Cini John moved her two daughters, then seven and 11, from their home in Malaysia to Calgary nearly four years ago so she could pursue her dream job as a research scientist at a prominent university.
John landed a position at the University of Calgary, but her search for a home only caused her misery. In less than a year, she lost her life savings and became so depressed she at one point took temporary leave from work.
After a lengthy legal battle with her realtor Bobby Jacob who had promised a rent-to-own deal for her family home, John says she’s owed tens of thousands of dollars she doubts she will ever get back.
She believes she’s not alone.
“We don’t know what to do. We are helpless,” John says. “I don’t know that the current system can help us in getting back the money. We don’t have anyone here. We don’t know how to move forward.”
Last month, John obtained a court order demanding that Jacob pay her and her husband, John Baby, nearly $29,600 to cover the money they lost in the failed real estate deal. In the order, Master in Chambers J.B. Hanebury said Jacob’s actions surrounding the transaction were fraudulent and violated the code of conduct for realtors.
The master also ordered Jacob to pay the couple’s legal bills, which are estimated to top $20,000.
But Jacob declared bankruptcy last year, claiming his overuse of credit, loss of income, tax debt and the loss of his real estate license all led to his financial ruin.
Jacob, who has previously denied John’s allegations, did not respond to requests for comment.
John says when she was looking for a place to rent in Calgary in the fall of 2015, a friend had referred her to Jacob, who would help her search.
In a sworn affidavit she wrote years later, she says on a few occasions Jacob encouraged her to buy his friend’s home in the northwest community of Rocky Ridge for roughly $530,000, which was over her budget.
In the affidavit, she says she resisted the idea of buying the home, but Jacob told her that she could enter into a rent-to-own deal with his friend. He and an associate later explained these types of arrangements are ideal for newcomers who don’t have established credit in Canada and eventually want to buy a home.
She and Baby, who by then had joined her in Canada, ultimately agreed to the deal in December 2015.
They paid $26,350 up front, and agreed to biweekly payments of more than $1,000 after they moved in.
They were supposed to take possession of the home a few months later in April but the place wasn’t ready because the existing renters hadn’t moved out.
When they finally gained access to the property the following July, they found a home in ruins, John later wrote in the affidavit.
Garbage was everywhere. A long list of appliances weren’t working, from heating and cooling systems to the dishwasher, clothes dryer, fridge and most heating elements on the stove. Toilets were clogged and leaking. Two windows could not be shut.
Jacob assured the family all of the problems would be fixed, according to John’s affidavit.
“During this time, my husband and I, as well as our two children were sleeping on the floor of the basement; since the heating was not working it was very cold,” she wrote.
“We all became mentally and physically ill. I was extremely depressed and took one week emergency leave from work.”
With so many problems with the house, John and her husband hired a lawyer, who told them to move out after giving a month’s notice. They left at the end of October 2016.
John and Baby sued Jacob and the original owner of the home, claiming the couple had paid $35,000 for the down-payment, biweekly instalments and other costs related to the property.
They also claimed that Jacob failed to tell them before they agreed to the deal that he had power of attorney for the seller while he served as their realtor. Under Alberta’s real estate rules, brokers can act for buyers and sellers in the same transaction, but they must disclose the conflict of interest.
The couple also claimed the purchase price of the home — roughly $530,000 — was significantly higher than its actual value.
In his statement of defence, Jacob denied the allegations, claiming he never acted as the couple’s realtor or represented them in the transaction. He said he and the homeowner took several steps to clean the home and fix the problems.
John and Baby took their allegations to the industry regulator, the Real Estate Council of Alberta, which launched an investigation.
In September 2017, RECA suspended Jacob’s real estate license for refusing to cooperate with the investigation.
Nearly a year later, Jacob agreed to withdraw from the industry for the rest of his life. The decision ended the RECA investigation before it could determine if there was any truth to the allegations that he failed to disclose he was acting for the buyer and seller in a real estate deal, and that he misled buyers, persuading them to buy a home for significantly more than its market value.
John says RECA investigators told her they believed the home’s original owner, who was named in the lawsuit, was a “straw buyer” and not a major player in the deal. The person was also not named in the judgment awarding funds to John and her husband.
In her affidavit, John says she was told by RECA staff “they had received many other complaints about Jacob from other parties.”
But in a response to questions from CBC News, RECA declined to disclose how many complaints it received about Jacob, saying its policy is based on the presumption of innocence for those accused of wrongdoing.
According to court records, only John and a bank have sued Jacob.
RECA oversees a consumer protection fund that compensates victims of fraud or breaches of trust with up to $35,000. John says she hopes to get some cash from the fund, but it won’t cover her legal bills.
In an interview, she says the fight to get this far has been exhausting and expensive.
“I came here [to Canada] with a huge savings,” she says. “We thought we could settle down.”
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