Ask the Rov: I need an air conditioner for the next few weeks, but won’t need it afterward. May I buy one and plan to return it when I am done with it?
By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin, Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah
According to halacha, there is usually only a small window to retract from a sale once it was finalized—by most methods of acquisition within a few seconds, and by a kinyan sudar (“lifting a handkerchief”) as long as the sides are discussing the sale. After this, there is no going back.
If the buyer was overcharged more than 16% above the market value, he can invalidate the sale and receive a refund within the time frame it takes to find this out. After that time it is too late, unless circumstances beyond his control prevented him from finding out right away.
If he discovers a defect in the article, he can demand a refund since he received something different than what he purchased. If, however, he continues to use it after finding the defect, or the problem was easily discernable and he neglected to notice, he may no longer return it (even if he didn’t know the repercussions of continuing to use it). If there is a compelling reason for his continued usage, he often will still be able to return it (e.g. if he found a fault in his new car on the way home, he can continue his trip).
In many countries, there are federal and state laws that govern consumer transactions. These laws definitely have the halachic status of minhag hamedina and one who purchases an item does so according to the local terms and conditions. The details of these terms differ from country to country and even between different states of the same country. Many countries have special policies for online or over-the-phone purchases as well.
In most states in America, there is no right to cancel contracts or purchase agreements; a refund option depends on the specific retailer’s policy, and in absence of one we follow the halachic return policy outlined above. In certain states, like New York, a store is legally required to post its refund policy. If they don’t, the store is required by law to accept returns within 30 days of purchase.
Buying with plans to return the item would clearly not be permitted under the “halachic” return policy, yet the specific store’s policy is what is binding in this case. If their terms for return require the purchaser to be “unsatisfied,” one needs to ask oneself honestly if that is the case. Some major retail stores, however, clearly allow purchases and returns with no questions asked even after the item was used short term, since they concluded that such a policy is worth it for them. In such a case, it would be permissible to buy the item with the intent to return.
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