How long can I claim against a faulty product?
"MY laptop is just over two years old. The guarantee's run out, and I didn't bother getting a warranty. But the DVD drawer won't open any more. Can I still claim against this one?"
When the goods are faulty straight out of the box it's pretty simple - we take them back to the shop immediately and ask for a refund or replacement.
At the other end of the scale, a lot of us might assume that an electrical item failing not long after the guarantee runs out is almost to be expected, and that it's time to shell out for some new kit.
But incredibly well built and expensive equipment that looks like it could last decades may still have only a relatively short guarantee of a few years.
And while the 30-day return period might be over, that doesn't mean we have no rights if the soles start to come away from a pair of three-month-old shoes.
In fact, UK consumer laws give us very strong protection for six months, and a good degree of protection for up to six years.
So in this guide we'll walk you through:
- Those UK consumer laws
- Extra help from the EU
- How manufacturers and retailers can add to our rights
- Protection offered through payment
- When it's a case of buyer beware
Simpler, tougher, rules
We need to start things off by pointing out that at the time of this update, we're in the slightly tricky situation whereby recent purchases could by covered by one of two different sets of legislation.
Which rules apply depend on when we bought the item in question: anything bought on or after October 1st 2015 is covered by the Consumer Rights Act; anything bought before then is covered by the Sale of Goods Act.
The Consumer Rights Act updates, draws together and clarifies existing legislation - digital media is covered in its own right for the first time, for example - but it also offers a much stronger element of customer protection when it comes to recurring or unsolved problems.
For example, someone who's had a problem with an item and has had it repaired or replaced, only to find it's still faulty would be forgiven for wanting to reject the item completely, get a refund and buy a different item.
Customers who bought such an item before October could find themselves caught in a neverending loop of getting repairs and replacements, as there's no automatic right to a refund unless we can show that continued repairs and replacements will cause us "significant inconvenience".
In addition, the retailer is allowed to offer only a partial refund, to take account of any use the customer may have had.
However, those of us having problems with something we bought since October 2015 have the right to a full refund straight after finding out that the repair or replacement is also faulty - whether we've barely had the chance to use the item before it fails, or it takes a few months or even longer.
There's much more detail about how the new Act helps people when it comes to buying physical goods, digital material, and even services such as decorating or hairdressing, in our guide here.
If you bought online
Speaking of digital goods, people buying online have the same rights as those buying in person - and then some. There's more on those extra rights in this guide.
Regardless of when we bought a product and which legislation therefore applies to us, once we've found out there's a fault with it we must do the same thing: reject it.
That means stopping using it straight away, and telling the trader there's a problem as soon as possible.
This can be done immediately - say when collecting an item ordered online from a nearby shop and seeing that it doesn't meet the above requirements, or on getting it home and having a closer look.
It can also be done further down the line, but anyone who's had an item for a while or used it is deemed to have "accepted the goods", which can make it more difficult to get a refund.
Depending on how long we've had the item, though, the Consumer Rights Act and the old Sale of Goods Act can still see us through.
After a month
Under both sets of legislation, any goods found to have faults within six months of purchase are assumed to have been sold with the fault, and it's up to the shop to prove otherwise.
Say, for example, that a shopper spots a camera that would be an ideal Christmas present, at a bargain price, in August. They pack the item away carefully, only to find it's faulty when it's unwrapped four months later.
Unlike the organised Christmas shopper above, most of us will have used the goods in question within the first six months.
In both situations, the fault is still assumed to have been there since the beginning, and the customer is entitled to return the camera.
After six months, the burden of proof shifts to the buyer - so if our shopper bought that camera earlier than June, it's up to them to show that it was faulty when they bought it.
This is clearly where the Christmas shopper should have an easier time of things, as it's more likely that the box won't have been opened, or the camera inside used.
For those of us who have been snap happy in the intervening six months or more, it may be a little tougher. But again, both shoppers have strong rights for up to six years afterwards.
The six year window applies to most of the UK, under the Limitations Act; in Scotland however, the Prescription and Limitation Act offers a similar right to return goods with a complaint for five years.
Bear in mind though, that the longer it's been since the item was bought, and the less durable it is, the tougher it'll be to prove that the problem isn't the buyer's fault, and the harder it'll be to get a full refund.
People who bought an item less than two years ago may want to try their luck using a piece of EU ruling.
There's a certain amount of wriggle room in the wording of the directive, but used correctly it has the power to extend the kind of rights people have in those first six months for a considerable length of time.
It states that "the seller is liable to the consumer" for any fault "which exists when the goods are delivered to the consumer and which arises within a period of two years from delivery".
It goes on to say that, as under UK legislation, any faults discovered within the first six months are deemed to have been there all along. But where the EU directive differs is that it doesn't shift the burden of proving otherwise to the buyer after six months.
In any case, if the item could is something that could be expected to last at least five years, it's within the owner's rights to push for at least a partial refund, credit note, or repair.
Guarantees and warranties
The rights above can be bolstered by manufacturer and retailer guarantees and warranties.
Most manufacturers guarantee their goods for at least a year, with some offering longer guarantees for more expensive or complex items, and John Lewis offer a minimum two-year guarantee on all electrical goods they sell.
Extended warranties can offer protection against faults for goods that are up to eight years old, but they tend to be expensive for the cover they offer. There's more information on those here.
Unless the retailer in question has gone bust, almost all items being returned under guarantee or warranty must go via the store where they were bought - so don't be fobbed off by assistants saying it's not their problem.
If, however, the trader has gone bust, there are still ways to get faulty goods repaired or replaced within the time frames set out above.
The strongest protection comes from Section 75. Under this clause of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, anyone buying goods costing between £100 and £30,000 using a credit card will automatically have the same rights against the card company.
That means that without buying any extra cover, people should have up to six years of protection against faults courtesy of their credit card provider, depending on where in the UK they live.
There's more on the wonder of Section 75 here.
Finally, as we mentioned right near the beginning, there are some occasions when the guidelines and rules outlined here differ somewhat.
Second hand traders are covered by just the same regulations as traders selling new goods, but the definitions shift slightly to take account of the fact that second hand goods are most likely to have had some use.
In addition, anyone buying from a private seller - whether at a car boot sale, through the classifieds, or online - will find their rights are much more limited.
We look at the protection available in our guide to second hand sales here.
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