If you’re thinking about making a big purchase, there are some ways to go about it that can save you a huge headache.
Money expert Clark Howard’s Consumer Action Center gets tons of calls from people who’ve spent a lot of money to upgrade or replace something in their homes only to get burned by installation companies or other service providers.
“Too often, what you are told by a salesperson before you sign doesn’t count,” Clark says. “All that counts is what you signed your name to.”
In this article, I’ll share some steps you can take to protect yourself when you make a big purchase. In addition to products you bring home or have delivered, many of these points can also apply to installation or other kinds of services.
Before You Purchase
Before you sign on the dotted line, you should do your due diligence to make sure you’re buying the right item.
Know What You’re Buying
Pre-purchase research is the #1 way to make sure you’re getting the item you want to buy.
I once ordered a refurbished iPhone for what I thought was a great price. When it arrived, it was a regular-sized device and not the Plus version I wanted. I received exactly what I’d ordered: I just hadn’t looked carefully enough at the listing before I bought the phone.
Always look up the specs and size of the item for sale to confirm that it’s the exact product you want.
Once you’re sure you’ve found the right item, it’s time to look for the best price you can find.
Comparison Shop for the Best Price
Clark always suggests that you compare prices when you have an item in mind.
One tool that Team Clark likes is Google Shopping, which will send you alerts when an item drops in price.
Honey, which is a browser extension, will apply coupons to your online shopping cart so you can get a deal.
If your item is on Amazon, you can use CamelCamelCamel to track prices.
Keep abreast of sales by:
- Signing up for email alerts at stores you like (or where you might be targeting a particular purchase)
- Timing your purchase around sales holidays
- Considering older-generation products or items on clearance
- Searching for coupons or rebates
Check Price-Matching Policies
You can potentially save a lot of money if you know the price matching policy is at the stores you shop.
If you find the same item cheaper at another store, you may be able to get it at the same price or better just by asking the store manager at your preferred store.
Some major stores with price matching guarantees include:
Let’s say you’ve done your research and are ready to make your purchase. How can you protect yourself?
Use a Major Credit Card
As easy as it is to use your debit card for a big purchase, it’s not a good idea. In fact, Clark doesn’t want you to use your debit card for any purchase.
Major credit cards, such as American Express, Discover, Visa or MasterCard, provides better consumer protections.
In the event that you need a refund or something fraudulent occurs, it’s going to be harder to get your money back if you paid with a debit card.
And no matter how hard the salesperson pushes you, resist the temptation to open or use a store credit card unless you’re getting 5% cash back or better.
Among many other reasons, Clark says a store credit card typically comes with some inhospitable terms.
Those “0% for X months” offers can be tricky: “With a lot of the store plans, the interest is retroactive to Day One if you haven’t zeroed your balance out by the end of the 0% period. Even if it doesn’t retroactively charge, what you pay moving forward with those is usually a very high boomerang charge,” he warns.
Now let’s talk about ways to protect yourself post-purchase.
After You Purchase
In many cases, you may be on the hook for the remainder of the balance once the work is complete or the product is delivered — even if there’s something wrong.
Clark says not to sign anything stating that you’re satisfied unless you understand your obligations and that of the company going forward.
“If the contract handcuffs you to a company for 24 months, they mean it,” he adds. “If the contract says there’s a penalty to fire them before 24 months, they mean it.”
Examine the Product Closely
It is primarily your responsibility to make sure your product arrives in good shape.
If your product comes in a box, look for obvious indentations that may indicate that the item may have suffered some damage in transport.
It’s a good idea to take photos or video of the product while it’s still boxed up and then again after you unpack it.
Check the Installation Quality
Some homeowners may feel comfortable with letting service workers into their homes without them being there, but it’s best to be on site. Here’s why:
Aside from the obvious security factor, you want to be present in case any issues arrive pertaining to the installation process.
Often the person you talked to on the phone while placing the order is not the same person who installs your product. They may have to guess at some details that you have specifically requested.
In other words, once you’ve paid for your item, the technician or installer isn’t the only person who should be working: You’ve got some work to do, too!
If There Is an Issue
When it comes to buying consumer goods and services, issues may arise at any step along the way.
Let’s say you discover that the item you bought is broken or damaged when it arrives at your home. What should you do?
Contact the Company Immediately
If you can’t reach a company by phone, Clark suggests that you make contact through its social media channel. That’s where many companies engage with customers these days. You may even get better service because anyone on that company’s page can see the interaction.
Here are some avenues you may choose to pursue:
- Call the Company: Can’t find a company’s phone number? Search for their contact information on Elliott.org.
- Follow Up in Writing: Look for a company’s mailing address on emails you’ve gotten about the transaction, or you can Google the address. Once you find it, send your letter certified mail, and request a return receipt.
- File a BBB Complaint: The Better Business Bureau (BBB) makes it easy to file a complaint. Once you file, the BBB will give the business 10 days to respond. Hopefully, the issue can be resolved without legal action. But if not…
- Take the Company to Small Claims Court: You may have to resort to filing litigation to settle your differences with a company. Keep in mind that small claims court is designed for relatively minor cases. The maximum dollar amount of damages you can recover will depend on where you live.
In the end, make sure you’re satisfied with the item or service you bought as well as how it installed or performed.
Remember, before any money is exchanged, do research so that you know what you’re buying.
Clark says you should take the time to scrutinize — READ — any agreement you sign. And don’t be rushed!
“The bigger the company, the more one-sided the agreements tend to be,” he says.
If you feel strongly about a particular product or service detail, make sure you have it in writing.
Having trouble with a company or product? Contact Clark’s Consumer Action Center for free advice.