Monday, February 05, 2007

Breaking Baal's Lease - a freier's tale

Regrettably, we just shrugged it off when our new landlord’s friend told us that his childhood nickname was Baal. We should have paid attention to any hints of evil or pagan greed in his personality, and this oversight eventually cost us quite a few shekels.

At first, it did not bother us that the landlord, a noted architect and property developer in Jerusalem, assured us he needed only two days to get his pricey Emek Refaim rental (a former office) into shape after the family of former tenants moved out in mid-July. We figured he must have a crack team of decorators and handymen on call. After all, his firm won awards for renovating and conserving flats in the funky Jerusalem neighbourhoods of Mussrara and Ohel Moshe.

But, even though we had paid a hefty advance deposit of three month’s rent, the apartment was utterly uninhabitable when Baal handed us our keys. The basement was so foul with mold that it triggered an asthma attack. (His French tenants had simply neglected to air the place out, the landlord maintained, although two months earlier he had promised my husband that he would sort out the damp problem.) Baal had also assured us that if we had to get out of this seemingly-iron clad contract early, as had happened with a correspondent from Le Monde who was transferred to Moscow, this could be accommodated.) And though the lease spelled out that monthly rent payments would cover utilities and tax, he now conveniently overlooked that as legalese and demanded more money upfront.

What’s more, a few days after our lease was signed, a little coffee kiosk out front had been transformed into a late night cafe, with floodlit tables and a restroom visible from our living room and front garden. “They don’t have a permit, so I will shut them down overnight,” Baal thundered when we complained about this unexpected security risk. It transpired that Baal personally had designed the expansion plans for this kiosk, so it could not have surprised him much. Yet he turned around, petitioned the neighbors, and the little place was duly closed down---but not until six months later. Nice guy, huh?

this image of Baal, right, which bears scant resemblance to our Jerusalem landlord,comes courtesy of

Because Baal had repeatedly lied to us (about the cafe expansion, the utilities and the mold) and still was not forthcoming with repairs, we told him face to face that we had no recourse but to break our lease. We never moved in, not for one single night. In retrospect, if we could do it over, we would have opened the place up as a shelter for refugees from Sderot or families dodging Katyusha rockets in Nahariya , because all this happened last July during the Lebanon conflict.It was a shame that the flat had to stand empty when people needed housing, even though it was paid for. Yet we reckon Baal would have had no trouble with his conscience evicting such families. Instead, we opted to be reasonable, law-abiding citizens and offered to forfeit half our deposit. We hoped to claim back something to cover the hunt for more suitable lodgings. But Baal kept it all. The money was already in his pocket.

Lawyers advised us that a judge would tend to side with the local landlord, as it would be a case of his word against ours...and we speak no Hebrew. The estate agent, who received a full month's rent from both renter and landlord, was not prepared to rankle his exclusive client, and had a convenient memory lapse about promises. And Baal already had shown us how he viewed facts as flexible friends.

Hrrumph. That is how the key concept in Israeli business dealings was indelibly tattooed on our brains: thou shalt not be a freier , or sucker. Expect mutual respect? Sucker behaviour, apparently. In Jerusalem, it appears, a professional’s word does not necessarily bind him, particularly when there is a profit to be made.

Izzy has rented from landlords in 17 different countries and never encountered a major problem, but then that was before she had to deal with Baal.


dread heiferling said...

Out of historical interest, click on this link to read an account of the Palestinian sisters who cam back to see their old home at 10 Emek Refaim, in 1966 (19 years after mortar hits drove away their family.)

Dimona said...

What a schmuck that landlord is. Sounds like David Guggenheim. Am I guessing right?