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?

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?

What Went Wrong With Your Contractor?

Nothing is more infuriating than a remodeling job that starts and then stops because the contractor drops out of sight. There can be many 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. Clearly, you'll need to escalate matters.

If You've Paid for Only What You've Received, Consider Hiring a New Contractor

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've Paid for More Than You've Received, Take Action Against the Current Contractor

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 Nolo's 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. Also see this Overview of Small Claims Rules.

Preparing to Present a Case in Small Claims Court

In preparation to present your small claims court case, you'll want to compile documentation of your claim, such as photographs of the damage, copies of invoices, and cancelled checks. All of these will be useful to bring when you appear in court. You'll also want to prepare a statement of your key points, anticipating what the contractor will say in defense.

Small claims court clerks can be enormously helpful to people bringing suit. Their staff are trained to assist you.

Where Else to Complain

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.

What If Your Claim Is Higher Than Your State's Small Claims Court Limit?

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.

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