Lawn care services can lead you down garden path

March 21 2016 by Ellen Roseman

When you sign up with a lawn care company, you give it the freedom to bill for services you don’t receive — and to continue billing for the following year without your consent.

A reader told me about his experience with a company called TruGreen, beginning in 2014. Here’s his story.

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Our 100 foot frontage property is about 300 feet deep. We answered a “cold call” at the front door and met with a sales representative, who offered a no obligation quotation for weed control and fertilizer treatment.

I did a “walk about” of the whole property, pointing out the weeds that were stubborn and the parts that posed a particular challenge.

TruGreen was the only local company with equipment and hoses that could cover the entire property, the salesman said. He assured us a good response to fertilizing and weed control throughout the property.

Since he gave us a good price with a discount for prepayment, I signed a contract. Pretty soon, I noticed favourable results in the front area, but not at the rear.

Concerned that part of the property was not responding, I called to confirm that the whole property was treated each visit. I was suspicious because of a fine-print disclaimer on the invoice, saying that treatment was offered for a maximum of 3,000 square feet.

The whole property was being treated, I was told, adding that the company would put a special note on file to ensure that the technician did so.

In the end, after several conversations, TruGreen acknowledged that the whole property had not been receiving treatment, after all. The costs would be significantly higher than my contract specified if the whole property were to be treated.

I was not satisfied. Knowing of the continuous service language in the contract, including “your plan continues from year to year without any action on your part,” and “your plan will continue unless you contact us to cancel,” I made clear at the end of the season that I was cancelling the arrangement.

The following season, I was lucky enough to be at home when the technician arrived to begin treatment of my lawn for the second season. This happened despite my clear communication on the matter.

I noted that TruGreen was named in several press articles surrounding billing practices, such as this one in The Record.

Now that spring has arrived, consumers can expect any number of cold calls from roofing, window, eavestrough, siding and pool contractors, as well as lawn services. We need to be vigilant and protect ourselves with measures such as the following:

* Secure all understandings in writing, signed by a service representative who is authorized to bind the service.

* Review and act, as needed, on all the contract terms including contractor provisions for “continuous service” and customer cancellation privileges.

* Take special note of waivers and guarantees.

* Look for professional credentials and memberships (TruGreen has not been a member of Landscape Ontario, for example).

* As much as possible, monitor the service and be satisfied that you receive the service you contracted for.

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Great advice and thanks to the reader for sharing his experience, to which I will add a final point.

You have 10 days under Ontario law to cancel contracts signed at your door. Use this cooling off period to do your research and pull the plug on lawn care contracts with big holes in them.

Customer urges switching banks to save fees

March 16 2016 by Ellen Roseman

Adam Mayers of the Toronto Star wrote about bank fees going up again. When he asked readers how they felt, 88 per cent said their bank fees were too high.

He suggested five ways to reduce them:

Go into your branch and ask. It’s the best way to figure out if you’re paying too much based on how you bank. The more business you have with the bank, the better the deal should be.

If you’re a student or your kids are students, a no-fee deal should be available.

Those over 60 should expect discounts, but not freebies. There are too many people in the demographic now to expect something for nothing. TD’s basic discount, for example, is 25 per cent for this group.

Many fee-free options relate to minimum balances in your account. If you keep a large sum in a savings account that is earning next to nothing, consider moving that cash to a chequing account. The fee savings may more than offset the interest earned.

Branch out. A credit union or low-fee option like PC Financial, Tangerine and EQ Bank can work for some of your needs.

Michael, a Toronto Star reader, grew tired of facing increases in TD’s minimum balance required to avoid fees. So, he moved to online bank Tangerine. Here is his story.

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My wife and I were frustrated with TD’s ever-increasing minimum balances. We made a few attempts to argue that our $100+ a week mortgage interest outweighed the $11 a month service fee we were paying on our chequing account (since we were challenged to maintain the new $3,000 minimum).

Since we didn’t get anywhere, we made the bold leap to Tangerine Bank. There were two reasons for the switch:

1. The large majority of our banking is done online. We make infrequent branch visits (generally, to renegotiate the mortgage or to buy U.S. cash for bi-yearly trips south) and we did not believe we should be paying $11 for what was perceived as a subsidy for branch staffing.

2. Tying up $3,000 as a cost-avoidance method made no financial sense to us.

While our experience in changing banks was fairly smooth, it did have some moments of frustration.

· With Tangerine being an online-focused service, working through the mortgage transfer involved a few ‘real’ people. Communication between these people was not always great and we had a couple of moments wondering if the transaction was processing properly.

· Tellers at TD could not perform some of the transactions (mostly to do with transferring and closing our trading accounts), which meant we had to revert back to online and over-the-phone transactions.

· Transferring preauthorized payments began smoothly. Tangerine has a robust ‘switch assistant’ and a couple went without hitch (utilities mostly). Others involved going directly to the payee and updating the database personally.

We were thrilled when it was all complete and we were actually paid interest ($0.26!) at the end of the first month. This was a novel concept with a chequing account, but a satisfying one!

If you feel the increasing fees and minimum balances are outrageous, I urge you to investigate moving to one of the growing number of alternative banking solutions.

The big banks should all be taking notice, as I am sure more Canadians will be choosing these online options (with in-branch affiliations), especially given our penchant to embrace online and mobile tools.