In Sderot, Real Estate Woes Punctuate Rocket Blasts

Questions about apartment prices in Sderot prompt an angry retort from Yaakov Solomon, who runs a small real estate agency in the center of town. "Sderot is not for sale," he says, but does not deny that property values have plummeted in recent years, to the point that "they can't drop any further."

His sense that prices have recently stabilized gains credence from the Israeli real estate Web site. Here it says that although prices in Sderot are lower than anywhere else in the South, they have remained stable over the past two months.

Solomon does not like the opportunists who sometimes come down from Tel Aviv in search of a nice house for the price of a three-room apartment, as an investment for the day the Qassam rockets stop falling and apartment prices rise.

He thinks this makes his town look bad, so he tells the visitors that there are no bargains.

Solomon and other Sderot residents attest to a class division among those wishing to leave the pummeled city.

Some people simply closed up their houses and moved out of rocket range, while some remain because they cannot afford to sell or rent their homes at such low prices. And nobody asks residents of subsidized public housing where they want to live.

"People have to have the right to choose where to live. When a person can't decide for himself, the situation is very bad," says Larissa, a woman in her forties who works with Solomon.

Larissa immigrated to Israel from Moscow in 1999 and wound up in Sderot because she had relatives there.

She paid $70,000 in 2001 for her four-room home, and now she and Solomon estimate it is worth no more than $60,000.

"I would like to move from here, to somewhere north of Ashdod, because Ashkelon already gets Qassams too," Larissa says calmly.

"But it is impossible for me. I have a mortgage to pay back. In the first few years I paid the interest, and only now am I starting to pay off the capital itself.

"Where will I get the money to give the bank the difference between the mortgage and the apartment's current value?"

Ridiculous prices

Another resident, Sima Hadad, says she wants to sell her unprotected home to move to a reinforced house in Sderot, but that the prices she is being offered for her place are ridiculous.

Not far from Solomon's agency is another, Bayit Vagan Real Estate.

A client who requested anonymity came in to discuss selling four properties he owns: three apartments of various sizes and a private house where he lives. He bought his home and another property many years ago, and the other two apartments about a decade ago, as an investment. But lately that investment has turned into an expense - mortgage payments and municipal property taxes.

"Today I can get for these properties 50 percent of the price I paid for them," he said. "For one place I bought for $65,000, I wouldn't be able to get more than $35,000 now. The second place I bought for $113,000, and today nobody will give be more than $70,000 for it." He says the value of the private house he lives in has been halved from $200,000.

With the current sale prices, he could trade in all three properties for an apartment in Ashdod, at best, he says.

Realtor Yaakov Levy agrees with his client.

Levy estimates that property values in Sderot have dropped between 30 and 50 percent in the past six years.

Another client there says he wants to sell an apartment he bought for $84,000 but has been offered only $50,000, "so I refused and am continuing to pay the mortgage on it."

What about rentals? It's hard to say. The "For Sale" and "For Rent" signs plastered all over houses and apartments in Sderot may indicate that landlords are having a hard time finding tenants. Levy says that students are renting a lot less in Sderot.

An unexpected shortage

In contrast, Haim Kuznitz, owner of a public relations firm, says it is fairly easy to rent out apartments in Sderot, and that there is even a shortage.

Kuznitz owns a large house for which he is asking $220,000. Unlike others, he does not want to leave Sderot because of the Qassams.

"I want to leave because of the social situation; the mayor who ruined the city in recent years."

But he cannot get a decent price for his house, and is not willing to sell it for less. "This is not even open to negotiation," he says.