It’s evening. The kids are romping in the garden, still wet from a dip in the pool. You sit on the porch and watch the sky turn red. For Israelis that sounds like a vision from the life of the haves, not the have-nots, and that’s true in cities like Herzliya or Savyon. Yet a property just like that recently changed hands for under a million shekels, NIS 995,000 to be precise ($265,000), in the expansion of the moshav Yated. The house is 150 square meters in area plus a 25-square-meter porch on a plot 650 square meters in area. The pool is 3.5 by 8 meters.
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True, most Israelis don’t want to live in Yated, near Gaza, certainly with the memories of Operation Protective Edge still fresh in mind. But a survey of houses shows that Israelis can live the dream for a million shekels or less in dozens of towns, some an hour’s drive (and a bit) away from Tel Aviv. In central Israel, a 3-room apartment in a cruddy building falling apart will set you back more than that.
Three ways to buy a house
There are three ways to buy a house for up to a million shekels. The first is to build your own in an expanding rural moshav or town, or community settlement. To do this, you buy the land and build the house yourself. The second way is to buy a house from a contractor. The third is to buy a “used” second-hand house.
If you want to build your own house for a million shekels or less, first you have to find a suitable tract of land for no more than 250,000 shekels. Tracts like that are available in dozens of towns, according to the statistics of the Center for Settlement in the Negev and Galilee, mainly far from central Israel but some not that far. The price of the land covers the cost of developing the infrastructure (building water pipelines and so on) so actually, the land itself is effectively free.
Up north: In Shtula, a moshav by the border with Lebanon, half-dunam plots are selling for 90,000 shekels. Plots that size in an expansion of the Kibbutz Holana in the Upper Galilee are going for 170,000 shekels and in Kibbutz Reshafim, in the Beit She’an Valley, for 190,000 shekels. In the Merkaz Oman community settlement in the Taanach region right by Mt. Gilboa, a plot of land that size will cost 200,000 to 250,000 shekels.
Down south: There are plenty of options here too. At Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava a half-dunam plot will cost 140,000 shekels and a one-dunam plot will cost 240,000 shekels. In Yeruham, dozens of plots for a new neighborhood of houses are selling for 180,000 shekels to 300,000 shekels.
In Kibbutz Kissufim, by Gaza, a half-dunam lot will cost 100,000 shekels and in the expansion of Kibbutz Gevulot, in the same area, it will cost 150,000 shekels.
Building itself costs around 6,000 shekels per square meter, including a standard kitchen and air conditioners. So a decent, if not ostentatious house, with five rooms that is 115 to 120 square meters in size should cost about 700,000 shekels. Add a few tens of thousands of shekels more for architectural and interior design and you have a house.
The cooking shows effect
All that may sound straightforward enough but conversations with builders and families show that building economically is challenging, especially because people suddenly want to add this or that to their new house, and wind up breaking the budget. This usually starts with the size of the house itself. Most people want to take full advantage of building rights on a given lot, irrespective of how big a house they actually need and of their economic constraints.
“Ultimately, a house in the periphery is a substitute for a little apartment in the center,” says architect Yossi Gafni. “In Tel Aviv for instance that same money will get you a 2-3 room apartment in a dilapidated building. So for the same amount you can get a house in the periphery, but it doesn’t have to be a palace.”
Hate the idea of a small house? Plan options for its growth in the future, when you have the means, he advises, adding that a house 100 to 120 square meters in size is perfectly comfortable.
As for the kitchen, Gafni blames cooking shows on television for raising people’s expectations. The living room, dining nook and kitchen should be in proportion, he advises. “The problem is that because of all the food shows on television, people want me to plan the kitchen bigger than the living room. I understand what they’re after but it isn’t practical.”
Regarding the size of bedrooms and the living room, again people tend to go nuts, says Gafni. “People ask me for a 50-square meter living room, and then when you put in the couch and television corner you find a huge space.” The Housing Ministry standard for bedrooms is 8 square meters, while families tend to want larger ones of say 12 square meters and up. “The parents’ bedroom shouldn’t be bigger than 10 to 12 square meters, including the shower and walk-in closet, but people are asking me for bedrooms with 40 or 50 square meters. That’s their dream,” Gafni says.
You don’t need gold faucets
Even if the client kept the plot and house size under control and didn’t decide to emulate Gordon Ramsey in kitchen quality, the stage of finishing can be another pitfall regarding unnecessary costs.
The price ranges for kitchens, bathroom appliances, toilets, lighting, tiles and so are vast. The difference can reach hundreds of thousands of shekels.
Hayuta Pazi and family moved to a house in the community town of Givot Bar, south of Rahat in the Negev, three years ago. The house is 147 square meters in area on a plot 810 square meters in area. Building it cost ILS 1.1 million in today’s terms. Pazi’s a good source of tips on quality building on a bare budget.
They began by calculating a mortgage: How much they could afford to repay each month and that was the basis for their construction budget, Pazi explains. “We knew that was what we could afford, and no more. What we wanted was a practical home. A fancy kitchen isn’t for us because we have small children, so a Formica veneer is enough. Nor did each child need a bathroom of their own: one for all of them is plenty.”
They didn’t try to stint on the foundation, though. “That’s the basis of the house, and it has to be built as well as possible. But out of the total cost of the house, the foundation is a third of the cost and finishing is two-thirds. That finishing stage is when people fall to temptation to exceed their budget,” she says.
She and her husband were careful not to go overboard. She doesn’t have a walk-in closet in her bedroom: she has a regular closet. She doesn’t have lighting strips in the kitchen or bathroom: She has a fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling. She doesn’t have an “island” in the middle of the kitchen, but standard marble counters. Each such “extra” would have cost tens of thousands of shekels, she explains.
Is she satisfied with the outcome, despite her economizing? “People who come in say I have a warm home and that’s the biggest compliment I could get. This is a house for children to live in, to bring their friends and play freely and if something gets dirty, that’s okay. Glitz and stone finishings don’t do it for us. If you’re practical and prepared to compromise on luxury, there’s no reason for a roomy house to exceed a million shekels.”
The ‘green’ con
Another growing fashion is green, or ecological, construction – but that can significantly add to the cost of both design and building. Gafni however says there’s no good reason for that.
“When I hear ‘ecological house’ or ‘green construction’ the only green I see is dollar bills,” he says. “It’s a gimmick they’re trying to use at the expense of the buyer for an ostensibly new trend, that’s actually very old.”
Building to maximize air flow in the house, or daylight is totally obvious, he says. “Even building using local materials to suit the landscape scenery and climate, well, these are truisms that have existed since prehistory. Building a house that exists in harmony is part of any architect’s basic responsibility. There’s no reason to charge extra for it.”
Yet another possibility is to choose a house model from a builder’s catalog. You choose and the builder builds, and the cost can be very attractive.
A project like that is going up in Kibbutz Neve Or, in the northern part of the Beit She’an Valley. Buyers are offered a few different models from 100 to 152 square meters in area, on lots of half a dunam. The prices start at 720,000 shekels. That’s just one example of dozens of towns offering houses for 700,000 to a million shekels. In Kibbutz Nahal Oz, near Gaza, houses on lots of 400 square meters start at 695,000 shekels.
Sde David offers a number of models starting at 780,000 shekels and up north, there are houses in Mitzpeh Netufa starting at 900,000.
Another option is to forgo a new house and buy a second-hand one. In the northern Negev, says Scuriano, houses have been selling in the community settlement of Mavuim for 850,000 to 900,000 shekels a pop. They’re old; they’re small, with 85 square meters of spare and the lots are 600 to 800 square meters in area, he says. The buyers tended to put more money, say 100,000 shekels, into fixing them up, Scuriano adds. Or there’s a neighborhood in Safed with a view of the Sea of Galilee, where a 120-square meter cottage on a 250-square meter lot can start at 900,000 shekels. It’s one of the best quality neighborhoods in town, says realtor Roy Soffer.