How many horror stories have you heard about homeowners who want to sue their contractor over the work they did — or didn’t — do on their home?
Such disputes can arise for numerous reasons, but in almost all cases, there are accusations of defective workmanship. Sometimes it’s a case of nonperformance, when the contractor won’t come back to finish the job. In rare cases it may be fraud, in which the contractor accepts your deposit and simply disappears.
I’m not an attorney (and have never played one on TV), but I have been an expert witness in construction lawsuits on occasion during the past two decades. I’ve been deposed more times than I care to remember, and I’ve sat in the witness chair in several courtrooms.
A few weeks ago I reached out to my newsletter subscribers and asked those who are attorneys for their input on the subject of lawsuits. The ways disputes get settled can vary from state to state, but the responses I received from attorneys around the country confirmed my own experience.
First and foremost, they said, you need to know that absolutely nothing is guaranteed in the legal process. It’s a bit like a high-stakes poker game. You are dealt cards, and typically, the best hand wins. However, as the song goes, you gotta know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.
In the legal game, the facts and the expert witness reports are the playing cards. And the player with the best facts and reports tends to carry the day.
Only a small portion of disputes between homeowners and contractors even make it as far as the courtroom. Nearly all of them are settled before any trial. According to the attorneys I heard from, it almost always boils down to the quality of the expert witness reports. The party with the weaker report folds, just like in a poker game.
If you want to sit at this table, be prepared to spend tens of thousands of dollars, with absolutely no guarantee you’ll prevail. Even if you settle the case in your favor, by that point you may have already paid your contractor, and not all states permit you to recover those costs.
In almost all states, you can represent yourself in small claims court to save on legal fees. But there are maximum award amounts in those venues, and if your claim exceeds that amount, you will need to take your battle to a real courtroom.
In almost all states, you leave the courtroom with a judgment. If you win, you now have to start a separate process to try to collect the amount of the judgment. Oh, and don’t forget: In nearly every state, the losing party has the right to appeal the decision.
Of course, it’s better to avoid a conflict with your contractor in the first place. Here are some things I suggest doing:
• Make sure all jobs have detailed and comprehensive plans and specifications. You need to communicate to the contractor exactly what you want and the level of finish quality you expect. It helps to provide photographs you’ve taken from magazines or the internet to support your ideas.
• Before you hire a contractor, inspect previous work they have done for others. Go to houses where the contractor has completed work that is similar to what you’re having done. If you can, talk with the homeowners. By failing to perform due diligence, you’re basing your decision on hope.
• All of the attorneys who answered my query said that you should have an attorney review your contract with the builder before you sign it. Payments should only be made for work that is satisfactory. You should collect affidavits from all contractors and suppliers before you hand over any money. These are legal receipts that prevent a contractor from filing a valid lien on your home.
Tim Carter has worked as a home-improvement professional for more than 30 years. To submit a question or to learn more, visit AsktheBuilder.com.