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Shabbat Parashat R'ei 5779

Ask the Rabbi: Buying a House with a Hidden Treasure

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: My student asked me the following. Shimon buys a house from Reuven at a normal price even though he knows (and Reuven does not) that there are many gold coins hidden in the attic walls. Is the sale valid? Why/Why not? 

 

Answer: Before we get to the excellent conceptual question, we must briefly raise some points that can, under certain circumstances, make the question moot in this scenario.

First, purchasing the house and taking the gold are halachically unrelated. Generally, the movable objects within a house are not sold along with the house. So, if between selling the house and vacating it, Reuven found and took the coins, Shimon could not have complaints or void the sale, as the house was given over as stipulated. Similarly, if Reuven did not take the money and finds out later, he can (try to – see below) complain about the money, as it was not included in the sale.      

Secondly, it is far from clear that Reuven owns the gold coins. If he does not know about them, he apparently did not put them there. Whoever did, or his inheritor, is likely still the owner, and Shimon might have to return them, not keep them. Even if the money became ownerless, if it is hidden in a manner that Reuven was likely to never find it, he did not acquire the treasure with the house. Thus, Shimon is like one who knows where an ancient treasure is found and waits for others to leave the area and then digs it up. He would not be taking Reuven’s coins. See further details and sources in Living the Halachic Process, III, I-16.

So, we will present the fundamental question with a different scenario. A petroleum exploration company discovered vast deposits in a certain region and sent people to secretly buy up as much land as possible from unknowing sellers.

There are generally two grounds to void a sale after the fact. 1. Mekach ta’ut – the object was flawed in such a way that we can assume that the buyer would not have agreed to the purchase had he known. 2. Ona’ah (mispricing) – while the sides would have agreed to the sale, the price was far enough from the going rate to make it grossly unfair to one side.

The gemara (Ketubot 97a) tells of people who sold real estate to buy grain during a famine, without knowing that a large shipment was about to arrive. Rav Nachman said that they could back out of the sales because it was based on a mistake about grain’s availability. Kinyan Torah Bahalacha (I:14) applies this concept to a case of one who sold land that had been slated for agriculture when a governmental decision to allow home building had been made but not publicized. He says that if the seller would not have sold it had he known, he can back out. If he would have sold it anyway but at a much higher price, then we get into the issue that the laws of ona’ah do not generally apply to real estate (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 227:29). On the other hand, the Rama (ad loc.) states that if the price was double (or half) of the going rate, the laws do apply. Also, according to most poskim, although the laws of ona’ah (returning money, nulling sales) do not apply to real estate, there is still a prohibition to buy or sell at an unfair price (R. Akiva Eiger ad loc. based on Ramban; S’ma 227:51).

Certain poskim raise other distinctions. The general rule is that proper pricing follows what is prevalent at the time and place involved (see Pitchei Choshen, Ona’ah 11:7). The Imrei Yosher (II, 155) says that if information changes the price, it depends if it is known to a majority of the population. Also, the gemara (ibid.) indicates that there is a difference between a situation that is about to be revealed and one that may remain unknown for an indefinite amount of time. The Kesef Hakodashim (CM 227:(9)) posits that even when a situation is about to be known, that only makes a difference when the issue is lack of interest in the transaction had the information been known. If, though, it is about price propriety, the going rate at that time/place based on the publicly available information is the determinant.  

 

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