experience for non-Israelis: just like in the market, almost everything is negotiable. This is especially important if you are buying off plan. If you want an extra air conditioning unit or different windows, negotiate.

Another challenge can be understanding the world of Israeli realtors. The seller and the buyer both a pay the broker fees, normally around 2 percent each. The exact percentage is often negotiable. When you draw up the contract with the seller, if payments are staged, think carefully about what currency arrangement works best for you; consider a contract that is tied to the value of the dollar.

Get local advice on technical matters. There are many things that Israel does differently than other countries. For example, observant Jews in the Diaspora will often fit time-switches on their lights for the Sabbath. In Israel, unless the electrics have been specially prepared, people can end up with their refrigerators and other appliances switching off along with the time-controlled lights, as a single circuit will control lights and power sockets.

There is a lot to think about, and the considerations can seem dizzying. But attention to detail is often the difference between an anonymous holiday apartment which is used for a few years and then sold for something better, and a place that has a real feel of home, where you will want to spend every possible moment for years to come. ◆