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  • Writer's pictureGabriella

How to handle a contractor who doesn't finish the job? | Ask A Designer

We’ve all heard the horror stories of bad contractors who stop showing up and leave a project with a large amount of unfinished work. And we all hope that this will never happen to us…. But unfortunately, it happens more than we think, and the process of what to do, and how to navigate a contractor that doesn’t finish the job is rarely talked about. 

This week’s Ask A Designer question comes from a Facebook post in a group I am part of, DIY and home renovation: Canadian Edition.

facebook group post describing the issue of a contractor not returning to finish his work_gm.co_savvy designer blog

This homeowner, let’s call her Janet, hired a contractor that came highly recommended for a mudroom renovation. After a month of work, the contractor mentions that he has another project that he has to work on and will be back to finish shortly. A month goes by and no contractor is in sight, even after multiple text conversations where times to complete the work are discussed, the contractor remains a no-show. During the time, a different contractor was hired to complete a bathroom renovation, and did a good job and they liked this guy. Janet would like to hire the 2nd contractor to complete the mudroom. At this point, about two-thirds of the mudroom reno was complete, and 2 installments were paid on the full project costs.

What do you do when a contractor doesn't finish the job?

What options are available? How do you get the original contractor back to finish the work? How do you hire a new contractor without any issues or disputes from the first contractor? 

As I dug a little further into Janet’s case, the main outlier in how she should proceed was identified: no written contract existed other than a quote, it was a verbal agreement. A handshake deal based on I will perform X for the amount of Y. 

Why is a construction contract so important? 

A construction contract outlines the contractual obligations that the general contractor is required to fulfill and the terms of these obligations:

  • when will the project be completed

  • what happens if there are delays

  • how are payments towards materials purchased handled

  • what are the payment terms

  • percentage of upcharge on items

  • any time limits

  • what exactly is the scope of the project

  • how much that exact scope will cost

  • what the process is for change orders

  • how additional costs will be managed

  • what happens in the event of a delay

  • what is a reasonable delay that is outside the contractor's control

  • what constitutes a breach of contract claim

  • what legal action will be taken etc.

Basically, your construction bible that outlines what the contractor is being hired to do, what you, the client agree to (payment terms, and percentage upcharge), and what you both agree to should issues arise – delays to the project, material changes, disputes etc.

This bible is the original agreement between yourself and the contractor and needs to be signed and dated by both parties.

Without a contract, you are both operating independently of one another. And when issues like this arise, where one party isn’t fulfilling the job to the standards and timeline that the other party considers a requirement or known parameters, there is nothing that says this was agreed to. It becomes finger-pointing. 

So, while Janet can let contractor #1 know that she is unhappy that the project is taking so long to complete and that they will be hiring another contractor to finish the work, if contractor #1 has already purchased product for the project, he can still technically invoice you for the amount outstanding.

And if you decide you aren’t paying, he has the right to place a lien on your property. Because, while there isn’t an initial contract in place that outlines time limitations and what happens in the event of unreasonable delays, there is a quote for the work that states X will be performed for Y. He can state that he is still owed for xyz. He can say you never stated had to be complete by X date. You can state that a month's delay is an unreasonable time delay. 

It’s all finger-pointing at this point. 

What are your options if you don't have a construction contract?

1. Create a Paper Trail

stack of papers on desk with cell phone on top. creating paper trail_gm.co_savvy designer blog

You never want it to go completely south, but you also have to protect yourself in case it does. And the only surefire way to do this, is to create a paper trail. Take screenshots of any text messages that you have between yourself and the contractor asking for the work to be completed, dates that he said he would be on site, and photos with time stamps, proving that the work is still incomplete after those dates have come and gone. 

This is the best way to handle construction disputes because it becomes fact instead of emotion. 

2. Write a Deman Letter

a woman sitting on a sofa starting her demand letter_gm.co_savvy designer blog

Compile all the documents from your paper trail as backup documentation and write a demand letter. Identify in this letter:

  • the dates the project started

  • a detailed description of the scope of the project, and a list of all the work that was to be completed by the contractor, including any items like materials, lighting, fixtures etc. that he was purchasing on your behalf

  • the total project costs

  • the amount that has been paid, and the dates those payments were made

  • and a list of all the times that contact was made to try and schedule the completion of the work without any progress on site.

  • List the date that you are providing him for the work to be completed by, and any access requirements to the house, ie: what days you are available, hours of work etc.

  • Then at the end, state that if the work is not completed by this date, to your satisfaction, you will be moving forward with another contractor and that no further payments to the original purchase amount will be made. 

Unfortunately, because a legal contract that was signed by both parties does NOT exist, the homeowner cannot go through the small claims court system to recoup any losses. What we are doing by submitting this demand letter is covering our butt and providing written evidence that substantial effort was made on the part of the homeowner to complete the project with the original contractor, that ample time was provided for the project to be completed, and that they made their intentions to proceed with another contractor known.

3. File a Complaint with the Better Business Bureau and Licensing Board

male contractor measuring a 2x8 piece of wood_gm.co_savvy designer blog

In most provinces, general contractors are required by law to hold a license that is verified and approved by the licensing board. 

If contractor #1 was licensed, filing a complaint with the provincial licensing board would be a direction to pursue. While this move is not going to directly provide you with solutions to the problems, the threat of losing their license is often a great motivator for contractors to push them to return to complete the unfinished work. 

In my experience, most small one-person shows don’t go through the process and cost of being licensed and insured. They have years of experience under their belt, and they start a company on the side. The lack of overhead costs typically means that their hourly rate is less. 

So, beware. Just because a contractor comes highly recommended and has his own business, doesn’t mean that he should be the contractor you move forward with. An unregistered contractor hasn’t gone through the necessary licensing process to illustrate that they understand and are certified to execute work to the required code regulations– this places unnecessary risk, safety hazards, and financial burden on your project. 

If the contractor is not licensed, the other direction to go would be to contact the Better Business Bureau to try and get them to persuade the contractor to complete the project or pay you back for work not yet completed. 

4. Hire a Completion Contractor

smiling woman signing a contract with a new contractor _gm.co_savvy designer blog

After the demand letter has been provided and the date for the work to be completed has passed, it is time to hire your completion contractor. This is an awkward spot to be in because the 2nd contractor doesn’t know what was done beforehand and to what quality level that work was completed. 

This project is old news to you, and by this point, you just want it done. But, it is a new project for contractor #2. They need to go through the process of checking the completed work on site, verifying the quality, and fixing anything that isn’t done to their standards– because at the end of the day, they are now liable for the work that was started by another contractor. 

So, don’t be surprised if the price the 2nd contractor quotes you to finish the work is higher than the amount left in the original price from contractor #1

Don’t rush into this process. Do your due diligence and interview your options, check references, and by all means, sign a contract. 

5. Leave a Negative Online Review and Buyer's Feedback

woman in yellow sweater writing a review on her laptop_gm.co_savvy designer blog

After you have done your due diligence collected your paper trail and provided your demand letter, you may want to leave honest reviews and buyer’s feedback online. Leaving detailed reviews online about your experience with the contractor on Facebook pages, community boards, Better Business Bureau pages, and local contractor hiring sites, is a quick and cost-effective way of altering other potential homeowners of the issues that you encountered.

Word of caution: remain factual in your review. It is easy to want to vent all your frustrations, and in our irritation and anger elaborate on what occurred. There is a fine line between providing a review and feedback that outlines the negative experience based on fact and can be supported by your paper trail vs. comments and heated words that are slanderous. Slandering the name of a company or a person can have negative legal repercussions. So, if providing a review and feedback is a direction you want to take, my advice is to wait a month for your temper and irritation to simmer, so that you can approach the review from a level head. 

Final thoughts:

If you’re ever in doubt as to what direction you should proceed, or what your options are, I would recommend talking to a construction lawyer and finding out what legal actions are available to you. Each local jurisdiction and local municipality is going to be slightly different, so it is always best to check. Especially if the home improvement projects are large projects with many moving parts and pieces. 

To understand the legal options available and what those processes may look like, I recommend reading this article on How to Deal with A Bad Contractor.

As well, I cannot stress enough the importance of reviewing if the contractor you are considering is licensed and registered. All licensed and registered contractors are required to have a surety bond in place to provide a level of security and protection to the end user, the homeowner, should contractual disputes arise. 

Yet another reason to hire a registered and licensed contractor. 😉

So while the upfront cost may be marginally greater to go with a licensed contractor, there is a level of protection in place to help you in the event of disputes, issues, or problems. 

In this situation, had a contractual agreement been signed, this could have been submitted as proof of breach of contract to the surety bond, who would review the contract and the paper trail you identified above, and decide if there are grounds for damages and what the best solution would be: appointing another contractor to complete the work, paying out the amount of work not complete so another contractor can be engaged, or re-engaging the original contractor to complete the work. 

Renovating your home, regardless of project size is stressful. There are so many moving parts and pieces throughout the whole process. The very last thing you want to be worrying about is if your contractor is going to leave one day and never come back to the job site.

That’s why it is so important to hire the right contractor from the start. So, if you're looking for more info and details on how to hire the right contractor for your team, check out my post on the 9 Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Contractor to Avoid Regret. 

Feeling lost on where to start in your renovation project?

woman looking anxious and overwhelmed_gm.co_ savvy designer blog

If you're just dipping your toe into your upcoming renovation project, and feeling a little lost with where to start and how to go about the design and construction process, sign up for a Design Accelerator session.

Each session is fully customized to your unique project and helps you untangle your project ideas, define your specific project scope so you know exactly what needs to happen, clarify your project costs so you move forward with the right budget amount, and provides you with a personalized design + execution roadmap outlining your next steps.

background of finishes and drawings with blue blox. text reads got a burning design or building question of your own? Submit your questions here for a featured response_gm.co_savvy designer blog


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