When you make a purchase, you are making a contract. A contract is a legally enforceable agreement. As parties to the agreement, you and the seller have certain legal rights and obligations.
The seller must not mislead you
“I got an email saying I was entitled to a 30% ‘discount’ off any pair of shoes from the Shoes Aplenty website. I bought a pair of loafers. I later learned that I paid the ordinary price they charge everyone. The term ‘discount’ gave me the impression I was getting a bargain price. I wasn’t. That’s misleading advertising.”
– Winston, Delta
Under BC law, sellers are not allowed to mislead you to convince you to buy something. In their advertising and in their conversations with you, a seller cannot say anything that has the capability of deceiving or misleading you.
For example, a seller must not advertise or tell you that:
- what they are selling has uses or benefits that it does not have
- what they are selling is of a particular standard or quality when it isn’t
- they have an approval, status or connection that they don’t have
- you are getting a special price or benefit when they are really offering the same thing that you can get somewhere else
There are also federal laws that prohibit sellers from advertising or saying anything that is false or misleading. For example, a seller must not advertise or tell you that:
- what they are selling is on "sale" or "special" unless the price is lower than the ordinary selling price (and they can’t artificially increase the ordinary price)
- what they are selling performs at a certain level unless they can prove it (for example, saying they offer “the fastest network in Canada”)
- what they are selling is endorsed by someone when that is not true (that is, they can’t make up a fake testimonial)
No one actually needs to be deceived or misled for a court to find that a representation is misleading. If the general impression given by a representation is misleading, that is enough.
Here are examples of misleading representations:
- A lender advertising “CMHC Approved” when neither the lender nor their loan has that approval.
- A retailer advertising “Your discount—50% off all prices shown in this catalogue", when the discount price is in fact the ordinary selling price.
- "Free insurance with the purchase of a car" where the free offer only applies when the full asking price is paid.
Also against the law are “bait and switch” tactics. That is when a seller advertises something at a bargain price but doesn’t stock reasonable quantities. Once at the store, you discover that what was advertised (the “bait”), is sold out. The seller tries to “switch” you to buy some other (typically more expensive) item. They can’t do that. The seller has to stock reasonable quantities or offer you a rain check.
Sellers who break these laws can be fined, jailed, or ordered to compensate consumers who suffer losses.
The seller must not act unfairly towards you
Under BC law, sellers are not allowed to act unfairly towards you or knowingly take advantage of you.
For example, a seller cannot charge you a price that is far more than what others are charging for the same thing.
A seller cannot subject you to “undue pressure” to force you to buy. An example would be if a seller tells you that you have to sign a contract immediately to get a “special price” they are offering.
As well, a seller is not allowed to knowingly take advantage of you. For example, they can’t get you to buy something that they know you cannot afford.
Nor can they take advantage of any vulnerabilities that you may have that affect your ability to protect your own interests, such as any physical or mental disability, illiteracy or language difficulties. For example, a seller is not allowed to force people whose first language is not English to sign complicated contracts that they do not understand.
If the seller does something unfair, any agreement you sign is not binding on you.
You are protected by the legal warranty
Under the law, a level of quality, performance and durability is implied into every sale of goods. When you buy something from a business, it has to:
- be fit for the purpose you bought it for
- be of “merchantable” quality (that is, it has to work and can’t be damaged)
- be durable for a reasonable period of time
- match the description of the goods
These conditions are sometimes referred to as the legal warranty, as they are established by a law called the Sale of Goods Act. This legal warranty applies regardless of whether the seller mentions it. It is in addition to any warranty the seller or manufacturer provide.
If the item you bought is faulty or doesn't work, the legal warranty gives you the right to get the item repaired or replaced, or to cancel the contract and get a full refund (see our guidance on if there is a problem with a purchase for more details on your options).
In addition to the legal warranty, many sellers and manufacturers offer their own warranty or guarantee for their product. Learn more about how warranties and guarantees work.
If you buy privately from an individual, the legal warranty is more limited than if you buy from a business. If you buy something from an individual, it has to be durable for a reasonable period of time and match the description of the goods. The conditions that an item be fit for the purpose you bought it for and be of “merchantable” quality apply only when you buy from a business.
When something is sold “as is”
Sometimes, a business will say a product is sold "as is". This suggests that you won’t be able to expect help with any repairs or service if there are problems.
But in fact the legal warranty applies to all new products, no matter what the business says. When a business sells a new product “as is”, the item must still be fit for the purpose you bought it for, of merchantable quality, and reasonably durable.
The legal warranty can be waived for used items. Be cautious if you are asked to waive it. You’ll want to be sure you’ve done everything you can to protect yourself by following the steps below to prevent problems.
The legal warranty applies to any new product sold by a business, including one sold “as is”. But be aware that the legal warranty is the subject of much legal interpretation. To enforce your rights, you might have to go to court. Think twice about any product that is sold "as is", unless you're willing to take the risk that if it doesn't work properly, it might be difficult and costly to get things put right.
1. Do your research
When you buy something, doing research in advance will reduce the risk of legal problems down the road.
Gather information from credible sources on the item you are considering purchasing. For example, if you’re buying a car, try the Canadian Black Book or AutoTrader.ca to learn the average price of the vehicle models you are considering.
Read reviews from trustworthy sources. Consumer Reports is an independent, non-profit source of product reviews.
See what other people are saying about the company or product by searching online for its name and the word “reviews” or “complaints”.
2. Negotiate with confidence
When you make an offer to the seller, say it with confidence. Be polite and reasonable, but firm.
3. Have a contract
Even when the law doesn’t say that you have to have a written contract, you should have one if you are exchanging something that is worth a substantial amount of money. For example, a written contract is a good idea if you are buying or selling:
- a used car
- an appliance
- an electronic device
- a work of art
- a boat or a trailer
If a problem arises, you can go back to the written contract rather than argue over “who said what” when the agreement was reached.
A contract doesn’t have to be pages long and full of legal terminology. In fact, it’s better if the contract is concise and in language all parties understand. See our template for a basic contract and tips on how to write a legal contract.
4. Read and understand any contract
Read the fine print on any contract before you sign. Don’t take the signing of this document lightly.
- Go over every section of the document, including any text on the reverse side of printed pages.
- Ask the other party to explain what things in the agreement mean if you don’t understand them.
- Fill in all areas of the document or put a line through them if there are blank spaces.
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.
Should I buy an extended warranty?
When you make a purchase, you may be invited to buy an “extended warranty”. This is a promise—in exchange for you paying a certain amount in advance—to cover repairs and maintenance for a given period if there are problems.
But be aware that an extended warranty may not give you any more rights than you have already through the legal warranty explained above. If you're thinking about an extended warranty, check its terms. For example:
- How long is the extended warranty good for?
- What will the warranty provide if the item fails? Will you be entitled to a repair, a replacement, or your money back?
- Who do you contact to obtain warranty service? Does the store where you bought the item take care of any repairs or do you have to ship it somewhere at your own cost?
Learn more about how warranties and guarantees work.
Consumer Protection BC provides assistance relating to certain types of consumer problems and contracts in BC.
Start a complaint online: https://www.consumerprotectionbc.ca/consumer-help/start-a-complaint/
The Better Business Bureau assists people in finding businesses they can trust.
The Competition Bureau deals with complaints about false or misleading advertising.