Update: This is a guide to the UK only. If you’re looking for a guide to US consumer law, stop off at David Barzelay’s post here.
Update: I’ve added a couple of notes on extra rights for mail order customers, plus a caution over using PayPal to pay for goods.
My friend Lou is having a fun time trying to get her Mac repaired by Apple. She’s not alone in having a bad experience with AppleCare – and Apple is by no means the only company that attempts to give consumers the run around when they have faulty goods. In fact, in my experience, treating customers badly and attempting to avoid their responsibilities under the law.
If you’re in the UK, you’re covered by some comprehensive consumer law, honed over the past few decades, that gives you some very good rights. The government actually has a good web site giving the details of what to do if something goes wrong and what your rights are, but if you don’t want to go through that, here are some points you ought to know:
- Your contract is with the seller, NOT the manufacturer. If (say) you buy a Toshiba laptop from PC World and it goes wrong, don’t be fobbed off by PC World telling you to get the manufacturer to repair it under warrenty. Legally, PC World MUST deal with the problem.
- Goods must be fit for purpose, including any purpose you specifically mention to the seller. Fit for purpose is a great phrase – always use it, as it oftens triggers escalation to the next level of service. They must also be "of reasonable quality" which is another great phrase to quote at people.
- You have the right to reject faulty goods and obtain a refund, replacement, or repair. This is up to a "reasonable" time, but reasonable is not defined in law as it depends on circumstances. For example, if you buy a new laptop but don’t use the wireless networking, only to find six months later when you first try it that it doesn’t work, you’re perfectly entitled to reject the goods and ask for a replacement. EVEN IF YOU SIGN AN ACCEPTANCE NOTE, YOU DON’T LOSE YOUR RIGHTS.
- It used to be true that if you allowed a company to repair goods, you lost your rights under the Sale of Goods Act. This is now no longer true – you gain parallel rights if something is repaired.
- Your first choice should always be a replacement. Goods which fail in the first six months are automatically presumed to have been faulty when you got them – you do NOT have to prove the fault was present when it arrived, and you should get a replacement, refund or repair as of right.
- Since the changes to the Sale of Goods Act in 2003 (the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2003, to be precise), you have new rights that allow you to choose a repair without losing all your Sale of Goods Act rights, as was previously the case. If you choose a repair, it must be done to a satisfactory condition, within a reasonable (that word again!) period of time, and – importantly – without causing you significant inconvenience. If, for example, Apple wants to take away your PowerBook for six weeks and it’s your only machine for work, that would very much count as "significant inconvenience". Claim a replacement instead, and if they botch a repaid and it’s unsatisfactory, you’re entitled to compensation too.
- Don’t worry if you lose your receipt – your rights still apply. It is, however, useful evidence of when you bought a product.
- If the goods are over £100, always, always buy on credit card (NOT a debit card). This gives you additional rights, as the credit card company becomes equally responsible for faulty goods. Credit card companies HATE this, and may apply a little "behind the scenes" pressure to the seller if it looks like the seller is being overly sticky. You also gain the advantage that, if the seller goes bust, the credit card company is still liable – so you can still get a refund or repair. However, note that buying through PayPal – even though you’re paying with your credit card – doesn’t count, as you’re paying the money to PayPal and not the supplier.
Under the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, you have a significant additional right if you’re buying via mail order, including buying over the Internet. This is the right to reject the goods, for any reason, up to five days after you have received them. The idea is to allow the buyer to inspect the goods, just as you would have chance to do in a shop.
To reject goods, all you need to do is write to the supplier within seven days of receiving the goods – you don’t have to actually return them within seven days. Once they have received your rejection letter, the seller must refund your money within seven days. Unless stipulated in the conditions of sale (that you must legally be provided with a copy of before buying), the onus is on the supplier to collect the goods: you simply have to make them available for them to collect. And the seller can only charge you for returning the goods if this is stipulated in writing before the sale – and either way, you can only be forced to pay the direct costs of return, rather than (say) a blanket £50 "restocking fee".
A simply guide to buying and complaining
Before you buy: Always buy on credit card if you can. Ignore any entreaties about "extended warrenties" of less than a year – they’re really worthless, as they offer you little or nothing more than the rights you already have legally.
Fault appears on delivery: Congratulations! You’re entitled to a full refund. Go get the money and buy from someone else. If you really, really want that particular model, ask for a replacement. Don’t accept a repair at this point - you want totally new goods.
Fault appears within six months: Immediately visit the place you bought the product – don’t wait "to see if the fault clears up". Ask to talk to the manager – you’re wasting your time with anyone else, as they’ll have been told to stall you. Ask, initially for a replacement. Ignore any and all mentions of "the manufacturer is responsible". Ignore any talk of warrenties – this isn’t a warrenty issue. Mention the Sale of Goods Act AND the lesser-known Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2003. Be firm, but polite. If they can’t replace the goods (if, for example, they’re out of stock) then agree to a repair but point out – preferably in writing – your rights, and especially ask how long it will take. If they can’t repair within a reasonable time, ask for a refund.
Fault appears within a year: For a computer to fail within a year, it was almost certainly NOT either of "satifactory quality" or "fit for purpose" under the scope of the law. Part of the "satisfactory quality" clause is that it should work for a reasonable amount of time, and for something like a computer this should mean at least a year. However, after six months the onus is on you to show that the fault was present or the goods weren’t of satisfactory quality when they were bought, rather than being something you’ve done to them. For a PC, if you’ve used it in a normal way, this is fairly trivial – but a laptop might be trickier, especially if you’ve scratched it or broken it.
Fault appears within two years: Trickier still, but worth a shot if you’re persistent! Here, the key will be "of reasonable quality". Most people would expect a PC to work for two years (companies typically expect them to work for three) but you will have a harder time proving it wasn’t something you’ve done to it. A little old lady who uses her PC solely for Word and hasn’t upgraded any software or added any hardware will have an easier time than a technogeek who’s plugged in 5 new PCI boards. Play it by ear.
Fault appears after two years: Unless you’re really, really sure the problem was endemic in the design of the original model – for example, it’s a common fault that lots of people have complained about – it’s not worth the hassle. You’ll almost certainly end up having to go to court, which isn’t worth the time.
One final note: All this is correct only if you’re a consumer (rather than a business) and if you’re buying new: second hand and stuff bought for a business have different sets of rules.