Know your rights - a guide to consumer law

Seasoned renovators know that good relationships with competent tradespeople and reliable suppliers are the key to a successful renovation. But what happens when things go wrong: a job isn't up to scratch, the relationship with a contractor sours, or a product doesn't deliver as expected?

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ARTICLE Kylie Jurgensen

Seasoned renovators know that good relationships with competent tradespeople and reliable suppliers are the key to a successful renovation. But what happens when things go wrong: a job isn’t up to scratch, the relationship with a contractor sours, or a product doesn’t deliver as expected?
Consumer law in New Zealand provides recourse for many situations when working relationships become sour. The Fair Trading Act makes it illegal for those in business to mislead consumers, use unfair trading practices, or provide false information. The Consumer Guarantees Act provides guarantees that suppliers of goods and services for personal and household use are required to uphold.

Let’s look at how these Acts apply to some familiar scenarios:

The expensive designer curtains that I had made for my sunroom have begun to fade.

Goods and services must be of acceptable quality, which includes being both fit for their normal purpose and durable. Since part of the function of curtains is to screen sunlight, you may be able to make a case for a breach of the  ‘acceptable quality’  guarantee under the Consumer Guarantees Act. In addition, goods must be fit for a particular purpose. This means that when a trader sells you a product on the basis that it is suitable for a specific situation – in this case, curtains for a sunroom – and the product turns out to be unsuitable, you have the right to return the goods and ask the trader to provide a refund or replacement.
If you asked the salesperson who sold you the curtains whether they would be suitable for a sunroom and they sold you the product on that basis, you could argue that they have breached the Fair Trading Act by providing misleading information.

I had a special coating applied to my bathroom tiles to make them non-slip, and it doesn’t work.

If you explain to a service provider what you want, and they accept the job, they are required under the Consumer Guarantees Act to deliver the results you agreed upon. In this case, if the person providing the service knew that you needed a non-slip surface on the tiles, they are required to ensure that their product achieves this. However, if they explained to you that their product might not be effective on the type of tiles you have, and you insisted they do the job anyway, they are not responsible for the outcome. Also, if the product failure is because you apply an oily cleaner to the sealed tiles, or because a poorly situated shower leaks excessive water onto the bathroom floor, you cannot claim against the service provider who sealed the tiles.

I’ve just had new vinyl installed and within days it started bubbling up in places.

Under the Consumer Guarantees Act, services must be provided with reasonable care and skill. In this case the job has not been done properly and you should approach the flooring contractor to fix the problem at no extra cost. If they refuse or do not address the problem within a reasonable timeframe you can get the job fixed by someone else at the original contractor’s expense, or you can cancel the contract and refuse to pay for the job.

It has been raining for weeks and the painter is a month behind schedule.

Taking an unreasonably long time to complete a job would normally be a breach of the Consumer Guarantees Act, which requires that work is carried out within a reasonable time. However, when the delay is caused by circumstances outside the service provider’s control, you cannot hold him responsible under the Act. Unfortunately you just need to be patient on this one!

I hired a guy to install my new kitchen three months ago. He did a week’s worth of work but I haven’t seen him since.

Where there is no specific agreement between the service provider and the customer about the timeframe for the work, the Consumer Guarantees Act requires that work be completed in a  ‘reasonable’  time. In this case you could call around a few contractors and get an idea of the average time they would take to install a kitchen like yours. The next step would be to seek a remedy under the Act – contact the contractor and ask him to complete the job. If he refuses you can get another contractor to complete the job and send the bill to your original guy. Providing the cost is within the normal range for that type of work he is required to pay for it.

My new heat pump is so noisy we can’t hold a conversation, and it doesn’t heat up the room.

Suppliers of goods are required to ensure that their products match the description provided or implied through advertising, a sales pitch or a demonstration. If this model is advertised as  ‘quiet’  you would certainly be within your rights to ask for a refund or replacement.
The goods must also be fit for purpose. If you explained to the supplier exactly where the heat pump would be installed and relied on their expertise in choosing that particular model, you are entitled to seek a remedy under the Consumer Guarantees Act. You can also make a complaint under the Fair Trading Act if you feel that you were misled by the trader.

We hired someone to dye our carpets but the finished colour is nothing like the test swatch they showed us.

Since the work carried out is clearly not of acceptable quality, you have the right to seek a remedy under the Consumer Guarantees Act. This case would be considered a  ‘serious problem’  in terms of the Act because you would not have had the work done if you had known this would be the outcome. In addition, the result is not fit for the purpose you require and it cannot be easily fixed. You have the right to cancel the contract and refuse to pay, or you can claim compensation from the service provider because the work was not worth what you paid for it.

The tradesperson denies that he is in breach of the law and refuses to take my calls. How can I take the issue further?

If you have no success dealing directly with the trader concerned you can seek a legal remedy. For breaches of the Fair Trading Act, you can lodge a complaint with the Commerce Commission. Although the Commission does not represent individuals, it will investigate your complaint and take legal action against the trader if appropriate.
For problems covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act, or where you seek compensation for amounts up to $15,000 (or $20,000 if the other party agrees) you can take your complaint to the Disputes Tribunal. You and the trader will both be given the opportunity to present your side of the story and a Tribunal Referee will listen and make a legally binding decision. The other alternative is to hire a lawyer and sue the trader in court.

To find out more about your rights as a consumer, or for help with a specific consumer problem, the following agencies can help:

Citizen’s Advice Bureau – details of your local office are available at
Community Law Centres – locations and contact details are available at
Ministry of Consumer Affairs –
Commerce Commission –

You might be interested in reading: Making the decision to renovate.

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This column by Kylie Jurgensen featured in the Autumn 2012 Issue of Renovate Magazine. Renovate Magazine is an easy to use resource providing fresh inspiration and motivation at every turn of the page.

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*All information is believed to be true at time of publishing and is subject to change.

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