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Health Club Contracts: How to Avoid Overcharges

Follow these tips and you won't get exercised over unfair or inappropriate gym fees

By Caroline Mayer

As January winds down, you may be considering grabbing a discounted health club membership. Clubs often cut rates sharply in January to attract the New Year’s resolution crowd.
Trouble is, many people who join gyms or health clubs hoping to get a good workout wind up getting worked up by overcharges. Last year, the Better Business Bureau received about 9,400 complaints against health clubs, gyms, fitness consultants and personal trainers, roughly 15 percent more than in 2011. The gripes are typically billing and collection issues, contract concerns and disputes over refunds and exchanges.
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: What Your Gym Can Do for You Now)
It can be a Herculean task to get out of a gym contract or to stop monthly debits from your bank or credit card account after your contract has expired and you’ve stopped using the gym or its special services, like personal training. I have some advice (below) on how to avoid getting hosed by a health club.
$400 for Unwanted Training Sessions

But first, the sad story of Next Avenue articles editor John Stark, who recently discovered that his Minneapolis gym was still dinging his bank account for $200 a month even though its personal training sessions had run their course.
Stark had told the club he wouldn’t extend the sessions when they ended in November, but club employees tried to persuade him otherwise, appealing to his vanity. “They said, ‘You’re quitting now, at age 64? Don’t you want to be a role model for your age group?’”
Stark thought the issue was settled until he discovered a $200 debit for the training services on his bank statement in December and another in January. Upon checking his contract, Stark read that at the end of his initial six-month term, the club would automatically convert his membership to a month-to-month agreement unless he canceled by notifying the club in a letter to its California headquarters.
Stark protested, seeking his money back. But the manager refused to refund the $400, saying he could use the eight additional training sessions anytime and that his account would no longer be debited. 
Common Consumer Protections for Gym Members

Regulation of health and fitness clubs and their contracts is generally handled by the states. And over the past two decades, many states have enacted consumer protection laws governing the clubs. Specifics vary from state to state, but their principles are the same:

  • Club members generally have three days to back out of gym contracts after signing.
  • If you’re temporarily disabled (with, say, a broken arm), your membership can be put on a temporary hold and then extended by the length of the suspension.
  • If a health club closes, the contract is transferable to a nearby facility.
  • Some states limit contracts to three years; this prevents customers from signing up for lifetime memberships with large upfront fees, only to find their gyms ultimately shut down.

If you find yourself getting overcharged by a health or fitness club, don’t take it lying down. “Consumers should familiarize themselves with their states’ consumer protection laws,” says John Breyault, vice president for the National Consumers League. “They may have stronger cases than they realize.”
(MORE: Why the Fine Print Is Even Worse Than You Think)
The best way to protect yourself before signing up for a club membership is to closely read every line of the contract.  “Don’t just go in and sign where they tell you to sign,” says Kathryn H. Silcox, deputy attorney general for Pennsylvania. “Know what you’re getting into.”
Here are five more tips to help avoid getting clubbed by a health club:
1. Research the club in advance. Search the Better Business Bureau’s online database for complaints about the gym. Also, visit consumer sites, like Yelp and Angie’s List, for reviews about a gym you’re considering.
Also, check your local consumer protection office and state attorney general to see if there are any complaints about the gym.
If you plan to sign a long-term contract, verify with the proper state authority (usually the attorney general’s office) that the club has a security bond or letter of credit. That way, you’ll be more likely to get some money back if the gym goes out of business.
2. Get the gym’s policy — in writing — for canceling a membership. In some cases, you can only cancel if you’ve moved at least 25 miles away. If you’re ill or injured, certain clubs will put your membership on a temporary hold or extend it; others won’t.

The Federal Trade Commission notes that knowing the gym’s cancellation policies is especially important if you’re springing for a long-term membership.
(MORE: The Fiftysomething Workout: Your 5 Biggest Mistakes)
3. Consider signing up for a month-to-month membership initially. This may be more expensive than a contract of a year or longer (the average monthly cost is $55), but you won’t be locked into an agreement if you decide to terminate within a few months. And if you’re happy with the gym, after a few months with the monthly membership, you can switch to a cheaper yearlong plan. If you do go the month-to-month route, just be sure you know how much advance notice you'll need to notify the clug if you plan to terminate the membership. That way, you can avoid getting charged for a month you don't want or need.
4. Don’t give in to high-pressure sales tactics. Never sign up for a gym membership because the “deal” — such as no initiation fee — will be gone tomorrow.
5. Finally, once you sign a contract, make sure to hang onto it. You may need to refer to the agreement if you run into a dispute in the future. Having the terms in black and white could keep you out of the red.

Caroline Mayer is a consumer reporter who spent 25 years working for The Washington Post, covering such issues as product safety, scams, and credit cards. Mayer has received several awards, including the Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. She has written for Consumer Reports, CBS MoneyWatch, Ladies Home Journal, Kaiser Health News and others. Follow her on Twitter @consumermayer Read More
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