If Santa's about to bring you a shiny new tech gadget for Christmas (check our gift guide for great ideas), you’re probably not thinking about what you should do if it suddenly becomes faulty.
Computers and other tech gadgets do fail from time to time, so it’s important that you know your options. 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 vendor or the manufacturer itself.
You might be unfortunate enough to receive a defective product that was sold through an online retailer, or simply decide you don’t want it.
As a private buyer and customer, you have legal rights in the form of the Sale of Goods Act (1979) and other subsequent regulations. These rights 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 for profit.
You've probably heard of this act, but many people are confused over its meaning. Sellers can take advantage of this fact: fail to assert your rights and you stand to lose out.
In this feature, we aim to arm you with knowledge of the law. We’ll explain Distance Selling Regulations, look at the various types of warranty offered and tell you how to make a claim at a Small Claims Court.
When you buy a product, you enter into a contract with the business or person selling that product. If you live in the UK, the Sale of Goods Act (1979) sets out some basic statutory rights.
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.
You are not obliged to demonstrate that the seller was responsible for the fault. However, you must act quickly, clearly describing the fault and making the seller aware that you know your rights.
There are a couple of things we should mention at the start. Firstly, if you buy from a private individual who sells things only occasionally, whether face to face or through a website such as eBay or Gumtree, the Sale of Goods Act does not apply. However, the seller must not do or say anything that misleads you into buying. If they do, you may have some recourse. The watchwords, however are Buyer Beware.
The second item of note concerns products bought as gifts. With Christmas coming up, chances are you’ll receive some. That’s the good news. The bad news is 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.
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. It's possible the the shop will transfer the rights anyway, or that the buyer has written on the receipt (the part the shop retains) that the item is a gift, but chances are they haven't.
From here on in, we’ll deal solely with your rights as the purchaser against business sellers.
Consumer rights: defects and faults
What constitutes a defect or fault? The rules are simple, although it can be difficult to apply them to technology 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? Hi-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.
As a general guide, the seller will need to prove that any faults that develop within the first six months are not due to a manufacturing problem. After this time, 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.
If a manufacturing fault is identified or accepted before a reasonable amount of time has passed, the seller must repair or replace the product. The seller is also responsible for reasonable delivery costs associated with the repair or replacement.
Consumer rights: returns policies
Your rights under the Sale of Goods Act apply only if the product does not match the description, is unfit for purpose or is not of satisfactory quality. You have no right to return an item if you’ve simply changed your mind or your circumstances have changed.
Some retailers also have their own returns policies, though. Typically, you get a few weeks in which to return an unwanted item for a refund or a credit note. It must be unused and unopened so it can be re-sold.
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.
However, if you didn’t physically walk into the shop to buy the product, Distance Selling Regulations (DSR) apply. These afford you the right to return a product bought online or via phone or mail-order if you later change your mind – for whatever reason. DSR explains why some shops may have different returns policies for the same products when bought online or in-store.
Under DSR, the seller must advise you (in writing) that you have a cooling-off period (typically seven working days), during which time you can cancel the contract (in writing) and return the product (within 28 days) for a full reimbursement.
This should include the original shipping costs, but it won’t cover the expense of returning the product. Unfortunately, if the vendor refuses to pay this charge, all you can do is report it to Trading Standards.
Note that tech kit is typically covered under the Distance Selling Regulations only while it remains wrapped. Be sure to check the spec before interfering with the packaging.
The DSR also covers undelivered products. They state that the seller must deliver the product to you within 30 days. If delivery is not made within a reasonable amount of time you can cancel and request a full refund.
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!
Next page: manufacturers' warranties