Whoever makes an offer can revoke it as long as it hasn't yet been accepted. This means that if you make an offer and the other party wants some time to think it through, or makes a counteroffer with changed terms, you can revoke your original offer. Once the other party accepts, however, you'll have a binding agreement. Revocation must happen before acceptance.
An exception to this rule occurs if the parties agree that the offer will remain open for a stated period of time.
An offer with an expiration date is called an option, and it usually doesn't come for free. Say someone offers to sell you a forklift for $10,000, and you want to think the offer over without worrying that the seller will withdraw the offer or sell to someone else. You and the seller could agree that the offer will stay open for a certain period of time -- say, 30 days. Often, however, the seller will ask you to pay for this 30-day option -- which is understandable, because during the 30-day option period, the seller can't sell to anyone else.
Payment or no payment, when an option agreement exists, the offeror cannot revoke the offer until the time period ends.
Often, when an offer is made, the response will be to start bargaining. Of course, haggling over price is the most common type of negotiating that occurs in business situations. When one party responds to an offer by proposing something different, this proposal is called a "counteroffer." When a counteroffer is made, the legal responsibility to accept, decline or make another counteroffer shifts to the original offeror.
For instance, suppose your printer (here, the original offeror) offers to print 5,000 brochures for $300, and you respond by saying you'll pay $250 for the job. You have not accepted his offer (no contract has been formed) but instead have made a counteroffer. If your printer then agrees to do the job exactly as you have specified, for $250, he's accepted your counteroffer, and a legal agreement has been reached.
Even though a contract is formed only if the accepting party agrees to all substantial terms of an offer, this doesn't mean you can rely on inconsequential differences to void a contract later. For example, if you offer to buy 100 chicken sandwiches on one-inch-thick sourdough bread, there is no contract if the other party replies that she will provide 100 emu filets on rye bread. But if the other party agrees to provide the chicken sandwiches on one-inch-thick sourdough bread, a valid contract exists, and you can't later refuse to pay if the bread turns out to be a hair thicker or thinner than one inch.
In addition to both parties' agreement to the terms, a contract isn't valid unless both parties exchange something of value in anticipation of the completion of the contract.
The "thing of value" being exchanged -- which every law student who ever lived has been taught to call "consideration" -- is most often a promise to do something in the future, such as a promise to perform a certain job, or a promise to pay a fee for a job. For instance, let's return to the example of the print job. Once you and the printer agree on terms, there is an exchange of things of value (consideration): The printer has promised to print the 5,000 brochures, and you have promised to pay $250 for them.
The main importance of requiring things of value to be exchanged is to differentiate a contract from a generous statement or a one-sided promise, neither of which are enforceable by law.
If a friend offers you a gift without asking anything in return -- for instance, offering to stop by to help you move a pile of rocks -- the arrangement wouldn't count as a contract because you didn't give or promise your friend anything of value. If your friend never followed through with her gift, you would not be able to enforce her promise.
However, if you promise your friend you'll help her weed her vegetable garden on Sunday in exchange for her helping you move rocks on Saturday, a contract exists.
Although the exchange-of-value requirement is met in most business transactions by an exchange of promises ("I'll promise to pay money if you promise to paint my building next month"), actually doing the work can also satisfy the rule.
If, for instance, you leave your printer a voicemail message that you'll pay an extra $100 if your brochures are cut and stapled when you pick them up, the printer can create a binding contract by actually doing the cutting and stapling. And once he does so, you can't weasel out of the deal by claiming you changed your mind.
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