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Family stuck with $55,000 bill after ailing father signs door-to-door rental agreement

Family stuck with $55,000 bill after ailing father signs door-to-door rental agreement

Jill Lance could not believe her eyes as she went through financial records from the estate of her deceased father.

She didn’t know that in December 2013 her then cognitively impaired dad, Neil Harrison, signed a rental agreement with a door-to-door salesperson with Ontario Energy Group for a furnace and air-conditioner.

He thought it would cost $7.50 per month, she said. The actual cost was closer to $140.

Now the family is looking at nearly $55,000 to get out of the deal and remove the units because of improper installation, they claim, and a need to clean the slate before putting the house up for sale.

OEG has a lien against the house on East 11th Street — that’s how rental agreements are secured — and the details of the agreement require future owners to continue to pay the monthly fee for the rest of the 15-year term.

OEG is facing more than 140 counts from 20 complainants who allege Consumer Protection Act violations including using false, misleading or deceptive practices. And this week it announced it was .

Pradeep Chand, a spokesperson for OEG, told the CBC in an April 15 story that his client “fully intends to defend the allegations … and categorically denies any regulatory or civil liability.”

The Harrison consumer complaint is not among the charges brought forward by the provincial Ministry of Government and Consumer Services.

The ministry cases have been limited to the Greater Toronto Area, and that is a bone of contention for Hamilton Centre MPP and NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

She says the company operates throughout the province so “people in Hamilton and St. Catharines and Niagara Falls should get the same kind of service in terms of following up on charges as people in Toronto.”

A spokesperson from the consumer services ministry would not say whether it is conducting further investigations or whether additional charges are anticipated.

A ministry investigator looked into the Harrison family’s situation in November 2015, but no charges were laid. The family is not clear where this leaves them.

Horwath noted that people who are fighting the company on their own will have to hire a lawyer and that can be very expensive.

“That has to stop. These companies are predatory. They have this type of sales tactic on purpose. It allows them to dupe people into contracts that are not financially manageable for the individual but are very lucrative for the company. It is a predatory practice that needs to be banned.”

As the legislation stands today, people have a 10-day cooling-off period to cancel an agreement with a door-to-door salesperson.

But Horwath says that isn’t enough.

Often homeowners are seniors and may not be fully aware of what they are signing. As well, they may not know they have an option to back out within 10 days.

“By the time they figure it out it is too late. The cooling-off period is over and the company is laughing all the way to the bank while the victim of these predatory practices is paying through the nose. It is absolutely despicable. It is a big problem in this province,” she says.

That’s what happened with the Harrison couple. The rest of the family was not aware of the details of the furnace and air-conditioner deal, Lance says.

Lance, 50, says her then 78-year-old father had serious health problems that affected his judgment but still pressed on trying to manage the affairs of the house as he’d done in the past.

“He had had a stroke. He was forgetting things. He was angry. He didn’t hear everything. You had to say things in very simple terms for him to understand,” she said.

Her dad — who died in March 2015 — was not competent, according to a letter from his physician Dr. Joginder Khera.

In the letter prepared for OEG, Khera says Harrison, a retired steelworker, was suffering from “memory difficulties and cognitive impairment in 2013” and “… I do not feel that Mr. Harrison was competent to sign such a contract on his own in 2013 and I would request that the company take into account this new information and allow for the wife to be released from the contract,” the letter says.

Chand said his client was “not in any position to comment on the medical opinion of the customer’s medical doctor with respect to their condition upon entering into the agreement with OEG in 2013.”

Neil’s widow, Beryl Harrison, and Lance came to know of the full terms of the 15-year agreement with OEG after they inquired about the monthly bank charges.

Provincial legislation also allows that people with disabilities, or who do not understand the contract, have a year to get out of a contract. But in Harrison’s case, the circumstances of the deal were not clear to family members until after he died, 15 months after the contract was signed.

The family also came to learn a lien had been placed on the house.

They stopped payments on the monthly charges and asked the equipment be removed — which prompted the company to bill Beryl Harrison, as executor, for $54,386.17. The bill included the costs of the furnace ($7,491.90) and air conditioning ($7,373.25) as well as more that $37,000 for the “rental and maintenance contract” plus penalties and legal fees.

“I don’t know what to do anymore. I am so frustrated,” Lance says, adding that her mom, for a time, was terrified she might lose her house and end up on the street. She wants to sell the house and move into an apartment and feels the value of the house will be severely undermined by the expensive furnace and air-conditioning rental charges that the next owner would have to pay.

OEG made several attempts to resolve this matter with the customer, Chand said, including a “significantly reduced buy-out offer” for the equipment.

“All communications with the customer have gone unanswered,” he said.

As well, Lance alleges there are numerous problems with the way the furnace and air-conditioner were installed.

She hired Fox Refrigeration Inc. of Hamilton to evaluate the work. Company inspector Harry Gose listed more than 15 deficiencies — from the entire furnace not having the proper clearance, to ductwork connections being poorly installed, to the venting through the wall being poorly sealed.

“As per my inspection, in my personal opinion, both the furnace and air conditioner was very poorly installed,” the report says.

OEG did not offer comment on the Fox “opinion.”

The complaints and charges against OEG come at a time when door-to-door salespeople more generally are being scorned.

Earlier this month a private member’s bill — Door-to-Door Sales Prohibition Act, 2016 — was introduced in the legislature that would ban door-to-door sales, leasing or rental of air-conditioners, water heaters, furnaces and water treatment devices.

The bill from Yvan Baker, Liberal MPP for Etobicoke Centre, would render any contract void that was signed for certain home improvement products listed in the bill.

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