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Making the Argument

The Hard Truth: Read Before You Sign, or Risk Unpleasant Consequences

By Michelle Fulton-Kilgore

November 11, 2004

The information in this column is not intended as legal advice but to provide a general understanding of the law. Any readers with legal problems, including those whose questions are addressed here, should consult attorneys for advice on their particular circumstances.

Q: My husband and I have been looking to purchase major appliances for our home and have gone to several major department stores. It never fails- at every store we go to, we get hit up by fast-talking salespeople who give glowing reviews on everything we look at. My husband is a pushover and wants to jump at everything that sounds good, while I want to take my time and make the best choice. I’ve tried to explain to him that no matter how good the promises salespeople make are, it is what is in the contract we sign that counts. My husband thinks that if they tell us something, that whatever they tell us is how it will be. Can you give us any advice on how to make sure that what we are promised is what we are getting?

A: Yes, GET IT IN WRITING!!! Okay, forgive me if I sound more like Dear Abby than a lawyer on this one, but this is something that we are all guilty of at one time or another. We all go to the store, or we’ll be visited by a door-to-door salesman, find ourselves enticed by what they have to offer, and sign on the dotted line without giving a second thought to what we are doing. Shame on us! We’re all guilty of it, myself included (I know, I need a good lashing), so today I’m going to dish out some practical advice that every person ought to put to good use. Consumer law is a little law coupled with a whole lot of common sense. Here are a few things that everyone should make it a habit to do:
1. NEVER sign a written or typed document without thoroughly reading it-that includes the fine print. This is where most people get a rude awakening. They sign a contract to buy a car, buy furniture, or even buy a house, and they simply assume that the contract is merely their acknowledgment of what they are buying. Bad mistake. The contract is more than a piece of paper stating what they have bought. It outlines their rights, the warranty that is offered (if any), and might even contain language that states what your options are in the event you are not satisfied with your purchase or your goods are defective. By signing a contract without reading it, you might be unwittingly consenting to forfeiting some of your legal remedies. For example, let’s say you purchase a new air conditioning unit for your home. You sign the papers without reading them, and two years later the unit stops working. You call the place that installed the unit, and they come out, fix the problem, and then send you an outrageous bill. You clearly recall the salesperson telling you that the warranty is ten years parts and labor, so you go and pull out your contract. Upon careful reading, you discover that the warranty is 10 years of parts only, that you are bound by an arbitration clause so you can’t sue them in court, and the contract clearly disclaims any other warranties. By signing the contract without reading it, you have severely limited your rights and remedies under law. “I didn’t read it” isn’t a valid defense in court. So, ALWAYS read any document you sign completely before signing it. If you don’t understand it, take it to an attorney. The money you spend having the contract explained to you will be worth its weight in gold.
2. When a salesperson starts making express promises, such as “If anything goes wrong at all in the next five years, we’ll come out and replace your item free of charge” or “Our warranty covers every component of your laptop, including the screen,” Ask them to put it in writing and sign it. If they cannot produce a written document that backs up their statement, then they are making false claims and you need to consider doing business elsewhere.
3. When you make major purchases, keep all the related documents- flyers, contracts, advertisements, etc. If your product malfunctions, and the flyer says that your warranty is five years parts and labor, but your contract says five years parts only, you still have grounds to make them honor the parts and labor, because the flyer is making an express warranty. For it to apply, however, you have to have known what was in the flyer and relied on it in deciding to make the purchase. As a habit, I keep everything that comes with any product I buy in a file. When I have problems with an item, I simply go pull the file and see what my options are.

These are just a few common sense tips for avoiding the common pitfalls of contracts for the purchase of goods or services. I hope that everyone will use them and avoid the headaches that follow when they fail to read the fine print. Happy Shopping!

Michelle Fulton is an attorney at The Fulton Law Firm, PLLC. If you have a legal problem you would like her to address, you may e-mail your request to or mail your request to her at 806 Hwy. 3, Houston, Texas 77058.

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