Pity the poor adjudicators and ombudsmen who have to hear complaints about our banks, financial services companies, real estate agents and other professionals. The same grievances crop up time and again.

If people took note of the decisions and learned from other people's mistakes, they could save themselves an awful lot of money.

Since many don't, I've asked the public watchdogs that deal with consumer complaints to sum up the financial lessons that can be taken from the cases they hear.

Real Estate Agents Authority


* Seek legal advice before committing to a contract. Sale and purchase agreements aren't all standard contracts. Vendors can slip in all sorts of clauses or delete common ones. It is never wise to sign a sale and purchase agreement without having shown it to a lawyer.

* Read and understand any agreement before signing. In a case heard by the REAA against Barfoot & Thompson agent Michael Benns, the buyer signed a sale and purchase agreement with a clause she was unaware of stating that any water ingress issues had been disclosed by the vendor. When her lawyer subsequently pointed this out, it was too late and her deposit was locked up until the dispute could be resolved. The REAA ruled that Benns' conduct had been unsatisfactory because he failed to adequately ensure that the buyer, who had a poor grasp of written English, was fully cognisant of the content and the implications of the additional clause he had added.

* Do your own property research and get an inspection report on any property you're considering buying. Ms G found when she sought a builder's report that a property she saw listed on the Harveys' website needed $20,000 worth of work. Harveys agent Richard Lancaster claimed, when he initially showed her around, that the property needed "cosmetic do-up" only, but he must have known the extent of work needed. The sale went through another agency, but Lancaster was still censured for, among other things, failing to declare in writing that he was also the vendor.

Banking ombudsman

* Monitor your bank accounts. Read your statements and contact your bank if you notice anything wrong. Mr G failed to open a bank statement for 18 days after he received it. When he did, he discovered $100,000 missing. Citing delay in discovery of the fraud, the bank made an offer to Mr G in which he would have had to foot $22,800 of the loss. The involvement of the banking ombudsman reduced this to $5700. However, had Mr G reported the fraud more promptly, he may have been fully reimbursed.

* Protect your cards and PINs. Ms J found out to her detriment that using your date of birth as a PIN is against banks' terms and conditions. While she was overseas her flatmate's daughter stole her debit card and went on a spending spree. Ms J was left $4300 out of pocket when her bank quite legitimately refused to reimburse her.

* Read everything carefully before you sign. Mr W was caught out when he withdrew $100,000 early from a term deposit. The bank took a far greater chunk of money as "interest rate reduction" than he expected. The formula was set out in the fine print of the term deposit. At the time of depositing the money Mr W was aware that he might need to withdraw it early and should have read the terms and conditions before signing.

* Keep repayment promises. Ms M complained to the banking ombudsman that her bank wouldn't agree to a repayment programme for her credit card debt. The bank, however, had already sold her debt to a collection agency. It had written to her asking her to make minimum payments of $90 a fortnight, but she had failed to increase her automatic payment.

Motor Vehicle Disputes Tribunal

* Beware of sham tenders. Auckland adjudicator Christopher Cornwell said in his annual report that he has warned the Government in 2008, 2009, 2011 and again this year about a worrying exclusion in the Consumer Guarantees Act for "competitive tenders". Cars sold by tender don't come under the Consumer Guarantees Act, which requires a trader to provide a buyer with a safe, fault-free and reasonably durable vehicle. The tribunal has heard cases against Ezy Buy Car Auctions and other dealers that gave buyers tender forms to sign when buying a car from the yard.

* Read the contract. Car dealers have been keen to use small print clauses that say the vehicle has been bought for business use and that the buyer and seller have contracted out of the Consumer Guarantees Act. "In almost all cases of this kind that come before me," says Wellington adjudicator Nicola Wills, "the purchasers have not discussed contracting out of the act with the trader and are not aware that they have signed any rights away until there is a problem with the vehicle. Many of the small business owners I see are commercially and legally naive."

* Watch out for extravagant claims by dealers on Trade Me. Cornwell noted in an annual report that extravagant claims can be used to sell cars on Trade Me. In one case a car that was "hard to fault" and had allegedly just had a full service turned out to have dirty oil, a slipping clutch, defective shock absorbers and it failed a warrant of fitness.

Commerce Commission

* Know what you are getting into. Read and keep any loan documents and other information a lender gives you. If there is information you think should be there about your loan and it is missing, ask the lender about it and seek legal advice.

* Don't expect to receive independent legal or financial advice about a loan from a lender. They are selling you a loan, not providing you with free legal or budgeting advice. If you want legal advice see a lawyer. For financial or budgeting advice see a budgeting adviser or registered financial adviser.

* Ask if you have to buy credit-related insurance to get a loan. The commission took Club Finance to court for forcing unemployed customers to take out payment protection insurance, which was of no benefit to them. Even if borrowers got a job after taking out the loan and were then made redundant, they would still not be eligible for a payout. The Credit Contracts and Consumer Finance Act explicitly states that borrowers cannot be required to take out insurance that is not reasonably necessary.

* Act fast. Always get in touch with the lender as soon as you start having financial difficulties - the hardship provisions won't apply if you are already in debt. Sticking your head in the sand only makes matters worse.

Insurance and savings ombudsman

* Read and understand insurance policies. The ISO hears many cases involving people with no idea what they're covered for. In one instance, Mrs C took out mortgage protection insurance, unaware that she needed to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for a payout. When she lost her part-time job the claim was declined. Kiwis rarely read their insurance policies - although I must admit some clauses I've read over the years are so tricky most people wouldn't understand the full meaning of the words.

* Never sign if you don't understand something. Ask before you sign up to the terms. There is a lot of money at stake with insurance policies and investments and it's a mistake to sign on the dotted line of any legal contract without understanding it.

* Ensure there is a dispute resolution service. Not all insurers need to belong to a dispute resolution service such as the ISO. If something goes wrong, you might end up only able to pursue action through the courts, which can be expensive.

* There are far more tribunals and authorities than I could possibly mention here. Some, such as the Taxation Review Authority, Weathertight Homes Tribunal and the Social Security Appeal Authority, make decisions that can make or break a person financially. Details of these and others can be found at justice.govt.nz/tribunals