In recent years, there has been a huge increase in websites and apps that specialise in selling second-hand or vintage items. These sites have proved particularly popular with younger people, but have gone mainstream as people consider more about the impact of our spending on the environment.

Second hand websites are also great if you’re thinking about making a bit of cash to beat the cost-of-living crisis, or you’re planning on giving your home the full Marie Kondo makeover. Many people have been in touch with me to tell me they are doing a bit of creative Christmas shopping for second hand goods as gifts, but want to know more about their rights.

Vintage websites specialise in everything from last season’s clothes to retro goods and old electronics. If you have something lying around, chances are someone will want to buy it. The sites work in a similar way to other online marketplaces, but there are complications. Here’s my guide for shoppers and sellers.

Retailer or individual

First things first, check to see if the person selling goods or services is doing so as an individual or a business. This is an important distinction because retailers in the UK are covered by two laws that govern your shopping rights when it comes to returns and disputes. If you’re buying direct from a retailer, you more protections than buying from a person selling their clothes to make space in the wardrobe.

It’s not always so straightforward though. On sites like eBay you can buy from both individuals and retailers and it’s not always clear who fits in to each category.

Websites and apps where both individuals and businesses trade are known as ‘online marketplaces’ and usually have their own dispute resolution schemes. However, don’t assume that these schemes exist – and bear in mind some are of debatable quality.

Retailer sales

The good news is from cars to bras, if you buy second-hand goods through a retailer two all-important laws cover you for disputes that might arise about what you purchase.

The Consumer Contract Regulations cover online sales and give you 14 days to change your mind about most purchases. There are a few exceptions though, like made to order or personalised items.

The Consumer Rights Act gives you the right to return faulty or misrepresented goods. Any seasoned vintage clothes shopper will tell you that second-hand items will inevitably have wear and tear. However, the retailer must simply tell you about any faults or problems with the goods. Buyers should have realistic expectations and understand that the item will have been ‘pre-loved’.

Individual sales / private sellers

According to the Consumer Rights Act, when you buy from a private seller the goods must be ‘as they were described’. Sellers can’t ‘misrepresent’ the goods, but they don’t have to list every fault either. So a ‘jacket with some marks’ should be just that. The seller can’t claim the jacket is new though as that would be untrue.

The best way to counter mis-selling – deliberate or accidental – is to ask for clear pictures of the item and assurances that it functions as advertised, before buying.

Sorting out complaints with private sellers

Disputes are complex, because you are often at the mercy of the dispute resolution services offered through the online marketplace. Many of the sellers I speak to argue that their customers don’t always have realistic expectations, or have damaged the goods on receipt to get a refund. Whereas buyers often argue that the item was wilfully misrepresented.

The website’s dispute resolution scheme will usually weed out any scammers. So that just leaves problems over the quality of goods. I find it pays to be pragmatic. If you just want a refund and the seller just wants their goods back, then agree a return, documenting the process with photos. Keep those emails or communications though. If you paid by card and a refund isn’t forthcoming, your bank might be able to charge back your cash.

Martyn James is a leading consumer rights campaigner, TV and radio broadcaster and journalist.

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