Israel's Real Estate Detectives Track Down Unclaimed Land

For a fee, land locators find long-forgotten assets by searching obscure corners of the property registry.

The call from the Israeli Haredi man angered Sarah ‏(not her real name‏), a not-so-young American Jew from Chicago. The man introduced himself on the phone as “Michael Stroud, property locator.” He told Sarah he had located some land of which she was the legal inheritor, and it was now in the process of having its zoning and planning approved for building − but he refused to provide any further details. He was willing to divulge the location of the property only in return for the right sum.

Sarah politely refused the surprising offer, but kept the phone number of the mysterious man who called. She immediately phoned the lawyers in Israel who deal with her affairs and asked them to start searching for the property.

As a descendent of one of the families that founded the city of Hadera, she had inherited some land in the area from her mother. She was pretty sure of where the lost land might be located, but the lawyers found nothing and Sarah had no choice but to call Stroud back. He presented her with the documentation for five dunams ‏(1.25 acres‏) near the entrance to Hadera where a huge project of office towers is now being planned. The documents linked the property to Sarah’s grandfather − and Stroud received a commission for his services worth 12% of the value of the land.

The land was located only 50 meters from another parcel Sarah owns, but the way the land is listed in the Israeli Land Registry ‏(tabu‏) makes searching a Sisyphean task.

“She had nothing to lose, she could only profit,” said her Israeli lawyer, Roy Amsel of the Amsel-Levi-Hasid law firm, who then dealt with registering the property in Sarah’s name.

Stroud, 48, now lives in the small community of Alumah near Kiryat Gat. There may be only a few “property locators” in Israeli real estate, but it seems a fascinating job. Stroud worked in various sides of the real estate industry, including as a broker. “At the time I realized there were lots of abandoned properties whose owners were not even aware of their existence. ... I started trying to search for the owners and that’s how I joined the profession,” he said.

Stroud says he finds a bloc of land that has some point of interest, for example one in the planning process for construction, and he starts examining the property records, many of which date back before 1948. Over time he learned which types of deeds and titles have a high likelihood of being forgotten. “The next stage is searching for the person, and in most cases his surviving relatives,” he said. Stroud spends a lot of his time in various archives, such as those of newspapers or local authorities, searching for a thread − which often turns into a dead end. Sometimes it can take only days, and sometimes years, he said.

There are only a few others who do such work professionally, but when Stroud tried to set up an association, his colleagues gave him the cold shoulder. “It’s everyone for himself in this job,” he said with a smile. After making a name for himself, developers sometimes come to him now of their own initiative in an attempt to enlarge the parcels they are building on, or to head off possible complications in the future.

Others come to him after finding documents their parents left them. Recently a man came to him with a deed from his grandfather for land in a place called Jabat al-Ababisha. “The problem is he had no idea where that was. I explained to him that it was an Arab village that used to exist where Jews from Jerusalem sometimes bought land. Today the area is known as Ra’anana Park,” he said.

Forgetting your property?

While it is hard to understand how people can just “forget” about property, Amsel and Stroud said it is quite common. In most cases it involves families who made aliyah and later left the country, or who did not remain in the area for other reasons. For example, the famous “redeemer of the land,” Yehoshua Hankin, died childless in 1945 − and there is still quite a bit of property registered in his name, said Stroud.

Sometimes he uncovers interesting stories, even some sad ones. A few years ago he located an elderly man in the north, the brother of a woman who died without any heirs. He was upset when Stroud asked him about his sister, and it took a long time to calm him down. It seems no one else in the family knew she existed. Their mother ran off with a British officer when they were small children and took the sister with her, and since then he never heard from her or knew what had happend to her. After Stroud approached him, the brother found her grave in Holon and that was the first he knew about it.

Regarding the business side, what should people do if they are approached by one of these “locators?” Amsel says in many cases, the sought-after clients can get by for themselves. But it is always worth listening, he says, because there’s no need to agree to a deal at first. Often there are family members who have some clue about the property’s whereabouts − and if not, one can always call the locator back.

But sometimes these locators don’t offer the best deals. For example, they might offer to buy the rights to the property for what seems a reasonable amount, say $30,000, says Amsel. Many people are tempted. “After all they are not losing anything, only making money since just a minute ago they didn’t even know the property existed. But maybe the land is worth $3 million? Then you are giving up quite a lot of money,” he said. saidmsel recommends paying a percentage of the value of the land, and certainly not to sign away your rights before you know what is involved. “And of course,” he added, “it is always recommended to consult with a lawyer.”