On the scale of fun, romantic, and relaxing things to do with your fiance, apartment hunting ranks somewhere between pulling teeth and being placed on hold with the bank. So when it came time for us to begin the search for our first apartment, I just knew it would be the perfect way to spice up our lives. My first inkling that this wouldn’t be easy came when everyone who heard we were planning to live in Jerusalem unanimously responded, “Why?!”
Call me naïve, but I always expected to find our first apartment as easily as my Dad had found our house in South Africa. It’s the stuff of family legend: He was jogging through a new neighborhood, saw a for sale sign, and ran home to convince my mother why a house with a carpeted kitchen would be a great idea. Unfortunately, this won’t happen to me for two reasons. First, it would require me to take up jogging. Second, I live in Jerusalem, where rental signs have never stayed up long enough for people to see them. I know this because I went on a walk around the neighborhood, scanning the area for rent signs, and accomplished nothing except banging into several walls. Apartments here are snatched up faster than it took me to type this sentence. Eretz Yisrael is not for sale, not even to Israelis.
The bleakness of the Jerusalem property market goes back thousands of years. Way back in Biblical times, our forefather Abraham took one look at the Janglo listings and promptly settled in Be’er Sheva. (You think he could have afforded a tree for his guests to sit under in Katamon? Please).
When the spies reached Israel, they complained to Moses and the people that they had spent the night in a pomegranate shell. Moses was unimpressed, pointing out that this was a fairly standard rental size for that neighborhood. The situation has only deteriorated since then, especially after the Canaanites came up with the idea of property tax.
Luckily for you, being the grizzled veteran that I am, I have learned wise tricks of the industry which, because of my overwhelming generosity, I will now share with you. If, by some miracle, you actually heed my advice and it actually helps you, I only ask for the industry standard of one month’s rent plus VAT. Thank you for your understanding.
Let’s start with a sobering reality: Facebook groups won’t help you.
I should know. I’m on approximately ten thousand of them. So are you, and every other person with a pulse. By the time you respond to a listing that interests you, somebody has already texted the agent, signed the lease, and begun planning their housewarming party. Also, if you think you can find places without realtors in these groups, nice fat try. They are lurking everywhere, including in the “Jerusalem Apartments Only No Realtors” group, the “We Said Jerusalem, Not Haifa” group, and the “Seriously Guys, Stop Posting Your Pesach Rentals” group.
To clarify, I have nothing against real estate agents and know them to be extremely helpful and dedicated professionals. It’s just that they aren’t very interested in my fiance and myself. I realized this when I told an agent our price range and the areas we were looking at and he politely sniggered into his hand.
I couldn’t even blame him. We skip right over advertisements that say “Belgian handcrafted tiles” and “underfloor heating” and instead look for listings that advertise things like “potentially comes with a roof.”
Of course, one tremendous disadvantage of not working with agents is that you cut out the politeness of human interaction. (As Olim, we are not evolutionarily designed to deal with rudeness, so we throw money at people who are nice to us). This leaves you to deal with the owners themselves. They will arrive an hour late, looking vaguely surprised that you actually showed up, and oftentimes smoking something vile-smelling. Israeli landlords are always insulted if you ask them questions, and I mean basic ones, like, why are there no doors?
They will tell you they lived in this apartment for fifty years and brought up 7 children in this one-bedroom apartment, and no one needed doors, not once, not even during the Six-Day War, and there is no need to install them now just because Americans are soft. And the worst part is they have every right to have this attitude, because this is Jerusalem, and you could sell a refrigerator box here for 7000 shekel a month. More, if you factor in the property tax.
Another piece of wisdom: If it seems too good to be true, it is. My fiance and I play a fun game called “The Price is Right… So What’s Wrong with It?” Every listing tricks you with amazing features, which are code words for a darker meaning. I’ve compiled the most common phrases and their actual meanings here.
Close to the bus stop- a mere 35-minute walk. Also, the bus comes every hour and won’t be any line that you ever use.
Partly furnished– the ceiling was never installed, but they will thoughtfully leave behind a chair or something.
Close to a Construction Site- The walls will shake from the noise, but don’t worry! It’s only for 23 hours of the day.
Natural lighting- no electricity.
Renovated to modern standards- modern in the 70s.
Cozy- no windows or doors.
2.5 rooms– if you count the stairwell.
Near supermarkets– one overpriced makolet that is open between 9-9:15 every day.
A word on Vaad Bayit, which is Ancient Hebrew for ‘rip-off’. Every month, you are expected to pay money for building maintenance. Seems logical, right? Yet in many Jerusalem buildings, the stairs are coated in dust and the light fixture in the stairwell doesn’t work, so to climb the stairs you have to grope blindly just so that you won’t plunge to your death. What are we paying for? Decorations in the empty elevator shaft? Origami spiderwebs? Who knows?
We’re learning to adjust our expectations. I don’t just mean in terms of area or budget; I mean things like bedrooms. We saw an apartment that appeared to have been creatively (and illegally) constructed inside a wardrobe. Neither of us could be in one room at the same time and the only way we could have added furniture would have been by cutting the couch into pieces. We still considered it.
Should you still sign a lease after reading this? Of course! After all, a tiny handbreadth of space in Jerusalem is more beautiful than anywhere else. (Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves, so we won’t choke with envy over how little people up north are paying). Hopefully, this information I’ve shared will get you the apartment of your dreams, or at least a very nice refrigerator box. If you play your cards right, you might even get one with doors.