When Tracy Spence tried to get out of her rental contract for a furnace and air conditioner, she was outraged by the price tag.
After paying more than $ 7,000 total in monthly rental fees since 2016, she was told she’d have to pay another $ 32,406 to buy out her contract, giving her ownership of the appliances.
“I was livid,” said Spence, who lives in Toronto. “In what universe does a furnace [and] an air conditioner cost that much money?”
According to her contract, Spence’s furnace and air conditioner had a combined “cash selling price” of $ 10,798. That’s a far cry from the approximately $ 40,000 she’d be out for renting the appliances and then buying out the rest of her 10-year contract — which includes service and warranty protection.
“I feel so completely stupid for getting myself involved in this,” said Spence, who was sold on the rental deal by a door-to-door salesperson.
She’s one of many Canadians who’ve complained to CBC News over the years that they feel duped after signing up to rent a home energy appliance — such as a furnace or water heater
Due to a flood of consumer complaints, Ontario banned unsolicited door-to-door home energy appliance sales in 2018. All other provinces, with the exception of Alberta, still allow the practice.
Toronto-based paralegal John Robinson said he currently represents more than 50 clients involved in disputes over their home energy appliance rental contracts.
He said the main complaints from clients are that the deal is more expensive than they had anticipated, and that it’s too costly to buy out their contract.
“They’re feeling very stuck and they’re feeling taken advantage of. And they’re down, because they think there’s no way out.”
Fortunately for Spence, her case was quickly resolved after she shared her story with CBC News.
CBC contacted Toronto-based Crown Crest Capital, which took over in July 2017 as Spence’s service provider and the lender financing her contract. The company said it had no involvement prior to that date.
Crown Crest’s external legal counsel said that an error had been made in quoting Spence a $ 32,406 buyout price.
“It was just something everyone missed,” said lawyer Alfred Apps. “We’re going to step in and resolve this positively in favour of the customer.”
The matter was resolved to Spence’s satisfaction, but CBC isn’t privy to the final buyout price. According to Spence’s lawyer Tyler Declute, Crown Crest had her sign a confidentiality agreement which prevents Spence from speaking any further about the issue.
‘I was really vulnerable’
Before signing her confidentiality agreement, Spence said she felt pressured to sign up for her rental deal when a “fast-talking” salesperson showed up at her home on a hot day in June 2016. Shortly before, her air conditioner had died and her live-in brother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“It was really a stressful time,” said Spence, a 59-year-old single mother of two adult sons who also live with her. “I was really vulnerable.”
She said the cost savings the salesperson had promised she would enjoy by switching from her oil furnace to a new gas one never actually materialized, because they were offset by high rental fees.
“The spiel that they gave me wasn’t exactly how it played out.”
The company that brokered Spence’s deal — Consumers Choice Comfort Services — appears to no longer exist.
Even so, it currently faces 18 charges under the Ontario Consumers Protection Act, including charges of false or misleading business practices, according to the Ontario government.
Spence decided to quit her contract in December 2019 when she faced complications trying to refinance her mortgage, because a lien for the air conditioner and furnace had been placed on her home. Often, the lender financing a rental contract does this to ensure it recoups its money if the customer sells the property.
“I just wanted to be out of it,” said Spence.
Crown Crest sent her documents stating that she owed $ 32,406 total to buy out her contract.
In emails to the company, Spence’s lawyer Declute informed Crown Crest that because his client signed a contract with a 10-year term, he calculated that the buyout price should be about $ 15,000.
The company’s manager of collections wouldn’t budge on the price, according to the emails. Declute said he got the same response when he called the manager.
“She goes, ‘You’re under a time crunch. You need this paid out. Here’s the payout. If you don’t pay us this amount, we’re not going to get rid of it.'”
An employee mistake
CBC News contacted Crown Crest, inquiring how it justified Spence’s $ 32,406 buyout bill.
Apps responded that the manager was mistaken in how she calculated the bill.
“She has it dead wrong,” he said. “We’ll be resolving it today.”
CBC News pointed out that other Crown Crest employees were copied on the email correspondence between Declute and the manager, but that no one from the company caught the error.
“We’ve launched an internal inquiry to figure that out,” said Apps.
He said that he suspects there are some shady companies in the home energy rental appliance business, but that Crown Crest Capital isn’t one of them.