Forget what the sales agent says – dynamite comes in small print

Ideas

Forget what the sales agent says – dynamite comes in small print

Consumers love to take the quickest route and dodgy sales agents know and exploit this all too well

Consumer journalist
Image: 123RF/Jordan Tan

Never make a purchasing decision based solely on what a commission-earning sales agent tells you.

How I wish I could wave a wand and get everyone to embrace and follow that advice!

The problem is, it’s so much quicker and easier for us to take someone’s word than to read the small print of the document to sign.

And boy, do we consumers love to take the quickest, easiest route.

The dodgy sales agents know and exploit that all too well.

Many have bought a secondhand car believing it to be, say, a 2017 model, because that’s what the salesman told them – only to discover later when looking at the documentation properly, that it was a 2016 model.

It explains why so many contracts underpinning purchases include a clause that states something along the lines of “any utterances made by sales personnel have no legal effect”.

All timeshare contracts have it, being signed by folk who were lured to flashy presentations with the promise of a free gift, then mesmerised by images of all the lovely holidays they were going enjoy thanks to their “investment”.

The reality – ever-increasing levies, no guarantee of bookings and, worst of all, no possibility of escaping the contract, ever – were revealed only in the cold, hard small print of the contract.

Many have bought a secondhand car believing it to be, say, a 2017 model, because that’s what the salesman told them – only to discover later when looking at the documentation properly, that it was a 2016 model.

When it comes to buying cars and homes – and it’s a particularly good market for buyers of both now – please understand that if you put your signature to an “Offer to Purchase”, it’s a very final action, and if you don’t go through with it, for reasons other than a failed finance application or any other “out” included in the contract – it can cost you dearly.

“Vicky” e-mailed me this past week, in a bit of a state about an offer to purchase that she signed on a house east of Joburg.

“I went to view a property that I was interested in buying, and the agent told me that I should put in an offer to purchase as it is not binding and would only be a means of seeing if I qualify for a bond,” she said.

“She told me numerous times that a signed offer is not binding, and so I agreed to put an offer in.

“She made me sign everything first and then said she would go through it with me afterwards.”

As red flags go, that is a massive one. The moment someone suggests that you should not take the time to read the small print before signing, that’s your cue to start reading that small print. Every word of it.

Sadly, Vicky trusted that agent. But her signature was barely dry on the paper when she realised she’d been duped.

“As she left my house she said the offer was, in fact, legally binding.

“She also told me before I signed that the purchase price would include all transfer fees, but later the bond originator said I’d need to apply for a bigger loan amount to cover transfer costs.”

Within an hour of the agent leaving Victoria’s house, that offer-to-purchase was signed by the seller.

She decided to go through with the application, but couldn’t submit a bond application because, as a government employee, she hasn’t received a payslip since April.

That could well be true, but the problem is, as with all the other ethically challenged sales tactics I’ve mentioned, without a recording of the sales agent’s falsehoods, there is no proof.

“The human resources office in my district is closed until August 24, so I can’t get a letter from them,” she said. And she no longer has past payslips.

“I contacted my union to help me obtain these, but they can’t access the PERSAL system, so I need to wait for the district office to open.”

When the agent began harassing her, Vicky told her she felt coerced into signing that binding offer to purchase, and that she was no longer interested in the property.

“I know I was at fault for signing something without reading it, but her coercion – ‘It’s just to check if you qualify, just do it, why not?’ – played a large role.”

That could well be true, but the problem is, as with all the other ethically challenged sales tactics I’ve mentioned, without a recording of the sales agent’s falsehoods, there is no proof.

All there is, is a binding agreement with a signature on it.

Vicky has now received an attorney’s letter, saying that she owes the agent R64,000 for failing to apply for a bond in the period specified in that offer to purchase she signed “blind”.

“Please advise what my next course of action could be,” she said.

“I am a single mother with very limited funds and I’m in great distress as I believe I have been ambushed.”

I’m doing just that and will report back in a future column.

But the lesson is simple. You can’t be ambushed if you protect yourself by making sure you know exactly what you are agreeing to BEFORE you apply your signature.

There are no shortcuts to this.

First. Read. The. Small. Print.

Always.