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?

By , Attorney (Yale Law School)

Too often, a homeowner hires a contractor for small or large improvements— perhaps adding new flooring, or installing new kitchen cabinets—only to watch the job drag on, unfinished. Your efforts to contact the contractor result only in 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:

  • trying several methods to reestablish communication
  • if you haven't paid everything in advance, consider hiring a new contractor, and
  • if all else fails, sue (most likely in small claims court).

Can You Get the Contractor to Respond to Your Concerns; or Respond at All?

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; or can escalate a bit.

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 zillionth in a string of emails 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, 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 forms of communication are getting you nowhere, you'll need to seriously escalate matters.

If You've Paid for Only Work That's Been Completed, 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, Consider Suing in Small Claims Court

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. (Think in terms of monetary compensation; the judge isn't likely to order your contractor back to work, in particular in small claims court, where judges don't have the power to issue "injunctions" at all.)

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 $20,000. (See this 50-State Chart of Small Claims Court Dollar Limits.)

What's more, because evidentiary rules and other procedures are simplified 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:

  • whether the contractor presents well, and is likely to sway a jury's sympathies
  • whether you can gather convincing physical evidence to show the jury, such as photos, and
  • how complex your case is (in other words, will it bore the jury or go over their heads, or will they readily understand that justice is on your side?).

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 supporting 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 what work was left undone, long after the expected completion date. Good forms of evidence might include:

  • original contract between you and the contractor or any other documentation showing the work to be done and the agreed-upon price
  • follow-up communications between you and the contractor, including any agreed-upon changes to the work agreement
  • photographs of the work done and any damage
  • copies of invoices from the contractor demanding payment, and
  • cancelled checks or other evidence of what amount you did, in fact, pay.

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.

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 prefer to file a claim with your county court. (Alternatively, you can stick with small claims court, while accepting that the most you can be awarded is your state's pre-set maximum amount.)

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.

Where Else to Complain About the Contractor's Irresponsible Behavior

You can file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Angi, 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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