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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/10/2008 9:49:21 AM ET 2008-01-10T14:49:21

So you are going to join a health club. Good for you. Just take the time to shop around and compare. Unless you do your homework, you could pay too much or get stuck going to a gym you really don't like.

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The Better Business Bureau is seeing a dramatic increase in health club complaints — up 90 percent in the last five years. In 2007, more than 5,200 people complained about their fitness club, according to the BBB.

The two biggest problem areas are contract disputes and billing issues. There has also been a rise in complaints against fitness centers that sell memberships and then go out of business a short time later.

That is what happened to Kristi Walker of Boiling Springs, S.C., after she bought a one-year family membership at a local fitness center. She really liked the place; it was close to her house, well run, and had daycare for the kids.

But one day when she went for her workout, she found a handwritten note on the door reading “We’re closed and we’re not going to reopen.”

“I lost my money. And I was really upset with how it was handled,” an angry Walker said.

Walker tells me there was no indication the club was in financial trouble. In fact, she says the center was taking membership applications the day before it closed.

Walker joined another club. Based on her experience, she decided to play it safe and go with a month-to-month payment plan, even though it cost a bit more.

Contract disputes
Nearly 40 percent of the people who complain to the BBB about health clubs have a contract dispute. In many cases, the disagreement involves promises made by the salesperson that were not honored. It could be the result of an honest mistake or deliberate deception.

The bottom line: Never rely on what the salesperson tells you. The only thing that counts is what is in the contract. Verbal promises are meaningless. Make sure anything and everything the salesperson promises is in your contract.

“We encourage people to read their contracts, “says Rosemary Lavery, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. “Make sure that you’re OK with the cancellation policies, the life of the agreement, and the renewal process to avoid confusion or dissatisfaction down the road.”

Billing issues
You would think that when the contract expires, the bills would end. But that’s not always the case. About 22 percent of health club complaints to the BBB involve being charged after the contract ends. In some cases, it is a mistake. In others, the contract includes a clause that says your membership automatically renews unless you cancel in writing thirty days or more before the contract ends.

This is why I strongly recommend against paying a health club membership with a debit card or via electronic withdrawal from your checking account. If there is a dispute, the company can keep taking money while you argue the validity of the charges. The safest way to pay is with a credit card or by check each month.

Something else you need to find out: Will your contract be sold? Some health clubs sell their contracts to finance companies. In the contract, that is called assignment. If that happens and you have a contractual problem, you will need to deal with the finance company, not the gym.

What do you mean you want to cancel?
For its February issue, Consumer Reports surveyed more than 10,000 subscribers who are health club members. Thirty-eight percent of the people who changed gyms in the last three years had at least one problem, such as receiving bills after they canceled.

“We found that canceling a membership at a big chain gym is sometimes not that easy,” associate editor Jamie Hirsh said. “It can take an excessive amount of time and effort to cancel.”

Another common problem is the inability to cancel or suspend the contract as promised in certain situations. Can you break the deal if you move? If so, how far away from the facility must you be? Can you cancel if your doctor says you must stop? Read the contract to be clear on what it takes to cancel/suspend your membership.

So you are going to join a health club?
There are some good ones around; they are clean, they keep their equipment in good shape, and they have a staff that is friendly and knowledgeable. You just have to take the time to find them.

The big chains do most of the advertising. But based on the Consumer Reports survey, you might be happier at a small, independent health club. Gyms at work, community centers, the YMCA/YWCA, and Jewish Community Centers have the highest scores for overall satisfaction.

A great way to compare clubs is to ask for a free trial. You should be able to get a pass for a few days. Go when you would normally be at the gym. Is the place overcrowded? Is the staff friendly? What do current members say about the place?

My two cents
Health clubs have been notorious for using high-pressure sales tactics. Don't let a salesperson pressure you into signing on the spot. Take the contract home and study it. That is the only way you will know what you're getting for your money.

Luckily, in most states, you have three business days to cancel a health club contract. So if you are pressured into something that does not seem right, cancel right away. Do it in writing and send your letter certified mail with a return receipt.

If you have a problem with a health club, file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau and your state Attorney General or Consumer Affairs office.

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