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Terms & Conditions - Reading The Small Print With Tina Leonard

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Today Tina is talking about the importance of reading the small print in the terms and conditions of any contract. We are focusing on gym membership, interest free store offers and phone, internet, tv products and services. With people trying to keep their New years Resolution to keep fit, January is a popular time to buy gym membership. We've all seen the commercials for Interest Free bargains on home furnishings and electrical goods but what do these actually mean? And what should consumers be looking out for when singing a contract for a phone, internet or cable service. Tina's here with her weekly advice and tips.

With the sales on and the stores being under pressure to get customers in there are so many commercials offering interest free loans on furniture, electrical goods etc. Also it's peak time for gym membership. Now more than ever we have to tighten our belts and by reading the small print of a contract you can save yourself some unnecessary expense.

Tina Leonard - Consumer Expert:

What is small print?
The small print we refer to are the terms and conditions on the contract you are entering into with the retailer. It's the phrase that prompts people across the country to start yawning, but terms and conditions are the things you agree to when buying a product or service. They form part of your contract and you will be relying on them if something goes wrong. They are especially important when buying a service such as a gym membership, airline tickets, hotel accommodation, phone service or store credit.

They will generally include information on delivery, cancellation, transfer of service, level of cover of insurance, regulation, complaints, security and a host of other things. If anything goes wrong and it doesn't come under consumer legislation, it is the small print or terms and conditions that you will be relying on. They can never supersede your consumer rights but instead terms and conditions provide the detail that isn't governed by a particular piece of legislation. Often when a consumer is trying to find out what they are entitled to, I have to say, "it will depend on your terms and conditions".

One of the most important things about terms and conditions is that most people never read them, even if, when buying a flight for example, they have to tick a box saying they have. If you are not given or cannot find a copy of the terms and conditions on a website then ask.

You should always try and read as much as you can of the terms and conditions and at the very least you should read the information on cancellation. If it is insurance cover then you should certainly read what you are covered for and for how much. Whether you have read them or not you will be still be bound to them, by law, if something goes wrong.

Here are some examples...

Gym membership
It's the time of year to put your new year's resolution into practice and join a gym but beware the small print. You really do have to read it because it will tell you how long your contract with the gym is for and how you can cancel it.

. Most gyms have a minimum membership period of 12 months. If you sign up that means you have to pay for 12 months even if you have stopped going to the gym. It doesn't matter whether you have paid all up front or are paying by monthly instalments, if you have a legally binding contract for 12 months then you have to pay.
. Remember that cancelling a direct debit to the gym does not end your obligation to pay, nor does it cancel your contract.
. Read the small print to find out how to cancel. Many gyms roll-over your membership after the minimum membership period (say 12 months), unless you tell them you are cancelling.
. Most gyms require cancellation notice in writing and they may require 1 to 2 months notice. Please remember to do this if you want to leave as otherwise, you may be liable to pay for the extra months.
. The National Consumer Agency has issued voluntary guidelines for gyms to help them make their membership agreements fairer and more transparent. Ask the gym you are thinking of joining if they follow these guidelines. If they don't, join a different gym that does.

Interest free offers
Getting interest free credit from a shop when buying furniture or a TV or stereo can seem like a great option. All you have to do is show the store ID (usually 2 types), sign a form and go home with your new product. But you must ask plenty of questions and make sure you understand the terms of the credit.

What you are really getting is a credit loan from the store. There are many offers charging no interest for 12 or 24 months, with small monthly payments or no payments at all for the first year. This may be a good option for you IF you manage to pay the amount owed after the interest free or no payment period is up. So make sure you take note of the date and budget so you can pay the amount then.

If you cannot pay when the interest free period is up, this is where you start to run into trouble. Then you will be charged interest and it can go up to as much as 25%!!! This is almost 4 times the cost of interest you could get on a personal loan.

. Ask whether the deal is a credit loan or hire purchase. If it is HP you won't even own the product until final payment has been made.
. You should pay all the balance after the interest free or no payment period has ended.
. If not, then you will have to pay a hefty interest rate and will end up spending far more on the product that the ticket price.

Mobile phone / internet / fixed line / satellite TV
Be sure you are clear what product or service you are signing up for and do not say yes over the phone until you have a chance to read the small print.

You need to read the following in the small print before you sign up:
. How long does the contract last for i.e. 12 months / 18 months?
. Can you cancel the service before the minimum contract period is up and if so is there a penalty?
. If there is a special introductory offer does the monthly price rise after this period?
. For mobile phone and land line contracts, what are the extra add-ons included with the contracts i.e. free calls to mobiles, UK, evening calls etc.
. If a satellite TV contract, if you get a special extra 'free' for few months, check to see if you will be automatically put on the higher priced service after that period, and if so, how you can cancel.
. Take your time with these contracts, there shouldn't be any rush, so don't let a service provider put you under pressure.

Entering competitions on premium rate lines
Save yourself the shock when you get your bill by reading the small print to find out how much you have to pay.

Every time you book a flight you have to tick a box saying you have read the terms and conditions. Most people tick the box but don't read the small print. This is a mistake as the following important information is there which could help you avoid disappointment later:

. Information on charges for checked-in luggage; weight limit for hand luggage and hold luggage; charges for overweight luggage.
. Time of last check-in, i.e. 45 / 50 minutes before departure.
. Minimum age allowed for minors travelling alone.
. Cancelling a flight: can you transfer ticket to someone else; what is the charge to do so.

Hotel accommodation
When booking hotel accommodation online or over the phone the key thing to always ask is what the cancellation fee is, if any. Never assume any amount you have paid for accommodation will be refunded to you if you cancel. The cancellation policy depends on the T&C. Some hotels offer full refunds if cancelled in advance or more than 24 hours before arrival for example but others do not.

You should also check in the small print to see if they reserve the right to change prices and check to see what facilities are present and if breakfast or other meals are included in the offer. You should check the check-in and check-out times so that you can plan your arrival and departure.

Travel insurance
Many policies will not cover injuries caused by winter or extreme sport, if the policy doesn't explicitly contain a clause saying they cover these sports; there can be
thousands of euro in the difference between policies in relation to how much the cover is for; most policies will not cover cancelling costs if the reason is a pre-existing illness that was not disclosed, so tell them if you are a family member is already ill.

Car rental
Check whether you have to bring the tank back full or not; sometimes damage is only covered under certain conditions such as giving timely notice so find this out; check if travelling to another country is included as this may not be covered unless you pay an additional fee; check if there is a travel limit; is a second driver insured; is there a penalty for returning to the airport rather than to the office you picked it up in etc.

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