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  • Writer's pictureShirley Stamelman

The Disaster Zone

Damp, burst pipes, blocked toilets and electrical problems are just some of the frequent problems that occur in homes. They are normally quite minor and can be dealt with quickly and at little expense. When you ignore them, they can turn into major stress and a big financial hit.

This is one of those stories.

It began before I became the managing agent of this Jerusalem apartment. The owner had bought this ground-floor apartment in the Rechavia neighborhood. It was newly renovated, looked beautiful and he had no trouble finding tenants – a retired couple of French olim.

By the way, that was his first mistake. Had I been his managing agent, I would not have charged him a fee for finding tenants. The fee that he paid the estate agent would have more than covered the cost of me managing his apartment for the year…and that would have also saved him the huge headache and financial hit he was about to take.

Unknown to the landlord, there was the smallest of cracks in the upstairs neighbor’s outdoor balcony. This was never going to be a problem as long as there was no rain. It was also never going to be a problem for the upstairs neighbor, as the rain that eventually did fall onto that balcony, never entered their apartment. Much of it would flow down the drain, but a considerable amount ended up seeping into the ceiling and walls of my soon to be client’s apartment.

Matters were made worse by the fact that the tenants, the retired French couple, were not complainers (normally a good thing) who spoke very little Hebrew and English – I wasn’t convinced that their French was that good either!! But partly due to their minimal complaining, they ignored the main problem until it became substantial.

Communication between them and their absentee landlord was few and far between. He understood that they were complaining about damp near the windows. He told them that they needed to ventilate the room and to open the windows.

There is truth to this argument. Jerusalem winters can be very cold and the smallest of drafts of fresh air, can make those stone apartments cold. Often, people leave the heating on high and do not let in any fresh air. This can cause condensation that can be confused with damp. But as we know, this wasn’t the case here. And the problem just worsened, but the communication was poor and nothing was done.

The landlord went to see his investment on a visit he made to Israel. The tenants showed him the problems. Damp was spread out over three ceilings and walls throughout the apartment, and the paint was peeling. He asked me if I knew of anyone who could help. I gave him the number of a plumber I regularly use. The plumber checked out the apartment and said that the problem was from upstairs. He knocked on the door of the apartment and soon knew my friend would have a problem. Three students were living there in this poorly maintained apartment. This was a landlord who did not care about his own apartment. He was not going to care about the one below. The students let the plumber in and he had a look around. At first he wasn’t sure where the water was coming from. He checked the pipes from that apartment. They felt dry, but more importantly, the damp on the ceiling wasn’t emanating from them. He went into the balcony and could see the water stain that seeped into the gap between it and the wall. He identified that as the problem. It would be a simple job to seal it up.

But he couldn’t do it. It wasn’t his apartment. The landlord of that apartment would need to take care of it. The students were happy to give the phone number of the landlord to the plumber. My friend called the landlord and explained the problem. He promised that he would take care of it. He called again a couple of weeks later and was told that they had taken care of it. He let the tenants know and they thanked him.

By this time the winter had ended and the rain season was over. It was summer and the damp stains had faded. He heard nothing further from his tenants. Summer in Israel lasts a long time, but eventually winter and the rains returned. It was a very wet winter. The tenants complained that the problem had returned. The landlord once again called the neighbor who promised him, that he would look into it and re-seal it. A couple more months passed, and my friend had his tenant’s wife crying to him on the phone. He couldn’t understand her French, but he could make out the words “la maison” – “the house”, many time.

He called me and asked me to take over the problem. I went there the next morning. I was shocked and saddened as to what I saw. The ceilings and walls were black, with smelly mushrooms of mold growing over them. His tenants, who were paying to live in a beautiful Rechavia apartment, were actually living in a smelly, damp health hazard. I took pictures and, sent them to my now-client. I told him that he must take action immediately. The tenants could sue him – but I didn’t think they would. Nevertheless, I felt that he should compensate them of around half a month to a month’s rent. Secondly, he needed to get a surveyor to make an official report on the state of the apartment, which would include an itemized costing for repairing the apartment.

This report should then be sent to the landlord, cc’d to a lawyer, by registered mail. The letter needed to contain a threatening that if repairs would not be done within seven days of receipt of the letter, we would make the repairs ourselves and then sue them.

My client told authorized me to go ahead. The surveyor came the next day. He took detailed pictures and wrote up the report within 24 hours. I sent it immediately by registered mail to the neighbors and dropped off a copy at their home.

I called them that evening. They said their son would deal with it but he was busy and would contact me in a couple of weeks. I told them I am prepared to meet him at any time of day that was convenient for him, and that if he didn’t meet me with 24 hours, I would re-house the tenants in a hotel, do all the repairs myself, sue them and include all the charges, including my lawyer’s and surveyor’s fees.

He met me the next evening. I brought one of my maintenance personnel with me. I told the landlord’s son that had 3 choices:

  • He ignores us and we fix it at the price written in the surveyor’s report. We then sue him

  • He brings a maintenance worker the next morning to assess the cost of repairs and fixes it within the week. I added that my worker will be checking on him to check that repairs are done properly

  • He makes an agreement right now with my maintenance worker to fix it immediately – my preferred option

He asked my maintenance worker for a quote for the work. I left the room for their discussion. Fortunately, they came to an agreement and repairs began the very next day and were completed within 3 days. The original crack in the balcony could have been fixed for a few hundred shekels, but now the repairs had escalated into the thousands. My new client soaked up the cost of the surveyor and the tenants’ compensation. He could have sued for that, but the stress and cost made it not worth his while. He also lost his tenants when the contract was up. They decided that they had had enough and wanted to move. The apartment was empty for 2 months. I found new tenants at a slightly better rate and the apartment has now been continuously occupied for 3 years.

My client could have avoided the following costs had he had a managing agent from the very beginning:

  • Realtor fees for finding tenants

  • Compensation fees paid to tenants

  • Surveyor costs

  • Unhappy tenants leaving, and the apartment being empty for 2 months (admittedly, they may have left anyway)

  • Huge amounts of stress

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