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‘They should know better’: Funeral home chain skirting new rule with misleading sales tactics

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Nearly two years after Marketplace exposed the common practice of aggressive sales tactics at the largest Canadian-owned funeral home chain, another hidden camera investigation has revealed new examples of upselling and rule-breaking by some staff.

Arbor Memorial was the subject of a 2017 investigation, which revealed huge markups, confusing charges and pushy tactics by sales staff on commission at branches in Ontario.

That investigation prompted the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), which regulates the province’s funeral industry, to introduce new protections outlawing some of the behaviour documented by Marketplace.

“I took action right away,” said BAO registrar Carey Smith, who noted that Arbor management came to see him immediately after the investigation and promised to change its practices.

Carey Smith is the registrar of the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), which regulates the province’s funeral industry. (CBC)

In particular, the BAO cracked down on two specific policies: charging a handling fee when customers choose to buy a casket from another provider; and the refusal of some staff to make inexpensive caskets available for funeral services.

But when Marketplace returned to five Arbor funeral homes in Ontario earlier this year, one of those new rules wasn’t always being followed.

New findings

At one location, a salesperson refused to sell the cheapest casket to our undercover producers, who were requesting a simple service followed by cremation.

“It’s not for visitation,” she said. “Not for your funeral service.”

Watch as an Arbor salesperson refuses to sell a casket on the showroom floor:

Marketplace returned to five Arbor funeral homes in Ontario with hidden cameras to see if new guidelines around upselling are being followed. 0:34

That surprised Smith; if a casket is in a showroom, that means it’s available for sale, he said.

“I’m disappointed … We’ve had assurances that this sort of conduct won’t happen,” said Smith. “They should know better.”

Arbor Memorial’s salespeople can receive a commission on products they sell, so a more expensive casket could result in greater compensation.At two other Arbor locations visited by Marketplace, the salespeople explained customers could purchase any casket they wished, but steered them away from the least expensive option — an $890 engineered-wood pine casket — and toward caskets closer to the $2,000 range.

Watch as an Arbor salesperson steers producers toward a more costly casket:

Marketplace returned to five Arbor funeral homes in Ontario with hidden cameras to see if new guidelines around upselling are being followed. 0:49

“It’s just a beautiful casket,” one salesperson explained. “Your aunt, or your mom or dad, lose a lot of dignity when they’re going through a sickness or illness, the least you can do is give them some of that dignity back…. It’s for them.”

While such sales tactics aren’t against the rules, Smith said it’s “playing on the emotions” of a grieving consumer and could be seen as “distasteful.”

“I don’t like people preying on people’s vulnerabilities,” he said.

Marketplace also showed the video to Shane Neufeld, a former Arbor funeral director who now runs an independent business in Winnipeg. His company charges a professional fee, but sells other products, like caskets, at cost.

“I think it’s interesting that they see that the path to dignity is to spend more money,” Neufeld said of the sales pitch captured by the hidden camera. “I don’t make that connection myself.”

Arbor responds

The latest investigation found that all five Arbor homes surveyed are following a new rule around the use of an outside casket. Previously, customers who brought in a container from another provider, such as Amazon or Costco, were charged a $595 handling fee by Arbor. That fee has been eliminated.

In a statement to Marketplace, Arbor Memorial said it has “openly embraced and adopted industry-wide changes” and “significantly enhanced training programs” over the past year.

Arbor also said the company’s “top priority is to listen to our families” and an ongoing, third-party customer experience survey found that 90 per cent of the families it serves are “very satisfied.”

The company operates more than 100 funeral homes across the country, along with a number of cemeteries and crematoria.

Understanding what’s required — and what isn’t

The funeral business is unique in that its customers are often at their most vulnerable and could be particularly susceptible to sales pressure. Comparison shopping is rarely considered and customers often arrive unaware of what really needs to be done for their loved ones.

One common misconception involves embalming, which is rarely required by law and in most cases offers no public health benefit. The procedure is used to give bodies a more lifelike appearance for viewing or visitation, but refrigeration of the deceased can often serve the same function in the immediate days following death.

As more Canadians choose cremation, embalming is increasingly being used less — though funeral salespeople may continue to push it.

Randy and Monique Wright were shocked to learn embalming wasn’t required after their experience arranging a funeral for Randy’s seriously ill mother at an Arbor branch in Winnipeg.

The salesperson made them believe embalming and a viewing was required, they said.

“It would have been awful,” said Randy, noting his mother was an extremely private person who wouldn’t have wanted a viewing. “It would have made me sick.”

When Randy and Monique Wright were pre-arranging a funeral for Randy’s ailing mother, they said they were told by an Arbor salesperson that embalming was required. It was only after they saw Marketplace’s 2017 investigation that they learned that wasn’t true. (CBC)

The couple signed a contract. Then they saw Marketplace’s 2017 investigation into the practice of upselling in the funeral business.

“We were just aghast. It was like, ‘Oh my goodness, that’s us,'” recalled Monique.

The couple contacted Neufeld, who assisted the Wrights in cancelling their agreement. They said their complaint was never about the money; it was about being forced down a path they didn’t want for their loved one.

“It was about them taking advantage of us,” Monique said. “It’s unconscionable to me that they do these things. It’s despicable.”

Neufeld suggests that anyone in need of funeral services do what they would do for any other major purchase.

“The best and most effective thing for anyone is just to be educated,” he said. “Know in advance what you’re walking into. Do a little bit of research. It’s OK to call around.”

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Real Estate

Window repair or replacement is the responsibility of the condo corporation

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If the windows in your condo are hazy, drafty, or have rotting frames, it’s an indicator that they need repairs or outright replacement.

However, under the Condominium Act, it is the responsibility of the condo’s board to carry out such changes as a replaced window is a common element.

“Under the Condominium Act, a declaration may alter the maintenance or repair obligations of unit owners and the corporation but cannot make unit owners responsible for repairs to the common elements,” said Gerry Hyman is a former president of the Canadian Condominium Institute and contributor for the Star.

“A declaration for a high-rise condominium invariably provides that the unit boundary is the interior surface of windows. That means that the entire window — whether it is a single pane or a double pane — is a common element. Necessary repairs or replacement of a broken pane is the obligation of the corporation.”

According to Consumer Reports, selecting an installing windows replacement can be very overwhelming for homeowners. Therefore, if you aren’t covered by your condo’s corporation, it would be necessary to hire professional hands.

Wood, vinyl and composite windows need to be tested on how they can withstand various natural elements. For wind resistance, a window can be very tight when it’s warm but get quite cold too—especially when it begins to leak a lot.

Whatever the case may be, the bottom line remains that replacement windows can save you heating and cooling costs, but it’s best not to expect drastic savings.

Additionally, while getting a new window might help you save on your electric and gas bills, due to their expensive cost, it may take a long time to offset their cost.

Mid-last-year, the government withdraw a $377 million Green Ontario program that provided subsidy on windows to installers and repairers. Window companies had to install energy-efficient windows in order to qualify for the government subsidy that pays for up to $500 of a $1,000 to $1,500 window.

Due to the largely generous subsidies from the government under the Green Ontario program, a lot of window dealers were fully booked for months—even after the program had ended.

“We’re fine with the program ending, we just need more time to satisfy consumers,” said Jason Neal, the executive director of the Siding and Window Dealer Association of Canada, the industry group representing window dealers in a report.

According to Neal, the Progressive Conservatives acted hastily, making massive changes with no prior notice.

“No notification was given to us by anyone,” he said, noting he learned about the change through one of his dealers.

“It’s created a ripple effect.If they had just given us notice we would have pushed that down the line from the manufacturer right into the dealer right down to the consumer.”

Neal noted that he wasn’t particularly sad to see the Green Ontario program end, as it was “the worst rebate program in the history of the window industry.”

“It’s been horrible,” he said. “$500 a window has created such hysteria.”

However, despite the program ending about a year ago, numerous homeowners have been contacting window dealers consistently with concerns that they might not be able to afford replacement windows without the government’s subsidy.

“I understand their concern,” said window dealer Chris George. “I would suggest they reach out to their local representative of the government in their riding and let them know about their concerns.”

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Real Estate

7 Vancouver Real Estate Buying Tips

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The real estate market in Vancouver is turning around for good for everyone looking to purchase a home.

Previously soaring prices are now beginning to ease up, making it a perfect time for buyers—with real estate agents already getting ready for a very busy spring and summer season.

However, before splashing cash on a new property, there are some very important tips you need to know to ensure you make the most of the buyer’s market.

Here are some few expert tips that would guide you when purchasing a home in the sometimes frustration Vancouver seller’s market.

  1. Get adequate financing

It is very important that before you make the move to purchase a property, you put into careful consideration your credit score.

Normally, home buyers with lower scores use the secondary mortgage market to finance their purchase, as they’re more likely to pay a higher interest rate.However, it is advisable to get loan approval long before purchasing the house. This way, you are fully aware of how much you are able to spend—but never be tempted to borrow the maximum amount of money available.

“What’s your mortgage payment that you’re comfortable with? And take into the fact the taxes you’re going to have to pay, if it’s a strata – what the maintenance fees are, if it’s a home what type of maintenance are you going to have to pay in the future?” said Phil Moore, president of the Real Estate Board of Greater Vancouver in a report.

Always be careful of the type of loan you secure and ensure that you can comfortably afford it over a long period of time.

  1. Get a real estate agent

Buying a property without professional help is a very risky move and can be likened to choosing to represent yourself in court without a lawyer. While you might trust your negotiation skills, only realtors are permitted to present offers directly.

Therefore, it is necessary to get a professional real estate agent in the area to represent you. So, screen a few agents and select the best one who has in-depth knowledge of the markets and has a great reputation.

“They’re there to protect you. They’re there to walk you through each step of the process,” Moore said.

  1. Sign up for automated alerts

Most—if not all—realtors have access to the Vancouver real estate board’s database which is updated approximately two days before the public MLS website.

Therefore, you can request from your realtor to sign you up for automatic real-time alerts of all new listings. Doing this gives you an edge as you’re among the very first to know about new properties.

  1. Do a thorough inspection

After receiving an alert for a new listing, it is necessary to push almost immediately for an inspection from your realtor. In this current market, buyers now have time to make an inspection.

Making a quick inspection eliminates any surprises—as there could be major maintenance or repair issues that could spring up. Therefore, you can now table your offer based on the outcome of the inspection, with clauses about claiming your damage deposit back if everything isn’t as was advertised.

Additionally, if you notice that renovations were done, you need to be sure that it was permitted work and carried out appropriately. Failing to do this would ultimately lead to further cost down the line and simultaneously affect the resale value.

  1. Have a back-up plan

There’s always the possibility that everything may not go as smoothly as you’d want. From the inspection being a failureto the property not living up to your expectations—or not being able to agree on the closing date that matches with your needs.

However, a professional real estate agent will definitely help you get past all of these things. If you plan on selling the property as you buy, you can table that and make it part of the deal.

“You’ve got an option, especially in a buyer’s market: you can put in an offer subject to selling your place. So maybe you want to have a place lined up,” Moore added.

Additionally, building contingencies into your buying plan is necessary. Things such as unexpected delays in closing the deal, closing cost and moving costs that could result in added living expenses if that’s your permanent home.

  1. Don’t fall for the buyer frenzy

The Vancouver market buying frenzy that caused a serious climb in the prices a couple of years ago has ended. Thus, it is important not to get caught up in bidding wars with properties that have been deliberately under-priced—with the hope of initiating multiple offers.

“Some of the sellers have been on the market for over a year and they’re eager to sell. So what I’m saying to consumers is: you have a lot of choices, you’re in the driver’s seat, let’s go out and take a look at what’s available,” said Moore.

  1. Never be wary of multiple offers

When purchasing a property, don’t be afraid of multiple offers as you have the same opportunity as anybody else.

Typically, there are just a few offers below the asking price: a couple priced fully, and two or three above the asking price—depending on how close the fair market value is from the asking price.

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Real Estate

Do you know what kind of condo you’re buying?

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(NC) Condominiums can come in all shapes and sizes. But it’s important to know that not all condos are created equal when it comes to warranty coverage.

Whether you’re buying a condominium townhouse, loft-style two-bedroom or a high-rise studio, they are all classified as condominiums if you own your unit while at the same time share access (and the associated fees) for facilities ranging from pools and parking garages to elevators and driveways, otherwise known as common elements.

The most common types of condos are standard condominiums and common elements condominiums. The determination of how a condominium project is designated happens during the planning stage when the builder proposes the project and the municipality approves it.

When you’re in the market to buy, you need to know how your chosen condo is classified because it affects the warranty coverage under the Ontario New Home Warranties Plan Act. Standard condominiums have warranty coverage for units and common elements, but common elements condominiums only have unit coverage.

How could this affect you as the owner? If your condo complex has underground parking and, for example, there are problems with leaks or a faulty door, the condo designation will determine whether there’s warranty coverage.

If your unit is a standard condominium development, then the common elements warranty may cover the repairs. If it’s a common element condominium development, then repairs might have to be covered by the condo corporation’s insurance, which could impact your condo fees or require a special assessment on all the owners.

To avoid surprises, you should have a real estate lawyer review the Declaration and Description attached to your purchase agreement to be sure that you know the designation and boundaries of the unit you’re looking to purchase. Find more information on the types of condos and their coverage at tarion.com.

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