Construction Law

The builder has just destroyed the project with poor workmanship and materials. What can I do now?

By Brian Farkas, Attorney
Legal options when a home contractor messes up the job.

If you are investing in a home renovation, you likely expect to see your home value increase, not decrease, as a result. Not only is your home financially important to you, but it is also emotionally important. There are few things more frustrating than seeing your contractor make a mess of it.

Contractors can cause damage to a home in all sorts of ways, many of them unintentional: They might use substandard materials or unqualified subcontractors in a misguided effort to save money; they might fail to follow engineering or architectural guidelines, resulting in an unsafe or unusable space; or they might simply perform shoddy, unskilled, or aesthetically unappealing work.

As a homeowner, what can you do?

The first step is the most obvious: Confront your contractor about the issue in a clear, professional manner. You need not be hostile or confrontational, but you should bring the specific issue to the contractor's attention. If that does not result in a resolution, put your concerns in writing, perhaps via email. Hopefully the contractor will agree to redo the work, refund some of the money, or resolve the issue in some other way.

If you still get no resolution, it may be time to turn to the written contract you and the contractor signed.

Most likely, your contract has a dispute resolution provision. That provision might provide for mandatory mediation or arbitration.

Mediation is a process whereby you and your contractor would sit down with a trained third-party neutral to attempt to resolve your dispute. A mediator generally has training in law and conflict resolution, and would help you to achieve some compromise that is workable for both parties.

If mediation fails, you can always pursue your claim in arbitration or court. However, mediation is often a more cost-effective method of conflict resolution, and allows for more creative problem-solving (for instance, a contractor could agree to a partial refund or to perform some limited scope of free work).

The dispute resolution clause might provide for mandatory arbitration. Mandatory arbitration is a process whereby you and your contractor (or your respective lawyers) would make arguments to a third-party neutral arbitrator who would then make a binding decision regarding your dispute. Arbitration is generally faster and less expensive than protracted courtroom litigation. While litigation can sometimes take years to resolve, many arbitrations of home improvement disputes can be decided within months.

If your contract does not provide for mandatory arbitration, or if your mediation fails, you can simply file a lawsuit against your contractor. This would most likely be filed in the county court where your home is located.

You would likely sue your contractor for breach of contract, a simple cause of action that asserts that your contractor failed to meet the obligations of your written agreement. Your complaint (the document that begins a lawsuit) would indicate specifically what your contractor failed to do. You might also have a cause of action for professional negligence, for example if your contractor used substandard materials on the project, which caused significant damage throughout the home.

You should consult a lawyer about the time and costs involved in such a litigation. Some homeowners may be discouraged to realize that, depending on the size of the dispute, they might end up paying more in legal fees than they will recover from the contractor.

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