Closing Door on House-to-House Sales

If a pestering door-to-door salesman comes knocking at your door and won't go away until you sign a contract to buy his books or brushes or sign up for his classes, is there anything you can do later, when you realize you made a mistake and were talked into buying something you didn't want or need?

Yes. In 1971, the state legislature passed a law designed to protect consumers from abusive sales practices. The law gives the buyer the right to cancel, within three days, any "home-solicitation contract." And if the seller does not comply with certain provisions of the law, your have the right to cancel, with a full refund, at any time.

What is a home-solicitation contract? It is any contract of $25 or more for the sale or rental of most household goods or services. (Certain goods, like cars and mobile homes, and the services of doctors, lawyers, investment advisers and other professionals are not included.)

Not Just Sales at Home

The law is not limited to sales deals that are made at your home, but applies to contracts made somewhere other than the seller's place of business.

"The statute applies to deals made at swap meets, in airplanes, or at property owned by the buyer but not used as a residence," one court explained.

The law requires that the seller must give the buyer a written contract, in the same language as the oral sales presentation, which includes a detachable "Notice of Cancellation" in 10-point type that informs the buyer that he has the right to cancel within three business days of the purchase date.

If the seller does not comply with these requirements, you may cancel the deal at any time. Specifically, you have until midnight of the third business day (excluding Sundays and certain holidays) to cancel, and your cancellation must be in writing. If you send the cancellation notice by mail, it must be deposited in the mail, postage paid, within the three-day deadline.

Once you cancel, the seller has 20 days to ask you for the return of the goods he has given you. The goods must then be returned, but the seller has to pick them up; you don't have to deliver them to him. And, most important, the law says: "If the seller fails to demand possession of goods within 20 days after cancellation, the goods become the property of the buyer without obligation to pay for them."

Restoration of Property

If a buyer cancels within the three-day period, he is not obligated to pay for any services rendered before the cancellation, and the seller must restore the property to as good a condition as it was before. This provision was meant to combat an unfair home-improvement practice called "spiking the job." For example, a siding salesman will "tear off portions of the old siding, replacing it with a few sections of new siding before returning to complete the job," one legal commentator explains. Then, the buyer may realize that he has been duped, "but will feel compelled to go along with the transaction because otherwise he would have to find someone else to repair his home." In other words, don't be fooled by a seller who tries to pressure you into paying for work by commencing services during the cancellation period.

But waiting patiently until the job is done and then trying to cancel may not work. In one case, where the parties entered into a contract for extensive remodeling of the buyer's home and the buyer did not cancel until five months later--after the work was substantially completed--the court decided that the contract was technically cancelled, but still ordered the buyer to pay for the reasonable value of the benefits received.

The law does not apply to emergency repairs or services, as long as the buyer initiated the request for the services and signs a statement that describes the emergency and waives the cancellation right.

The law has even been held to apply when the buyer initiated the contact with the seller by phone. In one case, a buyer called up a wall-insulation company, which sent a representative out to the buyer's home, where a contract was signed. The contract did not comply with the law--there was no cancellation notice attached--so the court allowed the buyer to cancel the contract. Since the company, which had already installed the wall insulation, did not demand return of the goods within 20 days of the cancellation, the buyer kept the wall insulation without paying for it.

The court admitted that the decision appeared to "deal harshly with merchants who have fully performed," but said the legislature wanted it that way. Caveat vendor , the court said, or "let the vendor beware," turning on its heels the traditional Latin phrase caveat emptor or "let the buyer beware."

Attorney Jeffrey S. Klein, a member of The Times' corporate legal staff, cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to questions of general interest about the law. Do not telephone. Write to Legal View, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.

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