Q. I am considering joining a gym after the first of the year. What advice does the BBB have for evaluating fitness centers?
A. The first advice the BBB offers is to read the fine print in the membership agreement.
Complaints received by Better Business Bureau for fitness clubs have increased more than 90 percent in the last five years. And according to a new analysis conducted by BBB, the most common complaints consumers have about fitness clubs focus on two related areas, contract disputes and billing issues.
BBB has also seen a rise in complaints about fitness centers that sold memberships, only to go out of business a few weeks later, leaving disgruntled customers behind trying to recoup their advance payments.
At this time of year many people are seeing and feeling the after-effects of those holiday parties and big meals, are resolving to join a gym and lose weight.
The trends we are seeing in complaints against fitness clubs tells us that consumers need to read the fine print on the contract before they sign, and keep a close eye on their bank statements to make sure they are not getting billed more than agreed.
While some complaints regarding billing are basic billing errors, the majority of billing complaints center on being billed after the member felt their contract had expired. Many consumers either assumed their contract would not be renewed, or filed the appropriate paperwork to cancel their membership but continued to have fees withdrawn from their bank accounts.
Contract dispute complaints vary, but typically involve disagreements over promises made by the salesperson versus what the membership actually included, and the policy for getting out of the contract if the member relocated to another area.
More than 15 percent of complaints came from consumers whose fitness center either closed up completely or changed management shortly after they joined.
The complainants typically wanted refunds for membership fees paid in advance, or were dissatisfied with the new ownership and policies and wanted out of their contract.
As you look to join a gym, do your research with friends and family and check out the fitness facility's complaint record with BBB's free Business Review reports.
It is important to make sure the facilities meet your needs, but it is equally important for consumers to know that the company can be trusted to be upfront about its plans, its contracts and be competent with its billing process.
BBB offers the following advice to help you select a fitness facility that best meets your needs.
• Check with BBB first. Not only can you go to www.chattanooga.bbb.org to find a list of fitness clubs in your area that are accredited by BBB, but you can also find out what kind of a track record the company has for keeping customers satisfied.
• Determine your fitness goals. What are your fitness goals? To build endurance, increase strength, become a better tennis player? How will you accomplish those goals; swimming, weight-training, yoga? Considering these issues in advance will help you select a facility that is most appropriate for you. If you have a serious health condition, consult with a medical professional when setting your fitness goals.
• Consider your budget. Most facilities charge an up-front membership fee to join and a monthly fee thereafter. What amount can your budget comfortably devote to physical fitness?
• Check out the facilities. Visit several different clubs on days and at times that you plan to exercise to see how crowded they are. Does the facility offer the equipment, classes, amenities (child care, personal trainers) and hours of operation you require?
Note the cleanliness and condition of the equipment, workout area and locker room, as well as staff member availability.
• Ask around. Check with friends and family for recommendations. And when visiting fitness clubs, ask members about their experiences -- are they satisfied?
• Don't give in to pressure. Many clubs will be offering "New Year's specials" -- walk away from clubs that pressure you to sign a contract on the spot. In fact, take a sample contract home to read it thoroughly.
• Read the entire contract. Does it list all services and facilities and the hours of operation? Is everything that the salesperson promised in the contract?
What is included in the monthly fee and what is it going to cost you extra? What is the total cost and payment schedule, including enrollment fees and finance charges?
• Know the membership details. How long is the membership term and is there an automatic renewal? Can you go month-to-month? Some facilities give customers several days to reconsider after signing the contract; if so, get it in writing. What are your cancellation rights if you move to another area, are injured, or the club closes or is taken over by new management? Will the unused portion of your membership be refunded, and if so, how and when?
These details should all be in the contract.
Get answers to your questions each Friday from Jim Winsett, president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau Inc., which serves Southeast Tennessee and Northwest Georgia. Submit questions to his attention by writing to Business Editor Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press, P.O. Box 1447, Chattanooga, TN, 37401-1447, or by emailing him at dflessner@ timesfree press.com.