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The Crown of Halacha

Buying a Used Car: Can I Retract If I Find a Better Deal?

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Rav Bloomenstiel

By Rav Avraham Chaim Bloomenstiel

 Question:

I agreed to buy my neighbor’s car and gave him $500 for last motzei Shabbos.  I told my neighbor that I would bring the rest of the money later in the week.  Today, however, my office-mate told me that he also had his car for sale.  His car is new and has less mileage than the one I was going to buy from my neighbor.

Do I have any obligation to go through with buying my neighbors car? I didn’t pay for it in-full yet. 

Answer:

According to Choshen Mishpat 189 and 198, paying money does not complete the sale of moveable items. Only kinyan, a formal action designated by halacha, completes the sale.  For moveable items, these are the kinyanim of hagbaha (lifting), meshicha (dragging or drawing), and mesira (handing over control or a part of the item to the buyer).

For a car, one makes either a kinyan meshicha, by driving the vehicle from the place its tires previously occupied, or a kinyan mesira, by the seller handing over the keys to the buyer.  At that point the sale is completed and neither party may retract. 

However, when a buyer pays money it is like a guarantee to the seller that he will complete the transaction. If he retracts between paying for the item and taking possession of it, Rava says in Bava Metzia 48b that he is not behaving in the manner of a Jew (Choshen Mishpat 201:1 paskens like Rava!)

To emphasize this point, chazal decreed that anyone who wishes to retract in such a situation must first stand before beis din and receive a curse called mi shepara:

He who took retribution against the people of the generation of the flood, and from the generation of the people of the dispersion, and from the people of Sodom and Gamorrah, and from the Egyptians who were drowned in the sea – he will take retribution against one who does not keep his word.

Scary stuff!

You write that you only made a down-payment on the car. Partial payments and down payments obligate a buyer in accepting the curse of mi shepara. See Choshen Mishpat 204:1 and 204:4.  Even though the poskim make distinctions between a down payment that is a mashkon, collateral on the purchase, and one that is intended to credit toward the purchase price, Rashi to Bava Metzia 48b says that a regular unspecified, down payment certainly incurs mi shepara.  The Bais Yosef writes that the poskim agree with Rashi. 

You may certainly retract from buying your neighbor’s car. However, halacha requires the acceptance of a terrifying curse in beis din before doing so.  The message of this halacha is that our integrity and honoring the commitments we make with our mouths and actions are beyond the value of any money that may be saved by retracting from a sale because one found a better deal.

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