Stories of conflict between homeowners and the contractors they hire for maintenance or remodeling are unfortunately all too common. Contractor disputes can involve unsatisfactory work, unethical practices, or accidental damage to your home, and they can be a significant source of conflict, stress, and financial challenges.
If you need to resolve a conflict with a contractor, the first thing to remember is not to shoot from the hip. A loud, angry confrontation in front of other employees and family members is unlikely to produce the results you want. Instead, try taking the following steps to thoroughly review the problem and develop a solution.
Review your contract again.
Your contract is there to protect you in the event that a contractor doesn’t fulfill their duties. You’ll be in a stronger position if you can point to specific contract violations that the contractor committed.
If you’re having a hard time finding a specific portion of the contract that was violated, it’s a good idea to consult a lawyer for help. However, even if you aren’t able to find a specific contract violation, you may still be able to arrive at a solution with the contractor—but be aware that your legal position may not be as strong.
Make a plan and specify exactly which processes and decisions are the problems.
Make a plan for discussing your grievances with the contractor, including which specific issues you have with their work. You’ll go in better prepared and with a better understanding of your position. And, as an added bonus, it will give you time to cool down so that you have less chance of reacting from an emotional stance.
Resist the temptation to bring in issues unrelated to the dispute at hand, such as a contractor showing up late. Focus on provable contractual violations, as these are the issues that are most likely to be successfully resolved. If you have grievances that aren’t strictly contract-related, try to make sure that they’re things that can be productively addressed, rather than just things that personally annoy or anger you. When you’re ready, send a calm and professional email or text requesting a meeting with the contractor.
Prioritize solutions over blame.
Placing blame is cathartic and can feel good at the moment but, ultimately, it’s unproductive. Your negotiations with the contractor should be focused on identifying and implementing solutions to the problem at hand.
It’s important to make sure that you go into the negotiation calm and ready to listen. The contractor may have relevant information or extenuating circumstances that you hadn’t considered. If you move forward with legal action without understanding all of the circumstances, you could waste a lot of time and money.
Make a plan with the contractor for how you’re going to move forward and, most importantly, get it in writing with both your signature and the contractors. Make sure you email it to all relevant parties, including your lawyer, and establish a time when you’ll meet again to discuss whether the plan has been adequately implemented.
Evaluate the progress made on your agreement.
When it’s time to check-in and find out whether your grievances have been addressed, take the list of specific problems and solutions you drew up and use it as a checklist to identify which work has been completed to satisfaction and which hasn’t. You may want to enlist the help of a friend or relative knowledgeable in home construction or improvement for this process to make sure you don’t miss anything.
It’s still important to make sure you go into this process with a dispassionate eye. It’s easy to take a vindictive mindset if the contractor has been rude or a forgiving one if they’ve been apologetic—but try to focus on the facts at hand and whether or not corrections have been implemented. If the work only needs a little more improvement, you may want to repeat the previous steps, but if there are still major problems that the contractor hasn’t made an effort to resolve, it may be time to consider filing a formal complaint.
Consider further options such as filing in small claims court or with the contractor licensing authority.
Depending on the nature of your dispute, you may want to file a dispute with your state contractor licensing board, a suit in small claims court, or a lawsuit in civil court. Each of these options involves its own additional steps.
If you choose to file with the contractor licensing board, you should contact the board first to discover whether your conflict falls under the board’s jurisdiction, as state laws vary on this issue. The dispute will often be resolved through mediation (a voluntary process with a non-binding solution) or arbitration (a voluntary or mandatory process with a legally binding outcome).
If your dispute is financial in nature and is under a certain amount specified in your state laws (usually in the range of $2,000 to $10,000), you can take the contractor to small claims court. A small claims court usually can’t force a contractor to perform work, so it may not be the appropriate remedy if you’ve got a half-finished deck that you just want to be completed.
Contact a lawyer to learn about your options for filing a lawsuit.
Finally, if you feel that your dispute hasn’t been or can’t be satisfactorily resolved by any of the above methods, contact a lawyer and learn about your options for filing a lawsuit. However, there are several important factors you should consider first, including the contractor’s ability to pay. There’s often no point in suing a fly-by-night unlicensed contractor who may not have any real assets, which is why you should always make sure the contractor you’re working with has legitimate credentials like state licensure and a contractor bond obtained through a reputable general contractor bonding company.
Contractor disputes are unpleasant and can be costly, but they’re also not uncommon, and you should know how to deal with them should they occur. By following the steps above, you can often help bring your conflict to a resolution more quickly and with less animosity—and, if it comes to filing a grievance or suit, you can ensure that you’re prepared for the work that’s required.