Without a Written Contract With My Home Contractor, Can I Sue?

It's not easy to pursue legal action against a home contractor on the basis of an oral agreement, but with the right evidence, it can be done successfully.

By , Attorney · Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law

You wouldn't be the first homeowner to have heard advice about preparing a written contract before hiring someone to work on your home, then thought, "It's only a small job," or "I trust the contractor, let's just get the work done."

Unfortunately, if a dispute arises, having no written contract can make matters difficult to resolve. Let's say, for example, that you hire someone to install new carpet. But she puts in the wrong color, or the wrong fabric. Or maybe she tries to charge you more than originally agreed. A small job, but a concern you can't just let ride. Can you sue the contractor, even without a written contract?

Oral Contracts With Contractors Are Legally Enforceable

First, the good news. You can sue a contractor for breach of contract, even without a written contract. (Actually, the contractor can sue you as well, for failing to uphold your end of the oral agreement.)

Something called the statute of frauds—a legal doctrine describing when a contract must be written in order to be enforceable—does not bar the enforcement of an oral contract for the provision of services.

Then it's a matter of proving the oral contract existed, however. You can end up with a classic he-said-she-said situation.

Challenges in Actually Proving an Oral Contract

An alleged oral contract creates difficult evidentiary questions for the judge. As the plaintiff (the person suing), you would have the burden of proving not only that you entered into such a contract, but that (continuing with an earlier example) you and your contractor agreed to a specific type of carpet, and that she then provided a different type.

The mere fact that the contractor showed up at your house and did some work (which she isn't likely to disagree with) provides a starting point for alleging that the two of you had entered into an oral agreement. If you made any deposits or partial payments, evidence of this will be helpful, too.

As to the specifics, you might need to come up with additional evidence, such as emails between you and your contractor, a witness to your conversations, or perhaps even carpet swatch samples.

Similarly, if your contractor wanted to sue you for money you allegedly promised to pay, she would need to show emails or to present witnesses, or otherwise show proof of the reasonable value of her services.

Suing in Small Claims Court an Option

Given the small amount of money at stake, small claims court might be your best option, allowing you to proceed without hiring an attorney. But this means it will be up to you to gather and present the sort of evidence described above.

See Breach of Contract Cases in Small Claims Court for more on this.

Beware the Statute of Limitations: Don't Delay in Filing Suit

In many states, the statute of limitations (legal time limits on how long you can wait before suing) is different for oral contracts than it is for written contracts.

Typically, the statute of limitations on oral contracts is a bit shorter, reflecting the belief that oral promises might be forgotten over time. Therefore, as a plaintiff, you should be sure to double-check the relevant statute of limitations in your state to ensure that you don't miss your opportunity to file suit.

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