Too often, someone hires a home contractor for small or large improvements— perhaps adding new flooring, or installing new kitchen cabinets—only to watch the job drag on, unfinished. If this happens to you, you're likely to try calling, writing, and sending emails to the contractor. Yet you might get no response other than silence. Meanwhile, your house might be half torn up, with supplies cluttering up even the rooms that aren't under construction.
Is there any way to get your home improvement project back on track? We recommend:
Nothing is more infuriating than a remodeling job that starts and then stops because the contractor drops out of sight. You've probably already tried talking in person, emailing, and more. But give one last thought to whether you've missed anything.
A formal written letter, for instance, which lays out the whole chronology of events and what would satisfy you going forward, can get attention when the 25th email in a string won't. See How to Write a Formal Demand Letter.
If you've been working primarily with a foreman, contact a supervisor.
Also, if you haven't already given up on phone calls, take contemporaneous notes on every conversation: whom you spoke with, on what date, and what was said. For double efficacy, you might follow important phone calls with an email, saying, "This is to confirm the understanding we reached by phone today, that you would...."
Be prepared to be somewhat sympathetic. There can be many reasons for the contractor's disappearance, some understandable—the contractor has gotten sick or was injured on another job, for instance. With patience, the situation might be one that can be resolved. But other excuses are not so understandable—the contractor is in financial difficulties or took on too much work, for instance.
At a certain point, if all communication is getting you nowhere, you'll need to escalate matters.
If you've received everything you paid for so far, such as labor, materials, and parts or components, then the best choice might simply be to engage another, more reliable contractor.
Keeping the same contractor on the job would save you the immediate trouble of cranking up the search process (research, references, and the rest), but it would invite a repetition of the same problem, perhaps at far greater financial cost. It's probably not worth it.
If you have paid the contractor in advance for supplies and 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 might 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.
Fortunately for your pocketbook, your state is likely to have a small claims court system. Here, you can file claims for limited amounts, in most states between $3,000 and $12,000. (See this 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.)
What's more, because evidentiary rules and other procedures are expedited in small claims courts, you aren't expected to, and don't need to, hire an attorney in order to succeed. Most small claims cases are simply presented before a judge, with no attorneys or jury present.
If you have a choice between a judge and jury trial, consider issues like:
Also see this Overview of Small Claims Rules.
In preparation to present your small claims court case, you'll want to compile documentation of your claim. These should show the judge the chronology of what happened, the contractor's bad faith, and the low quality of the work that was done (if applicable). It should also clearly show that the work was left undone, long after the expected completion date. Good evidence might include:
All of these will be useful to bring when you appear in court. Be sure to follow the court's rules on making copies for everyone. Fortunately, small claims court clerks can be enormously helpful; their staff are trained to assist with all the procedural matters.
You'll also want to prepare a statement of your key points for the judge and possibly jury to consider, explaining and wrapping up your complaint in an understandable manner and anticipating what the contractor will say in defense. The formal letter you wrote to the contractor can help you prepare this.
If the extent of the damage exceeds the maximum small claim amount, you might have to file a claim with your county court. The additional expenses, however, (in particular, attorney's fees if you decide representing yourself is more trouble than it's worth), could change your decision about whether or not to litigate. But if the damage amount is high enough, talking to an attorney might be worth your while.
You can file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Angie's List, online review sites, and 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 might 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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