Joel and Sarah Slaughter have been busy.
Between work and family, it's been increasingly difficult to get to the gym. But the real challenge, it seems, came when Joel tried to cancel his membership at a Tri-State Planet Fitness.
For nearly half the year, Sarah says they were charged monthly fees despite parting ways in July with the national chain. She estimates charges topped the $200 mark.
"They say they don't have a corporate number to call with complaints or questions, but we did find (one) and left messages," she added. "We never heard back though. And you never get anywhere with the managers. You're kind of stuck."
Apparently, it's an increasingly common problem. According to the Better Business Bureau, fitness center-related complaints are on the rise.
The BBB, which serves southern Ohio, Northern Kentucky and southeast Indiana, has received 38 such complaints to date this year, mostly about billing issues. That's a slight increase from the prior year, said Sandra Guile, the BBB's community outreach specialist.
Planet Fitness locally has 21 closed complaints over the last three years with the BBB. Sixteen are for billing/collection issues. Four are related to problems with product/service.
"I've heard nothing but (complaining) about these contracts for years," said Ed Collins, an attorney with Downtown-based Droder & Miller law firm. State statute sets limits on terms. But legal recourse is often rare due to the expense involved, he said.
"You're usually fighting a losing battle," Collins said. "As for what to look out for: What are the cancelation policies and renewal policies? Those are the biggies."
Want to cancel? You almost always have to do so in person or by mail. Planet Fitness, for example, which has 13 area locations, including the Slaughters' gym in Western Hills, requires notice either in person or by letter. If going the latter route, it recommends sending the request via certified mail for tracking purposes.
You cannot cancel your membership via email -- which the contract specifically states -- or by phone or fax, either.
Other points of interest: If your membership has a 12-month commitment, and you cancel before that year is up, you may have to pay a $58 buyout fee. Memberships also automatically renew after the initial commitment is met. So don't be surprised to see charges even after your term is up.
Planet Fitness, in a recent BBB review, contends all points are "stated on our membership agreement. ...The intent is not to be cumbersome, but to ensure both the member and the club have a record of the cancelation should any questions arise," club officials said.
As for other gyms, LA Fitness, which has 11 locations in the Greater Cincinnati area, also requires written notice. You can either mail a form -- again, by certified mail -- to a P.O. Box in California, or you can hand-deliver that notice to an operations manager at the nearest gym.
Be sure to get a receipt. If you have a personal training membership still within its initial term, or if you've already paid in full, you'll have to start at ground zero -- your local club -- for assistance.You may be required to pay for the remaining training sessions.
The YMCA of Greater Cincinnati, meanwhile, has no contracts. But cancelations must be submitted in writing, too, and 10 days prior to your scheduled monthly bank draft date. "Failure to do so will result in that month’s draft being non-refundable," it says on its website.
"The bottom line," Guile said: "Read the fine print. Don’t feel obligated to immediately sign a contract. Take the contract home and read it carefully. Make (sure) to understand the terms and conditions."
The BBB also recommends that you:
- Take a look around: Set up an appointment with a staff member and visit the facility during a time you'd normally work out. This will give you an idea of how crowded the gym will be and how long you’ll have to wait to use the equipment. Ask about the club’s hours of operation and the total number of people enrolled. Make note of equipment age, how clean the facilities are and how often they receive service.
- Ask important questions: While walking through the facility, ask about personal training services and where classes are held. Look for health clubs that hire trainers certified to national standards, as not all of them do. Listen for official organizations like the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Ask if the health club requires additional in-house training so the instructors stay up to date on their certifications.
- Ask for monthly options: A low-priced, yearlong contract may sound tempting, but if you’re still unsure about fully committing to a long-term deal, ask if a month-to-month plan is available, Guile said.
Beware of high-pressure sales tactics. Read the membership contract. Calculate the total cost, payment schedule, enrollment fee and membership length.
Ask about cancelation fees and limitations before signing up. Only promises in writing are guaranteed.
Guile also recommended researching gyms on bbb.org.
"Review the profile and other customer comments before deciding to do business with them," she said.
As for other ways to opt-out, they can be few and far between. Gym memberships are generally considered prepaid entertainment contracts, Collins said. Under Ohio law, you do have a three-day window to rescind, and health clubs are required to give consumers notice of that right to cancel. Of note: If a consumer cancels within three days, the gym must refund any money paid, but can charge an expense fee no greater than $10.
Moving? That could be tricky, too. You have the right to cancel -- unless there's a similar facility located within 25 miles of your new home. If that's the case, you're still under obligation.
The Slaughters, meanwhile, say their membership woes were finally resolved -- after a few more phone calls to their local center and some additional haggling. For now, Sarah says they're done with the gym.
"We learned our lesson," she said. "If anything, I want to warn other people. Pay more attention or just be prepared. It all seems so easy -- it's so easy to sign up -- but it's not as simple to cancel."