Your rights when buying second-hand goods

Last updated: May 24th, 2011
Feature by Laura Howard

In the past 18 months since the beginning of the credit crunch, a ‘make-do-and-mend’ mentality has set in. Thrift is back in fashion, and buying second-hand has become more popular than ever.

It’s not surprising then that a recent survey carried out by YouGov shows that more than 10% of consumers are buying more second-hand goods than they did before the recession.

Soon-to-be-mum Louise Johnson is just one of many who have been embracing the return of the second-hand culture. Louise and her husband are expecting twins in October, and have opted to buy a used pram from a friend’s brother.

“These are our first children, and having two at the same time doubles the cost,” says Louise, a 34-year-old events manager from west London. “I had my eye on a pram called Jane Power Twin, which retails new at £450. But we also needed two newborn car seats at £150 each. This totals £750.”

As luck would have it, a brother of a friend of the couple – whose twins are now three years old – had bought exactly the same pram, which they were now about to sell online. “He and his wife offered the pram, car seats and two high chairs all for £250, which seemed like a no-brainer,” says Louise.

However, while it’s great if you find that a friend is selling what you’re after, most of us have to buy from a stranger. So what do you need to think of if you’re buying from someone you don’t know, and what are your rights if anything goes wrong?

Fit for purpose?

The Sale of Goods Act 1979, under which traders must sell goods that are as described and of satisfactory quality, applies to second-hand goods just as it does to new ones. But the level of protection you’ll receive will vary depending on who you are buying from.

If you’re buying a used item on eBay from an official company, for example, you will be protected under the Sales of Goods Act in its entirety. This means that the goods must be of satisfactory qualify (as assessed by a reasonable person, bearing in mind the items are second-hand), as described by the seller and fit for purpose.

This is also the case when buying from any standalone official online retailer – whether the goods are second-hand or new. In fact, in this case, another layer of protection will apply, known as Distance Selling Regulations.

“As you haven’t been able to see the goods, this law states that you have a seven-day cooling off period, which starts from the day after delivery, in which to change your mind,” says Frank Shepherd, spokesperson for the Office of Fair Trading. This means you can get a full refund without having to give a reason – regardless of whether the goods are second-hand or new.

To get additional protection, it’s also wise to use a credit card when making an online purchase from a company, as you will be protected by the credit card company itself under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act. The Act provides protection on goods between £100 and £30,000 in value. But even if you just put a deposit on the card, you are still protected for the full amount.

 

However, if you’re buying from an individual – which constitutes a private sale – the rules are slightly different. For example, the so-called ‘implied terms’ of the Sales of Goods Act only apply to title and description, not to quality. This means the goods must simply correspond with the description, and be legally owned by the seller.

“That means a dress can’t be a size 12 if it was described as a size 18,” says Stephen McGlade, a solicitor at consumer group Which?.

However, if an item is advertised as “a three-year-old bike”, for example, it doesn’t mean it has to work, just that it has to be three years old. In this case, especially when the item has been well-used, the transaction remains a case of caveat emptor, or ‘buyer beware’. “This, put simply, is why you pay a lower price for second-hand goods,” says McGlade.

Getting your money back

If the private seller has failed on any of the relevant parts of the Sales of Goods Act, it is up to the buyer to take issue with them, quoting that they have contravened Section 13 of the Act. If they do not rectify the problem by way of a refund or replacement, the next port of call is the small claims court. However, after you factor in legal fees and the time and hassle of a court case, this may not be worth your while.

If you’ve bought an item from a flea market or car boot sale, you may not even be able to trace the seller in the first place, so these purchases really boil down to an even clearer case of caveat emptor, says McGlade. “As the trader is not an official company, any purchase will be regarded as a private sale, which gives you limited rights – if they can be traced at all. In this case, it’s really up to the buyer to exercise caution.”

Second-hand shops and auctions

This year has seen traditional second-hand shops prosper in the face of the recession.

“Recently, we’ve seen a notable rise in the number of customers visiting our shops as they search for a good bargain,” says Andrew Adair, director of retail at disability charity Scope – who adds that this also means that donations have unfortunately diminished.

When you make a purchase from a second-hand shop, you can exercise exactly the same rights under the Sales of Goods Act as you can with a high-street shop that sells new items. This means that if the item is not fit for purpose or is faulty, you can demand a refund.

But if you merely change your mind about a purchase, a second-hand shop – just like any other – is under no legal obligation to provide a refund or even a return. “Instead, each shop will operate its own returns policy, which you agree to when you make the purchase,” says a spokesperson from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

When buying second-hand goods from an auction house, you enter into a contract with the seller rather than the auction house. If you turn up in person to the auction house and can physically see the goods you are bidding for, you may have no legal rights at all.

“It could be that the auctioneers display a notice or include a note in the catalogue that states your legal rights don’t apply and that the goods are ‘sold as seen’,” says McGlade. 

If you’re not given the opportunity to attend the auction, however, then the same Sale of Goods Act rights apply as if you were buying on eBay. And, again, the level of protection the Act provides will depend on whether you are buying from a company or private seller.

Tricks of the trade

There are also certain things to watch out for when buying second-hand goods. It’s not against the law for someone to knock on your front door unsolicited in an attempt to sell second-hand goods – but under no circumstances should you let them in.

In addition, there’s almost never a reason that you would need to disclose your bank details either. Even when no cash changes hands, that’s what services such as PayPal are for.

Other second-hand purchase traps to watch out for are electrical goods, which must meet Electrical Equipment Safety Regulations 1994; soft furnishings, which must carry a fire safety label; and prams and pushchairs, which must meet British Standard 7409:1996. Second-hand child car seats, unless from a close contact, are probably best avoided altogether.

Where to find out more about buying second-hand:

Buy it online

• Check out eBay.co.uk to bid for an infinite number of second-hand goods
• Gumtree.co.uk lists thousands of used items organised in clear categories
• Fast-growing kids? Check out Mymummyandme.co.uk for barely used toys and clothes
• Pick up some second-hand books at Booklovers.co.uk

Go and find it

• Source your local car boot sales at Yourbooty.co.uk
• Find your nearest second-hand shops at Upmystreet.co.uk
• Find the nearest Emmaus store at Emmaus.org.uk for second-hand furniture restored by the homeless in return for a bed

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