Sunday, December 9, 2012

On the way to Jerusalem or My Home is my Castel

Many Americans are interested in buying real estate in Israel, an investment supposedly guaranteed to rise in value over the years.  With Google Translate and English-speaking lawyers, there is no problem in reading the “for sale” notices.  However, there is a large gap between understanding the words and knowing what really what you are getting.

First of all, watch the room count number: an Israeli four room apartment has three bedrooms.  The family room, called the salon in Hebrew, counts as a room, although the kitchen doesn’t, for some reason.  Secondly, the sizes are listed in square meters, not square feet.  The ratio is a bit over 1:10, i.e. 100 m2 = 1076 sq. ft. and 150 m2 = 1614 sq. ft.  However, as Mark Twain would say, numbers can lie.  First, Israeli buildings are almost entirely made of brick.  They are measured from the external edges of walls.  Given the size of the bricks, that can add significant square meters to the total, to the joy of the building contractors and city tax collectors and at the expense of the actual living space.  More seriously, in many parts of the country, the ground is very rocky, making initial development costs expensive.  As a result, many apartments are built upward with multiple floors, 16 steps, or half floors (Miflasim).  The total area includes those almost useless stairwells.  So, not all 120 m2 apartments are created equal.

Speaking of floors, like Europe, most Israeli buildings have a ground floor.  The first floor requires walking up stairs.  Buildings up to three stories are not required to have elevators.  So, a third floor apartment, no matter how wonderful it is inside, can be a real physical condition builder when you have groceries to haul up of 48 steps.   Seriously, such apartments pose seriously problems for older people with limited mobility.

Another source of misunderstanding is the penthouse, which may bring images of a fancy place in Manhattan, but often means an average apartment spread over the top two floors of a building.  I suppose the residents of penthouses do not have to suffer from noise from the upstairs neighbors (unless their son or daughter has a room on the top floor), but they do get to enjoy the fruits (or mushrooms) of the first rain of the season when the roof starts to leak.

Lastly, an almost unique Israeli housing requirement is the mamad, the reinforced room.  All newer housing requires it, but many older houses and apartments lack it.  This room, which has reinforced cement and a special window and door, is very useful when Israel’s not-so-friendly neighbors starting reenacting those thrilling lines from the American national anthem:  … and the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air…  On the flip side, it is a real headache drilling a hole in those walls.  So depending on where you want to live, having a secure room could be on your check list.

So, as the expression goes, let the buyer beware.  Israel has no Brooklyn Bridge to sell, but it has its share of Potemkin village property.