Refunds and Exchanges for eBay Purchases

Not every transaction can go as planned

Young businesswoman working on laptop
Simon Ritzmann/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Returns are part of the retail experience. Purchases made on eBay, like purchases made anywhere else, can sometimes go wrong—perhaps the merchandise is the wrong size, suffers from compatibility issues, or is just plain nonfunctional or arrives damaged. When this happens, a refund is often the solution to the problem.

Unlike a traditional store, however, there is no “customer service counter” or “refunds and exchanges” counter on eBay. Instead, returns and refunds have to be coordinated through direct communication between buyer and seller until both parties are satisfied.

Expectations and Procedures for Sellers

Any discussion of refunds or exchanges on eBay begins with the auction listing for the item in question, which is the final “official” word on the seller’s refund and exchange policy for the item in question.

If you’re an eBay seller, take care to ensure whenever you list an item to spell out a refund and exchange policy for all prospective buyers of the item in question. The things to think about when spelling out refund terms and conditions include each of the following:

  • Is there a time limit on refunds? What is the maximum amount of time you’re willing to give to buyers to evaluate the item? Remember to account for shipping time as well in this consideration. A typical time limit reads something like “Refunds must be requested within seven days of item arrival.” Take care to ensure that you purchase tracking information for the parcels that you ship if you want to be sure of the time of arrival.
  • Return of item required? For more expensive and durable goods items, you’re almost sure to want an item to be returned to you before you issue a refund. Be sure to mention this so that buyers realize what their obligations will be if they buy your item and decide that they are unsatisfied with it.
  • RMA required? Most sellers want to know that something is being returned before it shows up on their doorstep. If this is you, be sure to point out in your terms and conditions that the buyer must contact you for an RMA (Return of Merchandise Authorization) before they ship an item back to you expecting to be reimbursed.
  • Who pays for shipping? Depending on the shipping costs surrounding the item in question and on your preferences as a seller, you may wish to include in refunds the original shipping amount or even the return shipment to you. Clarify this in your auction listing so that buyers understand their responsibilities when push comes to shove.
  • How will the return be credited? Do you issue refunds or merely credit toward other items? Do you mail checks or refund directly via PayPal or your merchant account provider? All of these questions can create opportunities for miscommunication with antsy buyers if you don’t make these things clear up front.

Of course, if you're a buyer rather than a seller, then these concerns aren't yours—the refund policy comes to you from the seller without your being able to affect it. Even so, there are steps that you can take to help the process to go more smoothly. Read on to find out what they are.

The first and most important truth for buyers interested in refunds or exchanges is that you can’t reasonably expect more than is provided for in the auction listing terms. If your item listing says no refunds under any conditions, you are unlikely to get anything for your trouble but an additional headache and frustration. If your item listing says that you must pay for return shipping on all returns, you’re unlikely to get a seller to budge—after all, these terms are in the listing, and you should have known (and accepted) them before you bid.

With that said, some basic courtesies and steps can make the process go much more smoothly and help to ensure that you are satisfied with the seller and the return process in the end:

  • Decide whether you’re keeping the item immediately. When you take receipt of the item shipment, carefully examine, test, and exercise the item immediately in whatever way is necessary to make a determination on whether or not you’d like to keep it. There is nothing that creates tension and dissatisfaction between buyer and seller more than a long-delayed refund or exchange requests weeks after the item was delivered, once it’s had time to depreciate and fall out of the condition in which it was delivered.
  • Contact your seller ASAP if you want to return. Don’t just package the item up and send it back; sellers often have busy mailrooms and have trouble keeping track of unexpected packages that turn up with no explanation. Even if no RMA is required, it is generally good form to contact your seller and let them know that you expect to return the item.
  • Pack properly and ship promptly. Once your seller has acknowledged your return and provided any additional instructions, he or she may have, package the item quickly for return (if the item is to be returned) and ship immediately so that the seller can draw the connection between your request for a return and the package that eventually arrives. Whenever possible, include a printout of the auction listing in question along with a note on why you’re making the return—item is defective, the wrong size, wasn’t what was expected, etc.
  • Be patient. Between return shipping and time for the seller to receive and identify the item as having come from you, it can take from days to even a week or two for the seller to begin the refund or reshipment process. If a refund is in the works, the process of crediting funds back to you or mailing a check can add another several days or even a week to the process. If you are worried about the status of your return, contact your seller again, but be polite and patient, rather than assuming that something has gone wrong.
  • Don’t get off on the wrong foot. Don’t make the mistake of beginning your refund, return, or exchange request with threats. Consider a message like this one:
    “I am totally unsatisfied with this item, and I demand my money back immediately. I have filed an eBay dispute and will dispute this with my credit card issuer tomorrow. I expect a refund ASAP.”
  • When a seller receives a message like this, it is less likely to help you. First of all, they’re not inclined to communicate with you at all, since they can see that it likely won’t be a pleasant experience. More to the point, they have every reason to believe that you have begun dispute proceedings with eBay and a credit card issuer. In either case, it means that they absolutely won’t issue you a refund in case you have filed disputes, to avoid an accidental double refund that could otherwise occur. Instead, try something more along these lines:
  • “Dear seller, Thanks for shipping the item promptly. I’ve received it and have unfortunately decided that I’m unsatisfied with the purchase and intend to return it for a refund. Please provide instructions by which I can accomplish this. Thanks again, Buyer.”
  • The point is this: once the purchase has been made, as a buyer you’re to some extent at the seller’s mercy—and having the seller’s goodwill goes a long way toward getting them to give you what you want, much more so than making them want to hide from you.

Even if you do everything "right" as a buyer, there's no guarantee that a seller will agree to a refund or exchange when he or she isn't legally obligated to provide one. If you feel as though you're caught between a rock and a hard place, it might be time to think about compromises that you can make with your seller. Read on to find out more.

Whether you’re a buyer or seller, don’t get caught in the notion that rules are rules and no discussion is possible. Despite the terms of the auction listing, changes can, of course, be made by either party if these changes are agreed upon. Amongst the many kinds of compromise that can occur are:

  • Partial refunds or exchanges. Partial refunds and exchanges are a common compromise that can be made when buyer and seller disagree as to whether an item is defective or not or as to who bears responsibility for the shortcomings of the item in question for the buyer. Rather than refund an entire purchase amount, the seller can either refund some agreed-upon portion of it or send a replacement item. Even PayPal makes partial refunds possible; when you issue a refund using the refund link as a PayPal seller, you are asked to specify the amount to be refunded.
  • Advance exchange. If you are a trusting seller or believe that you are dealing with a trustworthy buyer, you can offer advance exchange replacement, which is often satisfying for buyers that are pressed for time. In advance exchange, you send a new item (sometimes with a small additional deposit fee paid by the buyer) and when the buyer receives and is satisfied by it, they return the original, unsatisfactory original (and, if a deposit was made, you refund it once the original has been received from them). If you are a buyer offered an advance exchange, be sure not to drag your feet in returning the old item—to do so is to commit fraud on your part!
  • Credit, repair, or value adds. If a refund is out of the question and a full exchange isn’t possible, these other means for resolving differences often come into play. Buyer and seller may agree to return the item for credit, to attempt at the seller’s expense or at shared expense to facilitate a repair, or the seller may offer to send additional items of value—accessories, for example—to increase the buyer’s satisfaction.

While most returns proceed without the need for compromise, if you’re involved in a refund or exchange dispute with a buyer or seller that seems to be at an impasse, don’t hesitate to at least suggest some of these compromises as a way out of the dispute.

When All Else Fails

If you’re a buyer, who feels as though you’re being dealt with unfairly when all else fails with regard to your seller, you can either file a dispute with eBay or with your credit card issuer. Either party will take further steps to investigate the matter, get the seller’s side of the story, and ultimately issue a “ruling” favoring either buyer or seller, after which funds will either be returned or they won’t.

Beware, however, that this is a kind of “nuclear option” in a dispute. Once you go this route, a seller is unlikely to talk to you further except through the party with whom you’ve filed the dispute. Filing a dispute will effectively end “friendly” negotiations, so exhaust all of your other options first.