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An offer is a promise to act or refrain from acting, which is made in exchange for a return promise to do the same. Some offers anticipate not another promise being returned in exchange but the performance of an act or forbearance from taking action. For example, a painter’s offer to paint someone’s house for $100 is probably conditioned on the homeowner’s promise to pay upon completion, while a homeowner’s offer to pay someone $100 to have his or her house painted is probably conditioned upon the painter’s successfully performing the job. In either case, an offeree’s power of acceptance is created when the offeror conveys a present intent to enter a contract in certain and definite terms that are communicated to the offeree.

Courts distinguish preliminary negotiations from formal legal offers in that parties to preliminary negotiations lack a present intent to form a contract. Accordingly, no contract is formed when parties to preliminary negotiations respond to each other’s invitations, requests, and intimations. Advertisements and catalogues, for example, are treated as forms of preliminary negotiations. Otherwise, the seller of the goods or services would be liable for countless contracts with consumers who view the ad or read the catalogue, even though the quantity of the merchandise may be limited.

However, sellers must be careful to avoid couching their advertisements in clear and definite terms that create the power of acceptance in consumers. For example, sellers have been found liable to consumers for advertising a definite quantity of goods for sale at a certain price on a “first come, first serve” basis, after consumers showed up and offered to pay the advertised price before the goods sold out. In such situations, the seller may not withdraw the offer on grounds that market factors no longer justify selling the goods at the advertised price. Instead, courts will compel them to sell the goods as advertised.

The rejection of an offer terminates the offeree’s power of acceptance and ends the offeror’s liability for the offer. Rejection might come in the form of an express refusal to accept the offer or by implication when the offeree makes a counteroffer that is materially different from the offeror’s original proposal. Most jurisdictions also recognize an offeror’s right to withdraw or revoke an offer as a legitimate means of terminating the offer.

Offers that are not rejected, withdrawn, or revoked generally continue until the expiration of the time period specified by the offer, or, if there is no time limit specified, until a reasonable time has elapsed. A reasonable time is determined according to what a reasonable person would consider sufficient time to accept the offer under the circumstances. Regardless of how much time has elapsed following an offer, the death or insanity of either party before acceptance is communicated normally terminates an offer, as does the destruction of the subject matter of the proposed contract and any intervening conditions that would make acceptance illegal.

Sometimes offerees are concerned that an offer may be terminated before they have had a full opportunity to evaluate it. In this case, they may purchase an “option” to keep the offer open for a designated time. During that time the offer is deemed irrevocable, though some jurisdictions allow the offeror to revoke the offer by paying the offeree an agreed upon sum to do so.

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