My home contractor isn't finishing the job: What can I do?

When a remodeling or construction project is delayed long-term because of the contractor's inaction, what can a homeowner do?

QUESTION

We hired a contractor to install new kitchen cabinets. The work got underway well enough, but now the contractor won’t show up to finish the work. We’ve called and written and sent emails, but we don’t get any response. Meanwhile, our kitchen is all torn up and there are parts of kitchen cabinets in our living room, dining room, and kitchen. Is there any way we can get this project back on track?

ANSWER

Nothing is more infuriating than a remodeling job that starts and then stops because the contractor drops out of sight. There can be many different reasons for the contractor’s disappearance, some understandable – the contractor has gotten sick or was injured on another job – and some not so understandable – the contractor is in financial difficulties or took on too much work. In any case, there’s not much excuse for a contractor not returning phone calls.

If you have received everything you've paid for so far – labor, materials, and parts or components – then the best choice may simply be to engage another, more reliable contractor. Keeping the same contractor on the job saves you the immediate trouble of cranking up the search process (research, references, and all the rest) but it invites a repetition of the same problem down the road, perhaps at far greater financial cost. It’s probably not worth it.

However, if you have paid the contractor in advance for the cabinets or any other materials, parts, or components, and you don’t have possession of them, or if the contractor did substantial damage to your house before disappearing, or if you have otherwise sustained financial harm because of the contractor’s negligence, you may have no other choice than litigation.

You will want to balance the cost of litigation against a reasonable estimate of how much compensation you will receive if you win. Most states have small claims courts in which you can file claims for amounts up to $2,000. (See Nolo's 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.) Evidentiary rules and other procedures are expedited in small claims courts so that you don’t need to hire an attorney to succeed.

In preparation, you’ll want to compile documentation of your claim (photographs of the damage, copies of invoices, and cancelled checks) to bring with you when you appear in court. Small claims court clerks can be enormously helpful to people bringing suit; their staff are trained to assist you. If, however, the extent of the damage exceeds the maximum small claim amount, you may have to file a claim with your county court. The additional expense (in particular, attorney’s fees) may change your decision about whether or not to litigate.

And, of course, you can file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Angie’s List, Craigslist or, most important, your state’s contractor’s licensing board or commission. Typically, these boards or commissions have simple, online filing procedures that make it easy to make a complaint against a negligent contractor. The complaints may not lead to a full recovery of the amount of your loss, but you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that, in the future, this contractor will be less likely to harm other innocent homeowners.

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