As the OFT clamps down on unfair gym contracts, we looks at how to keep down the costs, and the essential questions to ask
Anyone planning to fulfil their new year’s resolution by joining a gym should check what they are signing up to ahead of a crack down by the Office of Fair Trading on contracts issued by some of the best-known high street chains.
At the end of January the watchdog is expected to take action on contracts that are longer than 12 months and those that do not contain a get-out clause, such as losing your job or sustaining an injury. Following a year-long investigation, the watchdog says it will take court action against gym chains that do not comply with its new rules.
Lengthy gym contracts with a raft of complex terms and conditions have been the bane of many consumers’ lives. Last year the Guardian reported on two particularly distressing cases, involving the chain LA Fitness. One involved a heavily pregnant woman and her recently unemployed husband who could no longer afford the fees for their two-year contract. In the other case, an 81-year-old man found he had unwittingly signed up to a two-year contract with the chain, when all he wanted was occasional light exercise. Both were pursued for the total cost of their remaining contracts – although LA Fitness backed down when the newspaper became involved.
Both the OFT and Citizen’s Advice have issued guidelines in the last fortnight about what to watch out for in gym contracts, and have given advice to those who are already locked into long contracts.
The OFT advises people to ask the following four questions:
? How long is the contract? Consider whether you are sure you want to sign up for a year, or whether a rolling monthly contract or pay-as-you go would be more suitable.
? Can you cancel early if your circumstances alter or if you change your mind? Some gym providers allow you to cancel or put the contract on hold under certain circumstances, such as if you are injured and unable to use the facilities, or if you lose your job.
? Will the contract be automatically extended after the initial membership period? Most gym contracts automatically continue. Make a note of the date by which you should inform the gym and ask for some form of proof that the gym has received your cancellation notice.
? Do you have the time to go to the gym and can you afford the monthly payments? Make sure you understand the commitment you are signing up for.
What if I’m already in a long contract?
If you are already in a gym contract and would like to cancel there is a possibility you could argue that the contract terms around cancellation are unfair.
In a high court case involving Ashbourne Management Services, a company that draws up agreements and collects payments for gyms, the judge concluded that a contract was unfair if it was for longer than 12 months and did not allow the consumer to cancel with 30 days’ notice and payment of a moderate sum in compensation.
“When a judge finds in a particular case that terms are unfair you may be able to use the judgment to make an argument that similar terms are unfair elsewhere,” says Sam Tappenden, who works for Citizen’s Advice’s consumer service.
Based on the conclusions of the Ashbourne case, Citizen’s Advice says that the terms of your contract could be unfair if:
? it automatically renews without your permission;
? it says your cancellation is not valid until you receive a confirmation letter from your gym;
? it sets a minimum contract term of more that a year (however, gym-goers who have been given a discount for agreeing to a longer deal may find it harder to break their contract – this will become clearer once the OFT announces its new rules);
? the terms are unclear or not in plain English;
? it says that gyms will not be liable for death or personal injury, or for loss or damage to property.
“Also, if the gym dramatically changes the services on offer, you could argue that you should be allowed to cancel without penalty,” says Citizen’s Advice. “This is because the new services are not what was agreed between you and the gym when you signed the contract. If the gym has a term in your contract that allows them to make unrestricted changes to the services on offer or to the prices, that may also be an unfair term.”
How can I keep the costs of my contract down?
It is always worth trying to negotiate your contract with the gym chain if you are not happy with the price or the terms.
“If the contract commits you for 24 months, there is no harm in crossing that out and altering that to 12 months and negotiating from there,” says Tappenden.
However, most gyms charge less the longer the contract so you might miss out on a discount. In any case, it is better to try to haggle towards the end of a month, when sales staff are keen to meet targets, and outside of the busy January period.
Many gym chains now offer short-term contracts or “trial” contracts of a month or more, so take advantage of these if you are not sure about your longer-term commitments.
Some of the most tempting special offers are available at this time of the year, but be wary of taking a couple of months’ free membership only to commit yourself to a further 18 months.
What are the alternatives to a traditional gym chain?
No-contract and no-frills gyms are growing in number and taking business from the traditional chains. The Gym Group, for example, currently has 32 branches and plans to open a further 20 in 2013. Monthly memberships start from £10.99 up to £19.99 depending on location and, crucially, there’s no contract. The gyms are open 24 hours a day and day passes are available for £5.
Alternatively, if you can bear the garish Orange surroundings, easyGym offers no-contract membership or pay-as-you-go day passes to its facilities. It has only four gyms around the country, however: Birmingham, Cardiff, Slough and Wood Green (London). Memberships start from £15.99 a month for the gym with no classes and from £28.99 a month with classes.
Other no-frills chains you could try include Fitspace, Pure Gym and Klick Fitness, which is owned by Fitness First.
You are unlikely to see fluffy towels and saunas in many of these chains, but they typically cost less and are easier to leave than traditional chains.
Local authority gyms also tend to be cheaper than high street names and are often contract free. Some of the newer ones contain state of the art equipment and many have a swimming pool, which a lot of inner-city gym chains do not.
Alternatively, you could ditch the gym and join a running club, sign up a regular fitness class, or buy an exercise DVD.