Neighbor’s Buying Rights

Question

Tzvi wishes to sell his apartment, which is located on the ground floor of
an apartment block. Asher, who lives on the fourth floor, hears about his
intentions. He claims that he has right of first refusal because he is a
neighbor. When Tzvi asks him why he is interested in his apartment, he
answers that he wants it for his elderly parents. “Some of my kids might
also sleep there,” he adds (he has sixteen of them in a three-room
apartment!). Can Asher force Tzvi to sell the apartment to him? If Asher
offers the same amount as an outsider, would it make a difference if the
outsider offered cash, but Asher could only pay in three monthly
installments?


Answer

You shall do what is right and good in the
eyes of Hashem
” (Devarim 6:18). There are a number of laws that our
Sages derived from this principle. The Shulchan Oruch rules (Choshen
Mishpot
175:6, based on Bovo Metzia 108a) that if a person sold
a field (or any other form of land) to an outsider, the owner of the
neighboring field has the right to give the purchaser the sum that he paid
for the field and order him to leave. Even if the purchaser is a Torah
scholar and a relative (who would usually be entitled to preferential
treatment) but is a non-bordering neighbor, the ignorant, non-related
neighbor can invoke his rights. The Remo adds that this law applies
even if the seller had previously said that if he had to sell the field to
this neighbor, he would rather not sell it at all. The neighbor can
acquire the field even if this is against the wishes of the owner. Why
does the neighbor have such strong rights? The Sema (No.6) explains
that the verse requires us to do “what is right and good”. Our Sages
understood that this involves going beyond the letter of the law under
certain circumstances. Our case is an example. This buyer legally
purchased a field. He has no fields that border this one. He can acquire
an equivalent field elsewhere. The neighbor would like to expand his
property by purchasing the adjoining field. He would then have one large
field, which is easier to manage than two small ones in different
locations. Our Sages therefore enacted that the neighbor has the right to
evict the buyer if he gives him the money he paid for this field.

It is important to note that (a) this right only
applies to a neighbor who has a common boundary with the field being
offered for sale. In an apartment block, only those who have a common
wall, floor or ceiling can invoke their buying rights. It may be an
advantage to have another apartment (or storeroom, etc.) in the same
building, but no rights exist unless there is a common boundary. (b)
Although the seller should first offer his apartment to the neighbor, if
he failed to do so and sold it to an outsider, this outsider is deemed to
be the agent of the neighbor. The reason for our Sages placing the burden
on the buyer was to discourage him from making the purchase in the first
place. The owner of the field will then be forced to sell his property to
the neighbor, as required (Sema No.7). (c) The owner does not have
to lose out through selling to his neighbor. The neighbor can only invoke
his rights if he can equal the price and terms of other bidders.
The owner can also demand adequate securities from the neighbor. (d) The
neighbor must act immediately on hearing that the apartment/land was sold.
Delay is interpreted as foregoing one’s rights.

We
can therefore conclude that Asher has no right to first refusal on
Tzvi’s apartment. Firstly, he has no common wall, floor or ceiling with
his property. Furthermore, he wishes to house his elderly parents, and not
his own family, in this apartment. Even if his apartment were to adjoin
Tzvi’s, he would need to be able to match the price and terms offered by
other potential buyers.