Q: Back in May, we hired a landscape contractor to do quite a bit of work around our house. The work involved everything from laying sod to constructing a flagstone porch. We entered into a written agreement for almost $17,000. The work was to be completed within three weeks.
Well, here we are months later and the work is only partially completed. When I’m able to get them on the phone they outright lie about the reasons they haven’t finished the work.
Worse yet, we advanced these people more than $12,000 for the work. I’m writing them one final letter granting them an extension of time. Is this the right course of action? What else can I do?
A: Unfortunately, the story of landscape contractors who only partially complete a job is a common one, particularly in the spring when everyone wants to get their yard in order so they can enjoy it through the summer.
My email box started heating up with these complaints in April.
I haven’t reviewed your agreement, but assuming it reflects what you’ve told me, you have to think of this problem as what it is: a breach of contract.
When someone breaches a contract, it carries legal consequences. But ultimately, the guy on the short end of the stick — that’s you — may have to file a lawsuit.
However, before you go down the litigation highway there are a few steps you should take.
Your letter is a good start.
I would include a statement that if the work is not finished to your satisfaction by a specific date you intend to hire someone else to complete the project and will expect payment for the second contractor from the first contractor, minus the amount you still owe on the original contract.
In other words, you’ll get the work done by someone else, but your out-of-pocket expenses won’t be any higher than your original contract price.
Should you find it necessary to sue the first contractor, the court will measure your damages by the cost incurred to complete the project, again, minus the amount left unpaid on the first contract.
There are a couple of traps to avoid along the away.
Make sure that the second contractor is hired to do only the work the first contractor was originally hired to do, so there is no confusion regarding what money is owed for the incomplete job.
Also, once your final extension is over, make sure to send another letter informing the first contractor that you consider the contractor to be in breach (legalese for someone who violates a contract), you are getting the project completed by someone else and specify that the first contractor is no longer permitted to enter your property.
If you fail to give this notice you may find the first contractor showing up to work on the project after you’ve entered into a contract with the second contractor, and both will want to get paid.
And finally, report the first contractor to the California State Contractors Board. If everyone will take the time to file a complaint against these types of contractors, maybe they will be less of a problem in the future.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like answered in this column you can contact him at [email protected]