When Sandy Klein received an email from the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) in September 2021 advertising a program for home renovations through a bank subsidiary that could directly connect her with “trusted” contractors, she thought she was in luck.
Klein and her husband, Steven Klein, were initially looking to fix up a bathroom in their Thornhill, Ont., home for their son who was moving back in. But a year and a half — and several incorrect and incomplete renovations — later, Sandy Klein says she wishes she never received the email about RBC’s Smart Reno platform.
“I trusted my bank,” she said.
“The referral came from them and the whole program was about trusting the bank to send us someone trustworthy, licensed, insured and capable of doing the work properly,” Steven Klein added.
Instead, a third-party inspection the couple obtained found the contractor they hired through Smart Reno left them with issues — including improperly installed showers, which could cause water damage; a deck without proper structural support; and several incorrectly installed windows.
The Kleins say they spent roughly $70,000 on that work and other shoddy renos to their bedroom, including a new bed frame and closet storage that wasn’t completed. They say it could cost up to about $30,000 to redo two bathrooms and fix some of the work they already paid for.
“At the beginning [RBC] seemed all helpful and sensitive and whatnot, and then they essentially dismissed our concerns saying, ‘Well, it’s not our problem, go back to Smart Reno and deal with them,'” said Steven Klein.
Online reviews for Smart Reno show other customers have had positive experiences with contractors found through the platform. But in at least two cases, Greater Toronto Area (GTA) homeowners didn’t.
RBC recommended the Smart Reno platform to the Kleins and a Milton, Ont., couple. Both say they hired contractors through Smart Reno based on longstanding relationships with the bank. They say it came as a shock to later learn the contractors weren’t qualified based on their shoddy work, which the homeowners have, or will have to, spend even more money to fix.
RBC confirms contractors no longer on Smart Reno
In an email statement, a RBC spokesperson told CBC Toronto, “we value our client relationships and we take concerns of this nature very seriously.”
RBC said it couldn’t comment further on client-specific matters because of privacy concerns. But did confirm the two contractors hired by the homeowners included in this story are “not currently advertised or available for matching on Smart Reno.”
“Once matched with a homeowner, the renovation agreement and fulfillment is between the homeowner and contractor, and it is the contractor’s responsibility to fulfill the agreement terms,” said the RBC statement.
CBC Toronto is not naming the contractors involved.
The bank didn’t answer questions from CBC Toronto related to how Smart Reno vets contractors. But the Smart Reno website says each of its “verified and trusted renovation contractors” have “been verified for insurance, past lawsuits, and is licensed to work in their designated province.”
RBC’s statement also pointed to Smart Reno’s online complaints process. The platform’s website says “Smart Reno does not accept any liability for the work performed by our contractors and will not intervene in legal disputes between homeowners and contractors.”
When Smart Reno receives a complaint against a contractor with serious allegations, the website says it immediately suspends the contractor from the platform while Smart Reno investigates.
Milton couple pitched on Smart Reno by mortgage specialist
Kristina and Justin Vanderleest bought an old farmhouse in Milton, Ont., at the beginning of 2020. The couple told the RBC mortgage specialist they dealt with to buy the house that they needed to do renovations. They said she recommended Smart Reno to find a contractor.
“For both of us it was the idea that these were supposedly vetted professionals,” said Kristina Vanderleest. “I think everyone has heard some kind of horrible home renovation or remodeling story, and so avoiding that was really important to us.”
The couple hired a contractor through Smart Reno for drywalling in their kitchen and the ceilings of two of their bedrooms, along with floor leveling work and new tiles in their only bathroom.
“The thing that made us say, ‘okay please no more, make it stop’ was the remodel in the bathroom,” said Kristina Vanderleest.
While installing the toilet, she says the contractor flushed it and water came through the ceiling, and then the contractor tightened the toilet more and flushed it again and even more water came through the ceiling into the only room in the house they didn’t need to renovate.
The couple fired the contractor, and then discovered the work that had been done to level the bathroom floor wasn’t done properly.
“They did half the room and so then where the tub was, and where the floor was, moved separately so the tile and grout all cracked up,” said Justin Vanderleest. “You’d step in the tub and everything would shift a little bit.”
The Vanderleests say they paid about $5,000 for the initial work, and have since paid another $7,000 to $8,000 to buy new materials and get another contractor to redo the bathroom during the pandemic.
“The challenge was it was our only bathroom … before when we didn’t have functioning facilities, we could pop out to a restaurant or something like that and have a meal and then come back. But then it suddenly got a lot harder [with COVID-19],” said Kristina Vanderleest.
At the time, they reached out to their RBC mortgage specialist who told them she’d escalate the issue within RBC, and then it was passed on to Smart Reno to deal with directly, according to emails reviewed by CBC Toronto.
Despite providing photos and video footage of the work, the couple says a representative from Smart Reno told them he was shocked by the claims because the contractor had done jobs through Smart Reno before and hadn’t received any negative reviews.
“His solution was to have the same contractors come back,” said Kristina Vanderleest. “Other than the phone call with the Smart Reno rep, we followed up again and then nothing really happened. And then the COVID lockdown happened, so it kind of just tapered off and died.”
Back in 2020, the couple was hopeful RBC would cover the cost of the work they paid for which had to be redone. Now they just hope for a better vetting process.
“What I would be really worried about is people who are using this app to do really big renovations,” said Kristina Vanderleest. “Something structural where you might be getting somebody who is not qualified and then you’re actually at a point where your home could become dangerous.”
Broken toes ‘added injury to insult’
The Kleins have safety concerns about the work done in their home. Sandy Klein said the face of one of the closet drawers installed in the couple’s bedroom fell off and broke a couple of her toes.
“One of them just isn’t healing,” she said. “And literally added injury to insult.”
Steven Klein told CBC Toronto the couple just wanted RBC or Smart Reno to help them find a new contractor to fix the work that’s already been done and cover the cost.
“In terms of a contractor, now I’m in the exact position that Smart Reno said I wouldn’t need to be in, which was investigating your contractors and checking their licensing and their insurance and their ratings and all that other stuff,” he said.
“I’m right back to where I was — and I don’t want to be there.”
WATCH | How to choose a contractor:
CBC Investigates speaks with Victoria Belbin from the Canadian Home Builders’ Association – Newfoundland and Labrador about tips on how to pick a professional, and some advice on what to avoid.