If Santa's about to bring you a shiny new gadget for Christmas, or you're buying one for someone else, you’re probably not thinking about what to do if there's a problem. The new Consumer Rights Act covers things like faulty products and late deliveries, and we explain the law so you know how to return a product for replacement or refund. See also: Best tech gifts for Christmas

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Computers and gadgets do fail from time to time, so it’s important that you know your rights. Almost all products come with at least a year’s warranty but, depending on exactly when the problem arises, you might need to deal with the retailer rather than the manufacturer itself. In October 2015, the new Consumer Rights Act became law and it replaced the 1979 Sale of Goods Act, Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations and the Supply of Goods and Services Act. Here's what you need to know about it.

Consumer Rights Act: defects and faults

As a private buyer and customer, you have legal rights which apply whether you buy a product face to face, online, by phone or mail-order, and whether it’s purchased from a business or an individual trader for profit. However, they don't apply if you've bought something from a private individual who sells things only occasionally, such as through eBay or Gumtree. The seller must not do or say anything that misleads you into buying, and they must describe the goods accurately. If they don't, you may have some recourse. The watchwords, however are Buyer Beware.

Like the Sale of Goods Act, the Consumer Rights Act lays out what you should expect from products:

  • The product must match the description. What you buy must exactly match the content, specification and quality suggested by advertisements, the sales description and product packaging. If it isn’t, you can return the product for replacement or reimbursement of the amount paid. If this is the case, however, it’s important that you do not use or interfere with the product, since this action may be interpreted as you having accepted it as supplied. As an example, you wouldn’t drink two-thirds of a pint of milk before returning it because “it tastes funny”.
  • The product has to be fit for purpose. In other words, it has to do what the seller says it will do and, if you have specified to the seller a particular use, it must do that also.
  • The product must be of satisfactory quality. Would a reasonable person, who has taken into account the description of the product and its price, find the item acceptable? The product should also work for a reasonable amount of time (taking into account price and usage), and be safe to use.

What is reasonable, though? Tech electrical goods are usually reliable, and any defect or fault that was present from the outset may not become apparent until after some use. Even the best products will eventually begin to fail due to wear and tear.

How long a particular product should last cannot be laid down by law because there are too many variables to consider, including the build quality, and how often and under what conditions it’s used. You could ask the seller for an estimate of its useful life at the time of purchase. Alternatively, you can obtain an expert’s view of the cause of any failure before you make your complaint.

You should always return a defective product to the retailer, or wherever you bought it. Ideally the fault will appear in the first six months because the seller will need to prove that any faults that develop within the first six months are not due to a manufacturing problem. If they can't, they are obliged to give you a refund or a replacement. After six months, it’ll be down to you to prove a manufacturing fault is to blame.

Most tech kit will last longer than six months, and we’d expect a laptop, PC or tablet to last considerably longer. In our experience, frequently used laptops in the PC Advisor office last around three years before some kind of failure. This doesn’t mean that a retailer will repair or replace your laptop if it goes wrong after two years, though. A laptop that’s used only on a desk at home and never gets moved is likely to last a lot longer than one that’s taken on a daily commute and roughly handled.

Consumer Rights Act: 30-day return period

You might be unfortunate enough to receive a faulty or non-working product, or simply decide you don’t want it. Your rights are not the same in both cases. The good news is that you are now entitled to an automatic refund if you return unused products to a retailer within 30 days. The only exceptions are custom-made items, digital content which has been downloaded or the seal has been broken on a DVD, music or software. It doesn't apply to perishable items, either, but we're talking about gadgets and tech kit here!

How to return products to a bricks and mortar store

If you’re not satisfied with a purchase due to a defect or fault, you can ask the person or business that sold it to you to put things right. The seller can choose whether to repair or replace the item, but you must act within 30 days of the date of purchase. You are not obliged to demonstrate that the seller was responsible for the fault.

If the fault occurs after 30 days but before six months, the seller has the option to replace or repair (so long as a repair does not take too long). If the repair or replacement fails, then you can ask for a refund or a partial refund if you want to keep the product.

However, you are entitled to a refund (either full or partial) if:

  • the retailer cannot repair or replace the product
  • he cost of repair or replacement is disproportionate to the value of the product
  • a repair or replacement would be very inconvenient to you
  • the repair would take an unreasonably long time

Note that this right to a reject products doesn't apply to digital products such as games, music, apps, books etc. which you buy and download - unless they are defective or unfit for purpose. It's down to the retailer to decide if you can cancel and have a refund. Amazon, for example, allows you to cancel ebook purchases if you act quickly.

Some retailers offer a return period longer than 30 days, but remember that the Consumer Rights Act applies only if the product does not match the description, is unfit for purpose or is not of satisfactory quality. You have no legal right to return an item if you’ve simply changed your mind or your circumstances have changed. Don't assume you can return clothing if it's the wrong size, although the vast majority of stores will allow this.

In fact, most High Street retailers have a returns policy which allows you to take back an unwanted item for a refund or a credit note. Obviously, it must be unused and in perfect condition so can be re-sold. Certain products can only be returned for a refund if they're unopened, although this doesn't apply if they're defective.

No retailer can be made to comply with this type of agreement unless their terms and conditions of sale, which you have accepted, specifically include the right to return unwanted products. You can either look on your receipt, on the retailer's website, on a notice in-store, or you can call its customer service line to check the details of the policy.

How to return items bought online

Since 2014, the old Distance Selling Regulations have been replaced by the Consumer Contracts Regulations. These state that you have 14 days - not 30 - to decide whether or not to return a product. That's two weeks from the date you received it, but you can cancel an order right from the moment you make it.

You then have a further 14 days to actually return the item to the retailer. You can expect to get a refund within 14 days of the retailer receiving the goods back, or within 14 days of your providing evidence of sending them back. The retailer doesn't have to refund the cost of express shipping costs - only the basic postage cost.

The items don't have to be faulty: it's your right to cancel the sale for any reason. However, the retailer may not give you a full refund if the product's value has been affected by you using it, scratching it or otherwise damaging it.

In essence, you can 'handle'' products just as you would in a shop, but no more than that.

As with buying from a physical shop, many online retailers will give you longer than the minimum 14 days to change your mind, so check the Ts and Cs to see if you have more time.

The regulations also cover undelivered products. They state that the seller must deliver the product to you within 30 days (unless otherwise agreed). If delivery is not made within a reasonable amount of time you can cancel and request a full refund.

Consumer Rights Act: What about gifts?

With Christmas coming up, chances are you’ll give and receive gifts. That’s the good news. The bad news is that - as a recipient - it’s unlikely that you have any direct rights. These are held only by the buyer: the person who agrees the sale with the seller. (See also: this year's best Christmas ads)

If there’s a problem with the gift, ask the person who bought it for the original receipt, or request that they return the product.

If you ever buy something as a gift, you should ask the shop to provide a gift receipt. This means the rights will be transferred and the recipient can return it. If the person who bought your gift didn't do this, they will probably have to return it themselves.

Some retailers offer an extended returns period to cover Christmas, so check this when you buy. If you're buying early and the returns period will be up before your recipient has a chance to open and test the product, it's a good idea to do that yourself. Better to have an open box and a working product than a pristine, sealed present with a defective product inside.

Of course, if the item is faulty, you can still return it after the standard returns period, but it's still a good idea to do it quickly are you're not automatically entitled to a refund after 30 days.

Consumer rights: buying on credit and lenders’ obligations

Buying on credit provides additional protection if a product is unsatisfactory. Note that this applies only if it was purchased using a credit card (Mastercard or Visa, for example), and not with a debit card (Electron, Switch/Maestro, Visa Debit, for example).

When you pay for an item costing between £100 and £30,000 on a credit card, your credit supplier is brought into the purchase contract: the bank pays the vendor, and you pay the bank. You have exactly the same rights against the credit provider as you do the product vendor, which means you can claim back your money through the bank if the supplier suddenly goes bust.

Buying on finance, whereby you get the product now and pay later, can provide similar protection. Your rights here are governed by the terms of the financial agreement you sign. Read the smallprint!

Consumer rights: manufacturers’ warranties

Most technology products come with a manufacturer’s warranty that provides a separate agreement between the manufacturer and the buyer. In the event of a manufacturing fault, the warranty will usually offer repair or replacement during a specified period from the date of purchase, although as we said above, if the fault becomes apparent within the first six months you can return it to the retailer for a full refund or replacement.

You rights under the warranty are dependent on the terms provided by the manufacturer, which can be as wide or restrictive as it likes. Some require the product to be returned to the seller; others may send pre-paid packaging or provide a telephone contact number to discuss your options. All will require proof of purchase, so it’s important to keep your receipts – even if they’re sent via email.

A small number of companies require the item to be returned in its original packaging, so be sure to keep this for expensive purchases such as PCs and laptops if you have the space available.

It’s worth noting that although some manufacturers provide a two-year warranty, the contract is often made with the original buyer only. If you’ve bought a product second-hand, it’s possible that you won’t be covered should anything go wrong.

Read the warranty statement included with the product, and note that you may need to follow some conditions if you ever want to invoke it. Most request that the buyer registers the warranty with the manufacturer by returning a supplied form by post, or by providing their details online or over the phone. In return, some manufacturers extend the warranty period by six- or 12 months.

There may be other benefits, too. Some warranties will extend to any person in legal possession of the product, while others let you transfer the warranty to a new owner.

If the warranty doesn’t address this point, it’s advisable to check with the manufacturer whether it’s possible to transfer the warranty to someone else. If you’re buying a used product within the warranty period, you should also check for the right to transfer.

Where a product is still under warranty, it may be easier to claim under this than deal with the original seller. This will be your only option if the seller has gone bust and you didn’t purchase the product using a credit card, but it can also be useful if you live some distance from the shop or the seller is purposely being difficult.

Always check whether a warranty requires certain actions to remain valid. For example, you might need to service the product at stipulated intervals (more often applicable to cars, of course), or report a problem within a certain amount of time. Failure to follow all the conditions may invalidate the warranty.

Products that fail outside warranty

A question we’re often asked concerns what you should do if a fault develops just outside the warranty period. The manufacturer has no obligation to assist, but some will take pity on you so it’s worth making contact. Stay calm, and be polite and prepared to compromise.

There may be an unadvertised discretion available to customer-service employees to assist in certain circumstances. Some companies operate policies such as this to keep customers happy – if they refuse to help when your warranty expired only a few weeks ago, it’s unlikely you’ll buy a replacement product from the same manufacturer.

Even if your warranty has expired, you may still have a claim if you can prove that the fault occurred while the product was still under warranty or was due to a manufacturing flaw.

Types of warranty

Most warranties provide for replacement or the full cost of repair. That is, the cost of parts and the labour involved in fitting those parts. Most are likely to be on a ‘return-to-base’ (RTB) basis, which means you’re responsible for returning the product to the manufacturer (or, in some cases, to the seller). The postage cost may not be included.

You may be offered, particularly when registering the warranty online, an option to improve your level of cover. For example, you might be asked if you want to exchange a 12-month RTB policy for 90-day collect-and-return (C&R) cover, during which a faulty product will be collected, repaired and returned to you. Be warned that you may be forsaking long-term protection for a convenience you are unlikely to need or use.

‘Onsite’ warranties can also be offered. This means a technician will visit your home or business to carry out product assessments and repairs. Alternatively, it can also mean a product will be collected and it’s replacement delivered simultaneously. In some cases, the replacement product is a temporary loan while your product is being repaired.

Some warranties cover the replacement of parts only. You might be sent these parts and will have to fit them or arrange for professional fitting. ‘Labour-only’ warranties, meanwhile, cover the cost of a technician fixing the product, but you must pay for the parts. They’re often seen supplied with desktop PCs. Such a guarantee has value only if you’re unable to personally fit the replacement parts yourself, or you don’t have the technical knowledge to determine which parts are defective.

Extended warranties

Extended warranties are a form of insurance and can be bought for one or more years’ cover. By paying the premium, you can rest assured in the knowledge that if something goes wrong you will get help in sorting it out.

Like all insurance products, the policy wordings and the cover provided will vary from company to company – you’ll need to carefully read all the policies before deciding which to take. All will have conditions with which you must comply, and exclusions that detail what is not covered. Batteries, for example, are consumables, so will typically not be covered.

Some extended warranties include accidental damage and breakdown, neither of which are likely to be found in a manufacturer’s warranty. Although you may have some cover from a home-insurance policy, bear in mind that a claim will increase your premium up when it’s time to renew.

Consumer rights: Small Claims Court

The Sale of Goods Act is all well and good, but what can you do if a retailer refuses to repair or replace a faulty product?

The Small Claims Court is a viable option for claims up to £5,000, for which you shouldn’t need a lawyer. If you’re successful the court will award you damages – in other words, the retailer will be ordered to make a payment to you.

To claim the cost of replacement or repair you’ll need an invoice or estimate. If the fault is due to a manufacturing flaw that occurred before a reasonable time had elapsed, you’ll probably also need a report from an expert who supports that view.

There are risks involved with taking court action, though. If you lose the case, you’ll also lose your court fees, and it’s likely that you will have to pay the travel expenses of the seller and the seller’s witnesses.

The court will expect you to have already tried to reach an agreement with the seller. For this reason, you should write to the seller giving details of the problem. Include evidence that the fault is a manufacturing fault if the goods are more than six months old, and explain how you would like the matter to be resolved. Also say that if you do not receive a detailed response within a reasonable amount of time (usually 30 days) you will begin legal proceedings.

If the seller recommends that you consider an independent assessment of your claim, sometimes called arbitration or alternative dispute resolution, it’s advisable that you do so. Failure to do comply may affect your compensation – even if a court upholds your complaint.

You can start a claim by obtaining and completing a claim form. This is obtainable from a County Court or online at hmcourts-service.gov.uk. The form has space in which you can describe your problem, and is provided with a set of guidelines for advice.

The completed form, along with all supporting documents and evidence, should be taken or sent to the court together with the court fee. The amount of the fee should be included in your claim. The court will send the claim form and documents to the seller (the defendant), who will be required to respond within a fixed period of time.

The seller may respond by making an offer to settle. If so, take time to consider whether the offer is reasonable. If you reject the offer and the court later awards you a smaller amount, you may incur some costs, such as travel expenses for witnesses.

If no offer is made by the seller or you reject its offer, you may both have to attend a hearing and explain your case. In this event there may be a hearing fee, but the court will explain to you what is happening and what you have to do.

If you are successful at the hearing, the court will award you damages and make an order for payment. You should also ask the court to award you your costs so they can be included in the order to pay.