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Joining a Health Club: Weigh Your Options Before Signing Up

Health clubs are a popular way to lose weight or get in shape. But they are also costly. Consumers who pay in advance for health club services often find they don't use the club as much as they had anticipated, so they are paying for services they don't use. And in Maryland, 20 to 30 health clubs close their doors each year, often resulting in lost money for consumers who have paid in advance.

By choosing your health club carefully, you can prevent or limit your losses if the club closes, and you can better assure you will get your money's worth from the club you join.

Questions to ask before you join a health club

1. Is the club registered and bonded? Under Maryland law, all health clubs must register with the state. And any club that collects more than three months' fees in advance or more than $200 in initiation fees must be bonded with the Consumer Protection Division's Health Club Unit. In the event the club closes, members may make a claim on the bond to get back some of the money they paid for services they didn't receive. Keep in mind however, that depending on the number of consumers who file claims and the amount of the bond, you might not receive a full refund. But a club's bond can help limit your losses. Before you sign a contract, call us at 410-576-6350 to find out if the club is registered and bonded.

2. Can you sign a short-term contract? Avoid signing a long-term contract if possible. Many people find they use the club regularly when they first join, but then quit going. Ask for a month- to-month contract. That way, if you get tired of using the club, you will not be obligated to keep paying for services you aren't using. If you can't get a short-term contract, ask for a trial membership to give you time to determine if you really want to join.

3. Can you make monthly payments? Regardless of the length of your contract, try to pay monthly. You might have to pay a slightly higher rate this way, but if the club closes you will lose less money.

4. Are "lifetime memberships" worthwhile? Some clubs offer lifetime memberships or contracts that can be renewed for a small fee each year. Keep in mind that the lifetime they are talking about is the club's, not yours. If the club closes, your contract may no longer be valid.

5. Is everything you've discussed in your contract? Don't be pressured into signing a contract when you visit the club. Take it home and read it over. Make certain you understand all of the charges and that everything you want to use is included in the price you will pay. Also, make certain all promises made by the salesperson are reflected in the contract. Be sure to keep a copy of the signed contract and receipts for payments. Under Maryland law, health club contracts are one of the few types of contracts you can cancel within three days. There is a specific procedure for doing this. The contract you sign should contain a "notice of consumer rights" that explains your cancellation right.

Be Wary of Mid-Contract "Sales"

Many health clubs change hands or close their doors each year. If you pay in advance -- for example, by paying for a whole year or even a lifetime membership -- you could lose a lot of money if your club closes. This is true even if your club is bonded with the state, although the bond may help you to recoup some of your losses. Here's what often happens:

Sometimes when a health club experiences financial difficulties that prevent it from being able to meet monthly expenses, the owner will look for ways to bring in a lot of cash fast. One way they do this is by offering people with long-term contracts the chance for a discount if they pay the balance immediately. You should be wary of such offers. The Consumer Protection Division hears from hundreds of consumers each year who accepted similar offers only to find a month or two later that their club had closed its doors.

If these "sales" do generate a big influx of cash for the club, it is possible its bond will not be large enough to cover your losses if the club closes. If your health club offers you such a deal, call the Consumer Protection Division's Health Club Unit at 410-576-6350. We may be able to provide you with information, and your call may help us assure that the club is properly bonded.

Also be concerned if you notice a sudden deterioration in your club's equipment and a decrease in the number of classes offered. This is sometimes a sign the club is in financial trouble.

When Your Health Club Closes or Changes Ownership

If your health club or fitness school closes, there are several things you will want to do immediately:

  • Contact your bank or credit card company to stop any automatic payments and to charge back any payments made for services not received. Just because the club has closed does not mean it will stop collecting money from you. However, if the club closes you are not obligated to continue making those payments.
  • File a claim with the Consumer Protection Division. If the club was bonded and if you have paid in advance, you may receive some of your money back.
  • If the club changes ownership but remains open, ask the new owner for a contract containing the same terms as the one you have. Unless the new owner is honoring your old contract, he can't require you to join the new club. If you cannot get written confirmation that your old contract will be honored, contact the Consumer Protection Division's Health Club Unit.

February 1998

Maryland Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division
Consumer hotline: (410) 528-8662 or 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free

 
 

Attorney General of Maryland 1 (888) 743-0023 toll-free / TDD: (410) 576-6372
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