Real estate agents sometimes seem to have a language of their own. The descriptions of the less scrupulous would bring the house down in other circumstances, but it's not so funny to be taken to an apartment described as "cosy" to find that the proverbial cat would suffer more from claustrophobia than the fear of being swung and the kitchen won't take more than two people, unless one of them stands in the fridge. Then there's the apartment glorified as "spacious." Be warned, you might find it's affordable only if you're willing to forgo the tremendous cost of heating it. And all apartments have "a view" - the question is of what.
"Potential" is a realtor's favorite all over the world. In Hebrew, "Yesh lo potentzial," means you can turn the abode into your dream house, as long as you are prepared to first go through the nightmare of renovations. Shiputzim is almost an Israeli obsession. For some reason the average buyer just can't stop at a couple of layers of paint and a set of bookshelves (known to members of the Hebrew Language Academy as "dafafa" but I don't recommend you try the word with your local furniture retailer.)
When it comes to the ubiquitous shiputz, we often get caught up in our own designs. The Englishman turns his home into a castle. I won't dwell on what the average Israeli wants from his place: According to a survey carried out by the furniture company Beitili last year, the kitchen and the bathroom are the two places most likely to undergo expensive renovation in an Israeli apartment. Perhaps it's because new owners don't trust the old plumbing.
The needs (or desires) of new homeowners have changed over the years. In the past the parents' bedroom in Israeli apartments was basically the same as any other bedroom. Gradually the term "parents' unit" ("yehidat horim") has entered the Hebrew lexicon and in some cases refers to a very elite unit compared to the rest of the home front. It almost always means a room with a bathroom en suite, and in the more prestigious residential projects includes a jacuzzi and a walk-in closet.
The real estate agent doesn't lie "because we're legally liable and have to tell the truth," says Jerusalem realtor Warren Zauer with Tefah.com. But the home truths are sometimes hard to come by because of simple misunderstandings. Israelis, for example, don't count the number of bedrooms but the total number of rooms (excluding the soon-to-be renovated kitchen and bathroom). And whereas most people count what floor they're on starting from the ground floor, for many American immigrants it's a whole different stor(e)y.
There are also the almost untranslatables. The pinat ochel, literally the dining corner, might not be in a corner or used for dining, notes Zauer. Then there's the "boydem," that storage space usually above the hallway or bathroom where you can store all the things that there's never enough room for even if the house is truly spacious.
The bathroom itself means different things to different people, as Zauer delicately points out. The bottom line is for Brits and most Israelis, the bathroom (hadar ambatia) needs a bath or at least a shower to be worthy of its name, whereas Americans use it to describe the toilet. On the other hand, sherutim kfulim (a double toilet) usually means one all-inclusive bathroom and one separate toilet.
Gone are the not-so-good days when apartments advertised "has phone." This line was once a major selling point.
"The favorite word of my clients nowadays is 'gmishut,' 'flexibility,'" says Zauer. And this can refer to both the price and the date of availability. But tabus remain unbroken - tabu being the legal registration of the property.
In Jerusalem in particular, a major bonus is often a mirpeset sukka. Not to be confused with the mirpeset sherut, usually the dumping area for washing machines, dryers and all the mess that doesn't make it up to the boydem, the mirpeset sukka is a balcony designed to meet the halachic requirements when setting up a tabernacle. It's one of those things that brings home the point of living in a Jewish state.
Strangely enough, Hebrew, which can talk of Beit Yisrael, the House of Israel, has no way of differentiating between a house and a home. Both the building and the concept are bayit.
The Israeli real estate market is particularly creative it seems in its use of foreign words to describe property in the Holy Land. A local "villa" has very little in common with its Italian counterpart, for example, except perhaps for the Mediterranean view. "A villa in Israel is used to refer to any private home," notes Lori Rosenkranz of Jerusalem's Alex Losky realtors. And while people from abroad imagine a "cottage" as "a small home nestling in the woods or countryside," as Rosenkranz puts it, in Israeli real(i)ty it actually refers to a townhouse.
Further downmarket, there is what Israelis call a shikun, usually translated as a "tenement building" or "housing project" which conjures up images of urban ghettos far from the "shikun" this writer is proud to call home. As they say be it ever so humble, ain kmo bebayit.