Away for 2 years, foreign owners flock back to Israel homes as COVID rules are eased

Non-citizens who own second homes in Israel are once again able to reach them, though many are finding time did not treat their properties well

The central city of Netanya and the Mediterranean Sea, December 2020 (Alexey Firsov via iStock by Getty Images)
The central city of Netanya and the Mediterranean Sea, December 2020 (Alexey Firsov via iStock by Getty Images)

Most of the year, Gill Gallick lives in the tidy London suburb of Mill Hill. But she also owns an apartment in Netanya, a five-minute walk from the beach.

Recently, Gallick returned to her Israel home, after a 26-month spell in which attempts to enter Israel were stymied by COVID-19 restrictions.

She described the second homecoming as “an unbelievably emotional experience after so long.”

“It’s wonderful now I’m here, sitting on the balcony, looking at the same view, reconnecting with friends and family,” she said.

Across the country, foreign owners of homes in Israel are returning after years away, thanks to the easing of pandemic restrictions. The ingathering of the not-quite-exiled has brought life back to luxury complexes left darkened when Israel slammed its gates shut in March 2020, but has also exposed wear, tear, and more serious issues created by leaving the homes shut for extended periods.

“The whole flat smells moldy, and I’ve had to have dehumidifiers in to dry it out,” Gallick noted. “All the toiletries and food that I normally keep in the flat are out of date and need throwing out. And parts of the balcony have been exposed to the salt air from the sea for a long time and are suffering from it.”

Gill Gallick, right, on the balcony of her apartment in Netanya, Israel, March 2022. (Courtesy)

Some 83,000 Israeli properties are in the hands of foreign nationals who do not live in Israel for the majority of the year. Many of the owners hold an ideological or religious connection to Israel and view the properties more as second homes than vacation pads.

In many places, the homes are clustered together in ultra-posh developments that are exclusively marketed through roadshows overseas, and that few Israelis can afford. Clusters of buildings may have few year-round residents and become what locals call “ghost neighborhoods” outside of Jewish holidays or school breaks.

When these foreign owners went home in 2019, they had no idea that it would be years before they could return.

Starting in March 2020, Israel began placing heavy restrictions on travelers entering the country, including enforced two-week quarantines and, at times, all-out bans. While those with Israeli citizenship could generally enter the country, those with only a foreign passport often had no way in for months at a time.

Many foreign homeowners fumed over being lumped in with other tourists, arguing that they had a meaningful stake in the country.

“I think it’s disgraceful,” one owner of a second home told The Times of Israel. “I’m really disappointed in the Israeli government. I think being a homeowner here should make a difference.”

Police man a temporary roadblock in the city of Netanya on January 8, 2021, during a third nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel lifted almost all remaining restrictions on March 1, 2022, and in the two months since, over 385,000 foreigners have entered the country, nearly matching the total for all of 2021. Among them were some people seeing their homes for the first time.

While COVID-19 made it difficult for owners to visit Israel, it did not prevent new buyers from coming into the market. Often buying from developers before construction, seeing only plans on paper of their prospective luxury apartment, investors especially from the US continued to purchase property.

Like Israeli investors, they were able to take advantage of the lower 5% purchase tax that was in effect up to the end of November 2021, when it rose again to 8%, and there’s some evidence that would-be buyers raced to complete transactions before the rise.

Apartments are not designed to sit empty month after month, and many of those coming back were greeted by nasty surprises upon their return.

“These apartments have got two years of dust and dirt inside them,” said Jackie Benson, who manages dozens of foreign-owned properties in Netanya. “I’m dealing with fly infestations, smells and bugs coming out of drains, TVs that have rusted, and toilet cisterns that have corroded through not being used.”

An empty freezer in an apartment in central Israel that sat empty for nearly two years, March 2022. (Courtesy)

While a few owners chose to unload the homes they could not reach, Benson said, others made a different move, taking on Israeli citizenship.

Mancunian Harry Sager said he never intended to live in his Israeli apartment full-time, but even before the pandemic, he and his wife were finding themselves in Israel nearly every month to visit their two daughters.

“We were here in December and January and February 2020, and then in March 2020 lockdown happened,” he told The Times of Israel. “We never had it in our mind [to immigrate], but we wanted to get back to Israel and we heard people saying that the way to do it was to apply for dual nationality.”

“So we filled out the forms, and we came out as Israeli citizens in June 2021,” he recalled. “We’ve been back to the UK only once since then, and we just love being here.”

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