So Your Contractor Left You Stranded…

So Your Contractor Left You Stranded…

Everyone knows the feeling, whether it has happened to you personally or to a friend or relative, when a construction project on their home doesn’t go as planned. A person’s home is their castle, and we naturally want everything to be perfect. Most contractors do their jobs well and only want to please their customers and get paid. But sometimes trouble strikes: on occasion, a contractor messes up and doesn’t deliver on his or her promises. That’s where the law can get involved.

No matter what type of work you have done on your home, from decks to pools to new kitchen cabinets, you should be aware of your rights in the event of conflict with a contractor. Generally speaking, the first thing to try is to alert the contractor to the trouble and let him fix it. At times, however, that won’t work; you might lose faith in a contractor or he just can’t seem to get something right even after repeated attempts. In those situations you may end up in court.

Do I still have to pay?

The first question homeowners often have is whether they need to write the final check when they’re unhappy with the work done on their behalf. Ordinarily a contractor will be entitled to some payment when he has done some good work. If 80 percent of a project was completed properly, you will have a hard time paying only 50 percent of the agreed upon value. Naturally issuing that final payment can be a major point of leverage in resolving the situation, and you should use it to your best advantage. But if you end up in court, you may owe for the work that was actually done, less any amounts you are owed to repair the contractor’s faulty work.

The first question homeowners often have is whether they need to write the final check when they’re unhappy with the work done on their behalf.

What am I owed?

If you have to sue a contractor for breaching a construction contract, what can you expect to win? Generally speaking, any judgment would be limited to the lesser of two different ways to measure your damages: either 1) the cost to repair the contractor’s any errors, or 2) the difference in value between what should have been built and what actually was built. That means that, for example, if you hire someone to build a bay window on your home and they mistakenly place it two inches to the left of where it was supposed to be, a court may not measure your loss based on the cost to tear out an otherwise workable window and replace it with one done to spec. It might instead look at how much less the slightly-off-center window is worth than a correct one would have been.

When it comes to proving the amount of damages, you may need evidence in the form of estimates and reports from other contractors showing why the work was done incorrectly, and how much it would cost to repair it. Sometimes a dispute comes down to just how much it ought to cost to fix a project which has gone wrong. Normally a contractor can fix his own work much more cheaply than a new person could. That doesn’t mean that the contractor is entitled to a discount from what it would cost you to fix his or her mistakes, however.

If you go to court, both sides will have to present testimony regarding what went wrong and what that error has cost you. The other side will contend that you are overstating things, and at the same time may countersue you for any unpaid work that was done. It can be a stressful time. Preparing for your day in court and cross-examination of the other side are two of the many reasons why people hire attorneys to help handle these matters.

A word about lawyer’s fees

Even when innocent homeowners go to court and win, they may be surprised to discover that they aren’t really “made whole,” because they still have to account for the costs of legal fees. Win or lose, most lawyers involved in this sort of litigation expect to be paid for their time. One important feature of the American legal system – lawyers call it the “American Rule” to distinguish from rules in other nations – is that each litigant pays his or her own lawyer’s fees absent some specific exception or contractual provision. You should not count on being awarded your lawyer’s fees. When deciding whether to pursue a lawsuit, you should factor in the costs as well as the potential benefits.

Check your contract

Your rights under any contract for home improvement services will depend on the actual language of the contract that you signed. The contract may address the particular specifications at issue, when and how the contractor is to be paid, or how disputes should be resolved. Your lawyer will need to review the document to advise you of your rights. Pennsylvania’s Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) and Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law (UTPCPL) place certain requirements on what must or must not be in a home improvement contract.

Putting it all together

Ultimately, the question in any lawsuit will be whether you can convince a judge or other fact-finder that the contractor’s work was not done correctly, and you should be awarded a money judgment covering your costs to have it fixed. Often homeowners and contractors disagree about whether work has in fact been done properly, what repairs might be necessary, and what those repairs would actually cost.

In every lawsuit, the fact-finder has to decide which party is right. The key is demonstrating the contractor’s errors by pointing to expert opinions, failed inspections, and photographs of the work itself. Only your attorney can help you develop a strategy of what evidence to present and how. If you have fallen victim to inadequate construction work, consider consulting an attorney to help protect your rights.

Joshua A. Gildea is a shareholder and attorney in the Litigation Group at Fitzpatrick Lentz & Bubba, P.C. in Center Valley, PA. He can be contacted at or 610.797.9000.

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