The Laws Regarding Bartering

By James Harvey Stout (deceased). This material is now in the public domain. The complete collection of Mr. Stout's writing is now at >

Next week, we might trade a Cadillac for a long vacation in Tahiti -- but that's not likely. Most trades are not worth that much. We might trade a fudge brownie for an apple in the cafeteria -- or a spiral notebook for a baseball. Most deals could be worth less than $5.00.

But even when we are young, we might set up some bigger deals. If we do, we should be careful.

If adults say that they will barter something, they usually have to go ahead with the deal (even if they change their mind later), because they have said that they will do it. That is a "verbal agreement." And the law says that the people must go through with it, because their word is "legally binding," even though they haven't signed a "written agreement" (a contract). And they can be sued if they break this promise.

"Once you agree to barter," said an article in Redbook Magazine, "you have entered into a legal contract. If you complete your part of the barter and the other party defaults, you can go to court."

There might be times when we want to have a written agreement. The agreement can help us at times like these: We want to trade our baseball for Rick's joystick. After a ballgame, we give the ball to Rick, and he signs an agreement which sets up the deal. The contract says that we gave him the ball, and that he owes us a joystick.

But when we go to his home to get the joystick, he says that we never gave him the ball. Since we have a contract, we can prove that he got the ball, and that he owes us something. If he still won't give us the joystick (or your ball), we can show the agreement to his parents. They will probably settle the problem for us.

In a different deal, we trade $300 worth of computer equipment to a carpenter who is going to build our treehouse. In a large deal, we should do these things:

  1. Be certain that the carpenter has enough experience to do the job right. (Has he constructed treehouses before? Does he have the proper tools?)
  2. Usually, we must supply the materials -- the wood and nails. We are just bartering for the carpenter's labor, not the materials. (Maybe we can create a barter deal with someone else, to get the wood and nails.)
  3. Remember that a minor needs to have his or her parents' signature on the contract.
  4. The contract should be very clear:
    • Describe the job, the size of the treehouse, plus any special things that you want in that house.
    • Set a date for the start of the job, and the date when it should be finished.
    • Explain any guarantees for the carpenter's work.

A barter deal is a serious thing, especially if we are trading valuable items. We should get our parents' advice. They might even want to call a lawyer to be certain that the contract is a good one.