Care home providers are making it too difficult for elderly people and their families to find the information they need to make an informed choice, according to a consumer watchdog.
Which? said older people could potentially be hit with unexpected bills and tied into unfair contracts because of surprise charges and missing care quality ratings.
A survey of 100 care home websites by the consumer group found 86 provided no pricing information, 91 offered no detail on any charges made in addition to room rates and only three providers made their terms and conditions available online.
It also found that more than one in four (27%) of the English care homes surveyed either completely failed to display their Care Quality Commission (CQC) rating online or did so poorly, in some cases making it almost impossible to find, despite there being a legal requirement for it to be conspicuously displayed.
Analysis by the CQC released last week shows that 23% of care homes, nursing homes and home care services require improvement on safety while a further 2% are inadequate.
Almost 20,000 people are cared for in the 343 services rated as inadequate.
Which? said evidence from a review of sample contracts and case studies indicated that care home providers could be breaching consumer protection laws with unfair terms and conditions.
Potentially unfair terms included demanding that relatives take on joint legal liability for care home fees, the ability of a care home to terminate the contract within 24 hours for undefined "detrimental behaviour" and asking bereaved families to pay for their loved one's room and care for up to a month after their death.
Which? is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to use its market study into the sector to issue guidance on the information that care homes must provide to make it easier for people to complain when they have a problem, and to expand the scope of its consumer protection case if it finds further evidence of breaches of consumer law.
Alex Hayman, managing director of public markets at Which?, said: "The problems uncovered by our research are very troubling given the potential impact on both those receiving and arranging care.
"Care home providers are making it far too difficult for many elderly people and their families to find the vital information they need to make important decisions about their care, with some expecting them to commit to unfair contracts.
"The CMA must now ensure that reforms are brought forward to stamp out these poor practices wherever they exist, starting with greater transparency from providers to ensure that people are properly protected at all stages of the process of finding and securing care."
Janet Morrison, chief executive of the charity Independent Age, said: "In no other market would people be expected to make an important, lifetime purchase with such little information to rely on to help make their choice.
"Finding the right care home can be difficult at the best of times. But the failure of so many care homes to provide clear information on prices, charges and contracts just compounds what is already a complex process for those making the huge step to move into residential care.
"Care providers need to level with customers about all the fees they will be paying, but ultimately the Government must turn their attention to a care market that is not only struggling financially, but in many areas is now struggling to meet its most basic obligations to consumers."
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