Ricka Van Leeuwen

It’s all in the family: Israel real estate and Jewish geography

Israelis joke that if you meet another Israeli for the first time, and you don’t know anyone in common, you just haven’t spoken together for long enough. My parents and my husband’s parents are Americans, and many of our friends hail from outside of Israel, so we grew up aware that this phenomenon extends not just to Israelis, but also to Jewish geography the world over.

Israel real estate, which inevitably involves more than a bit of social interaction, is no exception to this rule. Take this recent transaction.

The process of selling this particular 3rd floor walkup property in the Mahane Yehuda neighborhood was the most tediously involved my firm has ever known. In Israel, business is often take it or leave it — whether sellers, interviewers, or bank tellers – if you don’t close quick, it’s time to move on. Likewise with Israel real estate — if both seller and buyer are serious, contract negotiations rarely fail.

Unless you’re dealing with a key money apartment, in which case things get intricately complicated. What’s a key money apartment? It’s one of those “Only in Israel” things. Thankfully, these sales are becoming obsolete, because here’s how it works: An owner does not want to sell his apartment, but needs a lump sum of money for whatever’s going on in his life. Instead of begging the bank for a loan, he puts the apartment up for “key money”, whereby the buyers put a certain percentage down in exchange for the right to rent the apartment for life, paying only a token monthly rent (50 or 100 NIS/month versus the going rate of thousands of shekels). The key money tenants not only buy the rights to rent, but they can sell their key money rights, which appreciate with time – a worthwhile investment just like Israel real estate on the whole. It’s all the more so a good deal for the tenants because the owners cannot legally sell the apartment under their feet — if the key money tenants don’t want to sell their key money rights, there’s no sale on the table. The tenants have their own lawyers to protect them. In other words, with key money apartment sales, it’s a three-party contract situation. Talk about oy va voy.

In this case, the owners wanted to sell, and likewise, the tenants wanted to sell their key money rights, so miraculously we could sell the apartment as one unit, instead of part ownership, part key money rights. However, the tenants still had the upper hand because at any stage in the process, they could claim that they weren’t leaving. Therefore, it fell upon my team, as the seller’s agents, to secure the renters (an older and wheelchair-bound couple by the names Esti and Moshe), a new rental in the precise location they desired. Which meant near the husband’s brother in the northwestern Jerusalem suburban neighborhood of Pisgat Zeev. Otherwise, they wouldn’t agree to a sale.

Pisgat Zeev is a far cry from Nachlaot, so we worked with a Pisgat Zeev agent and eventually found Moshe and Esti just the right place: A 3-room, ground-floor-with-a-garden and patio. As a result, they were satisfied enough to go through with the sale, sitting pretty with the knowledge that they could afford a rental once they received the cash from selling their key money. With Israel real estate being what it is, this key money rights sale in gentrifying Mahane Yehuda garnered them, net, a delicious 763,000 NIS.

But it wasn’t easy to close on the contract. After a few weeks of back and forth, negotiations stalled. Somehow, via much chitter chat (“Reeeky! Reeeky!” Esti would address me), we got to the heart of the matter: The tenants owed the owners 6000 NIS in back rent, and couldn’t sell their key money rights with an existing debt. This would mean a trip to the bank.

But these tenants, Esti and Moshe – they didn’t move for nothin’. They’d reached their golden years after much hard work and “tsurres” (troubles) not to mention that their wheelchairs didn’t make it any much swifter to get around. The only place these people would go was that enticing new rental near Moshe’s brother in Pisgat Zeev.

Inevitably, they capitulated to the need to get out of the house, knowing that the road to Pisgat Zeev was paved with paying off that 6K NIS. Consequently, the buyer’s real estate agent and I (plus another couple of burly helpers) literally carried Moshe and Esti down their three flights of stairs, and, once arriving at the ground level, placed them into their wheelchairs, and wheeled them to the local bank to withdraw the requisite cash to settle with the owners, once and for all. Unprecedented, believe me.

So it’s no surprise that for various reasons, this contract wasn’t your couple of weeks’ process. No, this contract took four months. But it did work out. We even helped Esti and Moshe move into their new Pisgat Zeev rental. We set an appointment with the Pisgat Zeev apartment owner’s real estate agent to get the key for Esti and Moshe, wheelchairs and all.

When we arrived at their new apartment, we expected the real estate agent to meet us, with the key, and we’d all enter the apartment together in order to initially integrate Esti and Moshe.

But someone was already standing in the doorway, perched, as if awaiting us.

David? (Pronounced Daaahveed), Esti exclaimed, gazing inquisitively at this man at the apartment’s threshold. (What? She knows this guy? I wondered how, but then again, this is Israel, so, chances are she knows him SOMEHOW.)  

Esti continued: Mah atah oseh po? (What’chu doin’ here?), to which Esti got the classic retort: What am IIIIII doing here? What are youuuu doing here?

Esti: I’ve come to get the key to rent this apartment!

David: This apartment? You’re renting this apartment!?

Esti: Yes, didn’t you hear? We want to live right near your father!

David: Well, who knew? I’m the owner of this apartment!

So with all the intricacies that led us to this moment – dayenu – it would have been enough that Esti and Moshe would have settled into their new abode. But now we could all feel warmed by the fact that they would be living in apartment own by their very own nephew.

All it took was a bit more talking together.

Write-up: Chaya Kasse Valier

About the Author
Ricka Van Leeuwen (Razel) owns and manages Uricka Homes Realty in Nachlaot, Jerusalem. As a center city representative to the Jerusalem municipality, Ricka is involved in enhancing community life on a political level as well. Born and raised in Nachlaot to American parents who made aliyah in the 70's, Ricka is a wife and mother of eight, and a musician like her Razel siblings, currently releasing a new song monthly.