The Orthodox Union - via its website - fields questions of all types in areas of kashrut, Jewish law and values. Some of them are answered by Eretz Hemdah, the Institute for Advanced Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, headed by Rav Yosef Carmel and Rav Moshe Ehrenreich, founded by HaRav Shaul Yisraeli zt"l, to prepare rabbanim and dayanim to serve the National Religious community in Israel and abroad. Ask the Rabbi is a joint venture of the OU, Yerushalayim Network, Eretz Hemdah… and the Israel Center. The following is a Q&A from Eretz Hemdah…
Disclosing Problems of Another’s Apartment
Question: I am renting an apartment, whose owners are trying to sell it. Potential buyers come to the house. Should/may we inform the potential buyers of the mold problems that exist?
Requested Follow-up Information: The problems are within the norm. The owners did not take steps to hide them.
Answer: It is hard to say that is categorically forbidden by the laws of lashon hara to inform the buyers of the problem. The Chafetz Chayim (II:9:1) says that one should tell someone who is about to enter a business relationship of definite loss he is expected to incur as a result, under the following conditions: he considered the resulting damage carefully; he does not exaggerate the problem’s extent; his intentions are noble and not out of dislike for the subject of his criticism; there is no other way to get the same result; the subject of his criticism will not be unduly harmed. The Chafetz Chayim proves that one is obligated to inform the person who stands to lose because of the mitzva to not stand idly by as someone is in danger, which applies not just to danger to life but also to monetary danger.
However, based on your description, it seems that you should not tell. First, buying an apartment with a normal amount of mold does not constitute a loss of money, as many people would buy such an apartment in any case. Perhaps it should justify a reduction in price. However, considering that there is not one exact price for a house, it is not clear that such a problem would make the price inappropriate. A person who does not do a thorough check of the apartment should assume it is not perfect.
Second, you also are not required to take steps to save someone from damage that he himself does not bother to take. The Chafetz Chayim (later in II:9) says that one who did not bother to have a potential son-in- law tested for Torah proficiency “caused the loss to himself” if that is important to him, and someone who was not asked should not offer a negative report.
One who is asked by both sides to give an appraisal, should do so honestly (ibid.). Therefore, the buyer can ask permission of the seller to ask you about the apartment. In that case, giving the impression that it is better than it is would be a violation of lifnei iver (not misleading someone).
If a buyer asks someone without the owner’s permission, he may tell the truth in a case where his answer impacts on an object’s price, as we see in the following Talmudic precedents. If someone overpaid for an object, he can take action only for the amount of time it takes to go to an appraiser to check its price (Bava Metzia 49b). We do not consider that the appraiser will refuse to tell him the truth due to lashon hara. Another source deals with neighbors with inside information. If a woman with physical blemishes marries and her husband wants to void the marriage due to misrepresentation of her status, he may not make such a claim if they live in a place with public bathhouses because we assume he checked out her condition through female relatives (Ketuvot 75b). The Rambam (Ishut 25:3) cites two opinions regarding a case where the groom does not have relatives in town, whether we expect him to ask friends to ask their wives. Halacha does not assume that people should hold back the information.
As stated above, though, one does not need to do the work for the buyer, unless he thinks the buyer cannot find out for himself. We have seen that if there is an extreme problem one would not know to ask about, an individual should to step forward. Even so, the act of tattle-telling is so frowned upon that it should be avoided when there are alternatives. For example, when Yehoshua asked Hashem who was responsible for the defeat at the Ai, Hashem told Yehoshua that He is not a tattle-tale, and Yehoshua should cast lots to determine (Sanhedrin 11a). Therefore, when there is no great need to save someone from a deep, dark secret (as explained above), it is improper to volunteer information that paints an acquaintance or his merchandise in a negative light.
Rav Daniel Mann, Eretz Hemdah Institute
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