Israelis, agents of our own demise?

It is extremely seldom that any aspect of the Rotter-in Chief‘s religious education interferes with his relatively secular equilibrium. But Biblical lessons and warnings about the existential dangers to the People of Israel from certain of its own behaviours are starting to appear to me worryingly relevant for the modern State of Israel.

Last month, a real estate agent in Jaffa offered to bring me in on a deal, which was about to close, if I agreed to increase his commission from two to three percent (no little chutzpah in itself). In the end, no details of the property were revealed, but, last week, I was introduced to the seller by chance in the local supermarket. The deal had hit a hitch, and he brought me to the apartment to take a look.

The following day, the agent – who had somehow heard about this opportunistic meeting – called to inform me that, if I were to purchase the apartment, I would still owe him the commission. “Ata yechol likfotz” (literally “You can jump”) I advised him in my most fluent Hebrew (i.e., that of abuse!), warning him to never call me again. (I am seriously considering obtaining an agent’s license, in the – perhaps naive – belief that an honest practitioner will soon attract clients.)

In Golders Green a few years ago, a not particularly bright (and soon to become unemployed) agent, who knew I was a solicitor, offered to reveal to me the competing bids for a house in return for an envelope stuffed with cash. While such behaviour should not, therefore, be surprising for Israel’s real estate agents – to whom Woody Allen’s assessment of politicians, “a notch below child molesters”, could equally be applied – it is for its lawyers, so many of whom seem more concerned not to miss out on a piece of this country’s economic pie than to represent the best interests of their clients.

Introducing me to a deal in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago, my former lawyer quoted me a price which I knew to be around $300,000 above the asking one (which I discovered had not been increased). A short while later, the lawyer informed me that the property had already been sold. Smelling a rat, I called the seller to confirm. It was still on the market. But my lawyer probably had a better combina – surely the most important word in Hebrew slang, referring to a non-transparent and usually far from kosher commercial “arrangement” – with another client.

Israel’s real estate lawyers are also renowned for tipping each other off about deals and carving up between themselves, at lower than market values, properties that should be going to auction (following bankruptcies and liquidations). Of course, there are corrupt lawyers in the UK too. But they are very much the exception. Here, dodgy lawyers – especially in the field of real estate and based in Tel Aviv – often appear to be the rule . . . so much so that discovering a straight one sometimes feels like winning the Lotto.

Finding a property here, especially an older one with character, without some major encumbrance – usually not apparent on first inspection or revealed (and sometimes even concealed) – is also the exception. I have come across many with entire rooms appropriated from communal space, and one in Jaffa where virtually the entire living room floor turned out to have been built without a permit. The Israeli real estate market can be a minefield, and it helps to be naturally suspicious, a yekke, and to have an extremely thorough lawyer.

And the surprises don’t always end with the signing of the contract. When I received the keys to my current apartment, on Melchett, back in 1999, I walked in to find that a kitchen cupboard – a “fixture” in legal terms – had been removed. Leaving their homes for the very last time, Israelis are notorious for taking every last light bulb with them.

The shortage of affordable real estate in Tel Aviv is blamed, naturally, on the French ‘invasion’ – a commendable focus for resentment by any standards – but word on the rechov (street) also has it that large investment companies are snapping-up properties before they even hit the market (this in a country where over a third of the primary income is reported to already be controlled by a mere 19 families).

Even when you think that you have found a property, and offered the asking price, the boom in prices here over the past five years has caused many Israeli vendors to greedily wait for an even better offer.

My diagnosis of our sickness is simple (if a little racist, and without obvious cure): there are just too many Jews here.

And they are not deterred, as many Diaspora Jews are, if not by moral or religious considerations, then at least by concerns about incurring Jewish communal opprobrium and/or provoking anti-Semitism (“What will the goyim say?”) In a country where questionable ethics and corruption run from the Prime Minister down – and Ehud Olmert is only the most recent example – very few people have any such compunction. It is very much the law of the jungle.

Perhaps most depressingly, whenever I express disappointment at such behaviour, the reaction from my fellow Israelis is usually one of resignation: “Why are you even surprised?” There is also the oft-heard justification that “If everyone is at it (i.e., even our leaders), then why should I be the only freier (sucker) to miss out?!”

The People of Israel would appear, once again, to have lost its moral compass. Let us just pray that that poisonous Persian dwarf is not God’s instrument of correcting us.

[If any overseas readers of melchett mike are interested in investing in real estate here – especially in Tel Aviv or Jaffa, something I would highly recommend – I will be happy to share the benefits of my experience and findings . . . free of charge!]

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9 responses to “Israelis, agents of our own demise?

  1. Hey, would you consider giving a local reader some of your experience and findings?

  2. So that’s why the blog is called Melchett Mike! Thought it was from Blackadder… Israel sounds too stressful. We need an entry on why you prefer a land of corrupt meshuggenahs to dear old Blighty.

  3. Mike,

    Why do you want to take the exams it is clear you know the market better than most agents in Tel Aviv……got any good deals ?

    As a qualified agent in Tel aviv I also thought like you to change the attitudes from within….will not work…tried it….Israeli culture will not allow it.

    Also I was upset that you did not mention that horrible term that all agents use ” potential” (same word in hebrew just israeli slant) which means the building is crap but there must be an angle somewhere even though they do not know what it is ….oh and yes you have to pay for the potential that they cannot explain !

    Finally, all exams are in hebrew so brush up on technical stuff or ask to take in your computer and use google translate………

    Shabbat shalom.

    Ivan

  4. A few points. If your agent hasn’t got a licence then on completion you can refuse to pay and even if you have signed before viewing the apartment the courts wont enforce it. Secondly I have learnt recently that there is the truth and then there is the truth as spoken by the “metavchim”. An example of this is the bruto/neto ratio. I have been told recently that there is basic neto and now neto neto when it comes to the size of an apartment….what neto neto is would take even the brightest of you a while to understand. Needless to say my own opinion of the Israeli real estate agent and Mike’s are pretty much the same. Ivan I dont know you but if you have any contacts in the Ramat Aviv area please give me a call (054 497 4344).

  5. 1. After your recent flattery, anything at all Avram! 054 554 1141.

    2. Because they are our “corrupt meshuggenahs”, Emma . . . and because there isn’t a majority host here whispering “Jews” to each other at any given opportunity. Why I Am Not (Really) an Englishman explains my preference in some detail.

    3. Your “potential” point, Ivan, is spot on. And, as an ex-Prothero boy, you can call me anytime too!

  6. Many years ago I had just got married and was looking for a flat in the area I’d lived in for the past few years (not really relevant where, but it was Kiriat Moshe in Jerusalem.).
    One shabat I was visiting in the house of someone who would later become a well-known rabbinical figure. Also present was a charedi – ultra-orthodox – and his wife. Mr. Ultra told us of a very good flat in the area, but NOT to go see it, becaus the woman owning the flat was “impossible” to deal with.
    This was the 2nd time I’d been told the exact same thing – not to go see the flat because of the seller – so being a Reiss I naturally went to see the flat.
    I liked it.
    The seller was a very short elderly woman of Persian extraction (I figure that “Iranian” would be slander), who wasn’t “difficult to deal with”, but imposed an impossible condition.

    In Israel (the law may or may not have changed since then – Mike will know) at that time, anyone selling a dwelling paid an ‘enhancement tax’ based on the difference between the buying and selling prices.

    The woman had bought the flat for 40K lirot, and now wanted 120k lirot, which I was prepared to pay her. BUT, she wanted me to officially sign documents stating that the flat was being sold for 80K lirot, and the rest (40K) would be payed ‘under the table’. Naturally, she would then only have an enhancement tax on 80-40 = 40K, whereas if/when I sold the flat I would be calculated as buying at 80k instead of 120k.

    On this point every potential buyer before me had dropped out of the running.

    At wits end, I went to her one day and said:
    “my father came to me in a dream last night, and said I mustn’t do it”. My father lived for many years after this incident, so I can accept no responsibility for this woman accepting the message as originating from the grave, but she did in fact say “Well, if that’s what your father told you, that’s what we must do.” And we thus completed the deal above-board, to my satisfaction.

    But it doesn’t end there: the charedi who’d told me NOT to try and buy the place unfortunately lost a young daughter, and while sitting shiva he sent a message via our mutual host from that 1st meeting on shabat, that he felt that he was owed a bottle of cognac for “his part” in the deal. I smelt a charedi rat here – that the bottle of cognac would serve as ackowledgement of the fact that he had done me a ‘service’, and that a larger request would soon follow. SO – no bottle for this charedi.

    I wasn’t wrong: the same evening that Mr. charedi got up from his shiva, he came round to my house and demanded 2% comission for the deal.

    I said to him “I really did need an agent for this deal – it was a very tough one. But you haven’t done any work on this so far, so let’s see you work now: try and get the money from me”.

    When he started blustering, I told him that since he possessed an army deferment for the purpose of studying in a Yeshiva, he was not allowed to
    earn money. So he tried to make out that his wife had told me about the flat (she hadn’t) and that she would claim the money from me.

    They’re still waiting.

    And the ” well-known rabbinical figure” – he was Yisrael Weiss, who would later become the Chief Rabbi of the IDF (Israeli Army), and who is now despised and rejected by most of the Religious Zionists in Israel for his part in the destruction of the Katif region/Gush Katif.

    [About 3 years ago I was staying with relatives for Pesach in the TA area, and was taken to the Shul where Weiss now davens. On the way out I controlled myself and ignored him, but he recognized me and called out “don’t you remember me?”. I didn’t want to embarrass my host by saying what I felt about him, so I just replied with a simple “No”.

    That wasn’t enough for him: he called out “you don’t want to remember me”. Again, restraining myself, I replied with a simple “correct”.

    What I would have replied had I been on my home turf, was:
    “In 100 years time, nobody will remember Avraham Reiss. But they will remember Israel Kastner and Israel Weiss”.

    If he hadn’t tried to entrap me with a bottle of cognac almost 40 years ago, I wouldn’t have told this story now. Cognac ages well – for some ….]

  7. Daniel Greenspan

    Mike,

    I can add to your diatribe that, in my experience, agents are no less detestable in their personal life than in their professional one.
    Some years ago, we had the misfortune of an agent renting in our building. Needless to say that the starting point was that being an agent, he had convinced the owner that it was in her interest to offer him the flat at very low rent.
    He then went on to insert himself into the running of the building, creating ‘deals’ over such trivialities as stair cleaning, where he, naturally was the key element of the deal. In the end, he left behind unpaid bills and a building where the neighbours were on considerably worse terms since he had “offered” to apply his “help”.
    To those flat-hunting, I can offer one “do” and one “don’t”:
    Don’t: Believe a single word uttered by an agent.
    Do: Speak to at least one neighbor of any flat you are interested in. At a bare minimum (and I have only heard of this once), you will discover that there is an uncooperative, cantankerous Neighbour. That itself is worth knowing!

  8. Mike
    If you are serious about obtaining a real estate agent license, you’ll have to give up the Israel Bar. It’s against Legal Ethics to practise as a lawyer and work as a realtor.

  9. This post makes me want to rant .
    I think I have met with more agents than blind dates – and not sure which is worse.
    Regarding house prices – living in Modiin, people seem to think that their houses are made of gold – the prices have doubled in the past three years for no apparent reason (well now theres a kanyon – selling goods at exorbitant prices, and a railway station that has no parking situated in the middle of nowwhere) – there are more estate agent per sq km than anywhere on earth (how many are legit is a good question) – and for some reason the agents are convinced that prices are only going to rise – I myself was caught in the price trap loosing a small fortune and am waiting for the bubble to burst (if at all).
    In the meantime am suffering still with agent blind dates….

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