Maine might be known for its charming old New England homes, but there is also plenty of new construction every year. If you buy a home from a Maine developer, you want to ensure that it gets built exactly as it was promised to you. Developers often entice consumers with beautiful prospectuses, renderings of perfect new homes, and promises of how wonderful the house will be.
What if you move in, but find that things are not so peachy? The price you paid was based on the promises made to you – the size, quality of material and workmanship, number of bedrooms, and amenities of the home. If you discover deficiencies in those qualities after moving in, the value of your home is less than what you paid for. How can you recover against a Maine builder or developer for such construction defects?
First of all, realize that suing a developer might not be an easy road to travel. Many builders are parts of statewide or nationwide corporations with teams of attorneys to defend themselves from claims.
If you believe that there are significant defects in your newly built Maine home, you should consult a local attorney – preferably one with experience in Maine real estate or construction – about your situation.
Suing a developer is different from filing a small lawsuit against a home contractor, for example, which can often behandled without an attorney in Maine’s small claims courts. Be ready to take the lawsuit seriously, and recognize that there will be a financial cost – an investment, really – in recouping the damages caused by your builder’s faulty work.
Buying a newly constructed house is a process that generates lots of paperwork, particularly if the house is within a new planned community. Your builder or developer surely gave you extensive materials describing your new property. You would have needed to sign a contract outlining your payment and the builder's promise to construct the home.
If you have to file a lawsuit against the builder, part of your claim will be that it breached this agreement – did not give you what it promised it would. Here, all of the materials the builder gave you, including photos, descriptions of the home and landscaping, plans and drawings, and emails describing the work, will be useful to establishing your expectations at the time you entered into the contract.
For example, if the various documents clearly show that you thought you were getting a home with tile floors, and the floors are some cheap substitute, this demonstrates the builder’s breach.
Maine has a six-year statute of limitations for breach of contract, under 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 752. This means that claims based on a contract with the builder must be brought within this period, or they are barred. However, discovery of the defect can toll the limitation period in some situations. When a homeowner could not have reasonably discovered the existence of the breach until after the six-year period – for example, if the lights go out after seven years because the builder used low-quality wiring and the homeowner couldn’t have reasonably known about it (especially likely, with wires being hidden behind walls) – a court might allow the action to proceed.
Breach of contract isn’t the only basis upon which you might sue your home builder. Another useful legal theory is that of ordinary negligence. In this context, the relevant negligence would be the builder’s failure to exercise the correct standard of care in building your home.
To establish a claim for negligence in Maine, the person filing suit must establish that 1) a particular duty was imposed on the builder or developer by law; 2) the builder failed to conform to that legally imposed standard; 3) there was a causal link between the failure to meet the standard of care and the resulting construction defect; and 4) you suffered actual economic damages as a result of the injury to your home.
Note that Maine has a six-year statute of limitations (a deadline on when you can file suit) for property damage caused by negligence under 14 Me. Rev. Stat. § 752.
Good news if the problem doesn't turn up for several years: Unlike in many states, there is no statute of repose in Maine (putting an absolute deadline on when you can file suit). This means that the only time limitations on lawsuits against your builder come from the slightly more nuanced statutes of limitations. With only six years on the two most common causes of action, you should act diligently in consulting a lawyer and filing a suit.
You and your attorney should carefully read the language of your sales contract. There are a few clauses to watch out for before filing your lawsuit. First, it is common in construction contracts in Maine and elsewhere to find a dispute resolution clause.
A dispute resolution clause may say that you were required to go to mediation with your builder or developer before filing your lawsuit. In this context, mediation is a facilitated negotiation for settlement, led by a third-party neutral individual. Often, that individual will have some relevant experience, most likely with construction law, engineering, or building development.
Your contract may also contain an arbitration clause. This clause would require that you go to arbitration against the builder or developer instead of litigation in a court of law. In arbitration, either one or three individuals – again, typically with experience in construction – will render a final determination on your dispute. The advantage of arbitration is that it is typically quicker than litigation, saving you money on legal fees. A potential disadvantage, however, is that the arbitrator's decisions generally cannot be appealed.
Finally, take note of any aspects of the contract that shorten your statute of limitations or ability to make claims. It is not uncommon that construction contracts will shorten the amount of time that you have in which to file a legal claim against your builder.
An attorney with experience in construction defect litigation in Maine will be able to carefully review the document for these sorts of limitations and help strategize how to best seek compensation from your builder or developer.