The Basics of Making a Purchase
|This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Dean Davison, Davison North Law in January 2020.|
A cup of coffee. A bus ticket. A new big-screen TV. Another day, another purchase. Learn your rights and what to watch out for when buying things.
What you should know
You're making a contract
When you buy something, even something small, you’re making a contract. Most of the time, the receipt is the only proof you’ll have! Regardless, you and the seller have certain legal rights and obligations.
The seller must not mislead you
Sellers can’t mislead you to convince you to buy something. What’s misleading?
- If they offer you a special “30% discount” but, really, everyone can get that special price.
- If they tell you the TV can play Netflix, but you get it home and realize it can’t.
- If the mortgage lender says they are “CMHC approved,” but really they aren’t.
This is when a seller advertises something at a bargain. But guess what, it isn’t in stock.
You only discover this once you’re in the store. The “bait” is sold out. Now the seller tries to “switch” you to some other (typically more expensive) item.
They can’t do that. Such unfair practices are against the law.
The seller must not act unfairly towards you
Sellers can’t act unfairly. What’s unfair?
- They charge you a price that’s far higher than what other sellers are asking for the same thing.
- They pressure you — a seller tells you that you have to sign a contract immediately to get the “special price” they’re offering.
- They try to get you to buy something they know you can’t afford.
Sellers can’t take advantage of any physical or mental disability, illiteracy or language difficulties.
For example, a seller can’t force people whose first language is Mandarin to sign a complicated contract in English.
If the seller does something unfair, then the agreement isn’t binding. That means you can return what you bought for a refund.
You’re protected by the legal warranty
The things you buy must meet a baseline level of quality, the law says. When you purchase something from a business, the product has to:
- be fit for the purpose you bought it for
- be undamaged and work properly
- be durable for a reasonable period of time
- match the advertised description
These conditions are sometimes referred to as the legal warranty.
So if that big screen TV doesn’t turn on (and you’ve already made sure you plugged it in 😉), you can bring it back for a refund, or ask to get it repaired or replaced at no charge.
If you buy from an individual (think: deals on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace), the legal warranty is weaker. The product only has to be reasonably durable and match the advertised description. So pay special attention (and adjust your expectations accordingly) if you’re buying that TV from a guy named Fred and not from Best Buy.
Do your homework on any extended warranty
On top of the legal warranty, many sellers and manufacturers offer their own warranty or guarantee for their product. If it’s free, great. Just make sure you’re not being sold an extended warranty you don’t need.
An extended warranty may or may not be worthwhile. Do your homework. And keep in mind: sellers count on at least some customers forgetting they bought the extended warranty!
If you're thinking about an extended warranty, check its terms:
- How long is it good for?
- If the item breaks, will the company repair it, replace it, or return your money?
- Can you take it back to the store where you bought it? Or will you have to ship it somewhere at your own cost?
- Sometimes, if you try to repair it yourself (or at a corner shop instead of an “authorized dealer”) it could void the warranty altogether!
Think you’re ready to buy? Wait a tick. Here are a few practical tips to keep in mind.
Step 1. Do your research
First and foremost, Google, Facebook, Yelp, etc. These are the quickest and easiest ways to determine if a seller is legitimate, has the best prices, and can be trusted.
Don’t forget to check more credible sources. For example, if you’re buying a car, try the Canadian Black Book or AutoTrader to learn the average price of the vehicle models you’re considering.
Read reviews from trustworthy sources. Consumer Reports is an independent, non-profit source of product reviews. See their website.
You can also get solid crowdsourced product reviews on sites like Wirecutter and @thingtesting. The Better Business Bureau also collects complaints about bad actors. Visit the BBB online.
Step 2. Negotiate with confidence
Everything can be negotiated. Sure, haggling with your grocer over the price of a pear is a bit … thrifty. But for big purchases, don’t assume there isn't wiggle room.
Mention competing offers from other sellers. Businesses will often match or beat prices. Ask them to throw in the extended warranty or protection plan for free.
This can be especially effective with cellphones and other electronics. And when you do make an offer to the seller, say it with confidence. Be polite and reasonable, but firm.
Step 3. Have a contract
If you’re buying something expensive, get it in writing, especially if you’re dealing with a private seller.
If a problem arises, you can go back to the written contract. You won’t have to argue over “who said what” when you struck the agreement.
Law can be tricky, but it isn’t rocket science. We’ve got a great template to get you started. Here's a basic contract template.
Step 4. Read and understand any contract
Read the fine print on any contract before you sign.
- Go over every section of the document, including any text on the reverse side of printed pages.
- Ask the other party to explain what something means if you don’t understand it.
- Fill in all areas of the document. If there are blank spaces, put a line through them to prevent something being added in later. If you do that, make sure both of you initial the strikethrough as proof you understood.
Step 5. Don’t rush the decision
If the other party makes a counteroffer to your original offer and you’d like to think about it, that’s OK. You can simply stop the deal if you feel like you’re being pressured into paying too much or buying additional features.
Who can help
Shoddy goods? Seller refusing to give you a refund? If you need help with that or other consumer-related issues, we’ve got content on that. See our information on problems with a purchase. Or, consider getting in touch with the following agencies.
- Consumer Protection BC
- Assists with some consumer problems and contracts. Includes online complaint form.
- Call 1-888-564-9963
- Start a complaint
- Visit website
- Better Business Bureau
- Receives complaints about local businesses that are members.
- Call 1-888-803-1222
- Visit website
- Competition Bureau
- Deals with complaints about false or misleading advertising.
- Call 1-800-348-5358
- Visit website
Affordable legal help does exist. (To be fair, two of these are options for help, and the third — the online tribunal — is a low-cost path to bringing a legal action.)
- Lawyer Referral Service
- Helps you connect with a lawyer for a complimentary 15-minute consult to see if you want to hire them.
- Call 1-800-663-1919
- Visit Website
- Access Pro Bono's Free Legal Advice
- Volunteer lawyers provide 30 minutes of free legal advice to people with low or modest income.
- Call 1-877-762-6664
- Visit Website
- Civil Resolution Tribunal
- Resolve disputes of less than $5,000 online 24/7 (no need for a lawyer!).
- Visit website
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