Problem with a purchase

Woman opening a box looking unhappy

The TV won’t turn on. That computer doesn’t have Wi-Fi. The blender doesn’t blend. The item broke. The salespeople lied. Don’t forget that you have rights. Let’s get after it.

What you should know

If your new toaster clashes with your countertop, that’s not the manufacturer’s fault. If it doesn’t toast, that certainly is. If something you bought doesn’t work, you may be entitled to a refund, a repair, or a replacement.

When you buy something, that’s a contract. If the other side doesn’t do what they promised (like sell you a bike that works), they’ve broken the contract.

When this happens, a handful of solutions are available. The law calls these remedies.

Let’s say that on your first ride with that new bike, the frame breaks. The law offers these potential solutions:

  • The contract is cancelled. Return the bike and get a refund.

  • You’re awarded compensation. The seller must repair or replace the bike — and if you broke your leg when the frame broke, you may be entitled to compensation for that too.

  • The seller is ordered to perform the contract. In other words, they have to provide you with a working bike.

If what went wrong was essential to the purchase (that broken frame), you’re entitled to cancel the contract. If it wasn’t essential (a squeaky pedal), you’re likely entitled to a partial refund, but you can’t return the bike.

The law requires a baseline level of quality for the things you buy. When you buy something from a business, the product has to:

  • be fit for the purpose you bought it for
  • work and be undamaged
  • be durable for a reasonable period of time
  • match the advertised description

These conditions are sometimes referred to as the legal warranty.

If any of these conditions aren’t met, you’re entitled to cancel the contract. Act immediately if you want to do that. If you wait, it’s harder to prove the defect isn’t just normal wear and tear.

If the item was damaged by regular use, an accident or misuse, you likely won’t be covered. As well, the law likely won’t help if you examined the goods beforehand and ought to have spotted the problem.

The seller can’t tell you something misleading or deceiving, or take advantage of you.

If the seller has lied about something essential (they said it’s four-wheel drive, but it isn’t) you may be entitled to a refund. If it’s non-essential (they said 24 kms per litre, but really it gets 18), you’re likely entitled to some compensation, but you can’t cancel the contract.

We’ve got more information on what is misleading or acting unfairly. See our information on the basics of making a purchase.

A cooling-off period means a stretch of time, after the purchase, when you can decide this product doesn’t spark joy after all, and return it. You can cancel the contract without penalty. You don’t need to give a reason.

Not every purchase features a cooling-off period. It's available in some situations but not others. And the length of the cooling-off period varies depending on what you’re buying.

Cooling-off periods apply in these situations:

  • When you buy something in person, but not at the business location (like a door-to-door sale), you have a cooling-off period of 10 days after you receive a copy of the contract.
  • When you receive services on an ongoing basis (like a yoga or gym pass), you have a cooling-off period of 10 days after you receive a copy of the contract.
  • When signing a cellphone contract, you have a cooling-off period of 15 days after your cellphone service begins.

Two more examples:

  • When leasing a car, you have a one “clear” (full) day after you sign to reconsider.
  • If you buy a newly built condo, you have a cooling-off period of seven days after you sign the contract or acknowledge seeing the developer’s disclosure statement, whichever comes last.

For a product or service you buy online, you may or may not have a cooling-off period. It depends on the circumstances. We’ve got specific content on this if you’re interested. See our information on online shopping.

Otherwise, keep in mind that a store’s return policy may be able to help.

If you bought something from a retail store and have changed your mind, check the store’s policy on returns.

It’s best to know this policy in advance, especially for a big purchase. Some larger items, or electronics, have a stricter return policy.

First and always, keep your receipt! Often it has the return policy printed on it.

Check the following:

  • How many days until the return period expires. If there’s no time limit, great!
  • Whether you can have used the product before returning it.
  • Whether there are any “restocking” or other charges.

Some stores offer a satisfaction guarantee. This is a great thing for consumers! It gives you the legal right to return the product for a full refund, even if what you bought is perfectly alright.

Always remember, as a consumer, you have rights. (And a duty to keep businesses honest!) Let’s move on to how you can deal with these sorts of problems.

Take action

Once you understand your legal rights and options, decide what outcome you’re after. Do you want to return the item and get your money back? Do you want to keep the item but get things put right?

Collect copies of any documents, such as any contract, receipts, correspondence, advertising, or warranty. Prepare notes. Include:

  • details of the problem, including when you first noticed it
  • anything the other party said that you relied on in making the purchase or contract
  • what outcome you’re seeking

Tip

If there’s a cooling-off period, you need to give the other party written notice telling them you want to cancel. (Email is best; a regular letter can take time and may not get to them before the cooling-off period ends!) Once they get the notice and you return the item, you have no further legal obligations under the contract.

Start by finding the right person to talk to about the problem. If there’s a complaints department, use it. If there isn't, talk to someone in authority, such as a manager or owner.

They may say you have to make your complaint in writing. If they do, get a name and address of the person to contact.

Be firm and businesslike, but polite. Let them know you understand what you’re entitled to. Tell them what you want them to do to resolve the problem.

Promises are one thing, but followup is key. The person may agree to do what you suggest, but confirm when they will do this. Ask them for their name so you can refer to the conversation later. Follow up with a written note confirming what was agreed to.

If the person doesn’t agree to do what you suggest, ask who you can contact with a formal complaint. Get the address of that person.

Make notes of your conversation. Date your notes.

If discussing the situation with the other party doesn’t resolve the problem, the next step is to send a complaint letter to them. We’ve got a template for you ready to go. Here's our complaint template.

You can also take to social media to voice your concerns. Be accurate. Be truthful. You may end up getting what you want. Companies are eager to protect their reputations. If none of this works, there are agencies that can help.

Who can help

Shoddy goods? Seller refusing to give you a refund? If you need help with that or other consumer-related issues, there are agencies that can help.

Consumer Protection BC logo
Consumer Protection BC
Assistance relating to certain types of consumer problems and contracts in BC.
Call 1-888-564-9963Send emailVisit website
BBB logo
Better Business Bureau
Might not solve problems, but helps people find businesses they can trust.
Call 1-888-803-1222Visit website
Competition Bureau logo
Competition Bureau
Deals with complaints about false or misleading advertising.
Call 1-800-348-5358Visit website

Affordable legal help does exist. (To be fair, two of these are options for help, and the third — the online tribunal — is a cheap and fast option to resolve a dispute yourself.)

Access Pro Bono logo
Lawyer Referral Service
Helps you connect with a lawyer for a free half-hour consult.
Call 1-800-663-1919Visit website
Access Pro Bono logo
Access Pro Bono Clinics
Volunteer lawyers provide free legal advice to people with limited means.
Call 1-877-762-6664Visit website
Civil Resolution Tribunal logo
Civil Resolution Tribunal
Resolve disputes of less than $5,000 online 24/7 (no need for a lawyer!).
CRT website 🌎

  • This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
  • Reviewed in January 2020
  • Time to read: 7 minutes

Reviewed for legal accuracy by

Dean Davison, Davison Law Group

Dean Davison, Davison Law Group

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This information from People’s Law School explains in a general way the law that applies in British Columbia, Canada. The information is not intended as legal advice. See our disclaimer.

Related

On Dial-A-Law

Dial-A-Law has more information on Making a purchase in the section on Consumer.