Help, My Contractor Disappeared -- Now What?

We've all heard horror stories about those poor souls who take a low bid from a contractor to redo their kitchen, but then are left hanging with unfinished cabinets, bare cement floors, and a massive, gaping hole in their bank account. Bummer! So what's a homeowner to do when a contractor pulls a disappearing act before the work is finished?

The quick answer: Don't take offense, take action.

Here are some steps to take to persuade that contractor to come back and finish what he started.

Review your contract

"Before you lash out, scrutinize your contract," advises Albert Tumpson, a Los Angeles attorney. He notes that when you're cooking on a hot plate and living out of a minifridge, it may seem like the builders are taking too long with their renovations, but they might actually be within the time frame you originally agreed upon.

What? You don't have a contract? What were you thinking?

They're not called contractors for nothing. In fact, a major red flag would be a contractor who is willing to kick off a job without a written contract -- even if he's your brother-in-law. Job specifics, length of time, and quality and cost of materials should all be specified before the first hammer swings. But fear not. All is not lost if you failed to sign on the dotted line. Tumpson says a verbal agreement may be legally binding if you have a third-party witness.

Get the job done

Once you've determined that your contractors are nearing the agreed-upon time limit and you haven't seen their smiling faces in a long while, the first step is to send a friendly but firm message -- by phone, text, email, or all three -- asking them to please come back and finish the work they've agreed to do. If you get no response, it's time to start legally covering your bases.

"Send them a registered letter that requires a signature, giving them 'notice to perform to the terms of the contract,'" advises Mark Marshall, a licensed contractor in California's Inland Empire who has stepped in numerous times to right what other contractors have wronged. "A registered letter usually shows them that you need to be taken seriously, and 90% of the time they'll come back."

Another tactic homeowner Marcy Sprague of Phoenix found useful to persuade a contractor to come back to finish her deck was to mention the possibility of posting an unflattering review on Angie's List, where she'd found the contractor in the first place.

"I'd hate to have to write a negative review about you," she told him calmly, "because I know how important that client source is to you."

You can also mention you'd be inclined to post negative reviews on your local Better Business Bureau website and Craigslist, in addition to anywhere else the contractor might advertise.


If these tactics fail to get you the desired results, it's time to step it up.

Send a second registered letter: Inform the contractors that if they don't finish their work within a given amount of time, say, 10 days, their contract will be terminated and you will contact their bond company. This is the third party typically required by contractor licensing agencies that, in the event that a contractor flakes, will offer you full compensation. It's easy to find the bond company by looking up your contractor on your state licensing board's website. "Contractors hate it when you mess with their bonds," says Marshall. In states such as California, a contractor can't be licensed without being bonded, so you could be threatening their very livelihood.

Fire them outright: This will not get your work done in a timely fashion, but at least it will clear the way for someone else to step in and finish the job. Be advised, however, that you must be able to show that the contractor is in clear breach of the contract, and have well-documented instances of those breaches, or the contractor could take you to court and put a lien on your property, claiming that you're the party in breach of contract.

Get your money back

These options are fine and dandy if you just want your project finished. But if you've paid the contractor ahead of time and you want the money back for materials that weren't delivered and services that weren't rendered, that's a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

Try these steps from Oliver Marks, a carpenter who specializes in home improvement:

Request a hearing: If your construction contract contains a binding arbitration clause, this is a relatively low-cost process in which a neutral party or arbitrator makes a final decision about who owes whom what.

Go to small-claims court: This is fine if your claim is a small one. Most states limit small claims to a range of $3,000 to $7,500.

Make a claim with the contractor's bond company: The mere mentioning of this approach could clear up the problem.

Hire an attorney: This will probably be your last resort, because, hello? Most lawyers are expensive! You would have to be suffering major financial loss to make it worth paying up to $400 per hour for a real estate attorney's services. If it's a good lawyer, though, and you have a real case, this is one of the surest way to get compensation.

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