If you’re unpaid for work or materials provided to a construction job in California, then filing a mechanics lien may be exactly the help you need. Nearly everyone involved in construction projects in California has strong lien rights to protect their payment. These rights are even written into California’s state constitution!
Attorneys and collection agencies around the country will unanimously agree that filing a mechanics lien is one of the best ways to collect money owed to you on a construction project.
A mechanics lien is very powerful, but you must know how to use it.
To successfully record your mechanics lien, you need to comply with notice requirements, prepare and format documents according to great detail, meet certain deadlines, and record with the proper office. There are plenty of opportunities to make a mistake, and any small mistake can invalidate your lien.
This how-to guide provides a start-to-finish explanation on how to file a California mechanics lien. Keeping reading to get all the details right, to get your claim filed, and to get your money fast!
Table of Contents
Do You Have the Right to File a California Mechanics Lien?
Before diving into the entire process, you’ll want to be sure that you have the right to file a California mechanics lien in the first place. This can be answered with two questions.
1. Is your role included under the California mechanics lien statute?
The list of parties who can file a mechanics lien is found in CA. Civil Code section 8400. This states that any person who provides work authorized for a work of improvement; which includes:
- Direct contractors;
- Material suppliers;
- Equipment lessors;
- Laborers; &
- Design professionals (which includes architects, engineers, and the like).
This is a broad array of protected parties. But, if the work requires the individual to be licensed, and they aren’t, then they won’t have mechanics lien rights. Now that we’ve established who has the ability to file a lien, there’s one more requirement; sending preliminary notice.
2. Did you send the required 20-day preliminary notice?
A California preliminary notice, also known as a preliminary 20-day notice, must be sent by just about every party to be eligible to file a mechanics lien. This notice needs to be sent to the owner, prime contractor, and the construction lender; if there is one. As far as when this needs to be sent, you guessed it, 20 days after first furnishing labor or materials to the project. Missing this deadline won’t kill your lien rights, but it will affect them. A late preliminary notices will only secure lien rights for the 20 days preceding when the notice was sent.
The one exception to this rule is a prime contractor, the only time they’ll be required to send a preliminary notice is when there is a lender financing the project.
Now that we know who can file a California mechanics lien, let’s dive into it.
Step 1: Prepare The California Mechanics Lien Form
Watch the video: Preparing the California Mechanics Lien Form
What’s the first step in getting your California mechanics lien filed?
The first step is preparing your mechanics lien form. This may seem like a simple task but beware: Mechanics lien laws are very complex. Even if you have a proper mechanics lien form there are many traps for the inexperienced. This section will help you get the mechanics lien form you need, get it filled out, and get it ready for filing.
Where Can I Get A California Mechanics Lien Form?
The mechanics lien is simply a piece of paper containing certain information that is filed with a government office. It’s important that you get the right mechanics lien form, that it’s formatted correctly, and that it contains the right information. One common mechanics lien mistake is to start with the wrong form! There are lots of form farms out there claiming (incorrectly) to have compliant California lien forms. Be careful to get your form from a reputable source.
How to Fill Out Your California Mechanics Lien Form
Now it’s time to produce the lien document. California has specific requirements (California Civil Code § 8416) that govern the information that must be included in the lien form. The failure to include the required information, including a specific statement in bold type, can result in an invalid lien. A California mechanics lien does not need to be notarized, but it must be a written statement, signed and verified by the claimant, containing all of the following:
1. Get your lien amount right
Described in the statute as “a statement of the claimant’s demand after deducting all just credits and offsets,” your mechanics lien claim must identify how much you are claiming against the property.
Be careful with this one! This is really tricky. Just because you are “owed” money doesn’t mean you can include it in your lien. This is a really popular topic in our Expert Center because this is such a problematic area. Here are some of the more popular questions:
- Can you include attorney’s fees, lien costs, interest, etc?
- Can you include unpaid (but undue) retainage in the California lien?
- What if you dispute the amount due – can you still lien for the amount you claim due?
- What if the work is not complete? Can you lien for the full amount of the contract price?
These are just a sampling of the questions that arise when filling out this “Lien amount” field in your California mechanics lien. Though every circumstance may have some differences, the general answer here is almost always the same. You have the right to file a California mechanics lien for the amount equal to the value of the work that is furnished to the job. Other amounts – attorney fees, contractual amounts due, etc. – may all be owed to you, and you can sue for them, but don’t put them in your lien amount. Doing so throws your entire claim at risk.
2. Find the name of the property owner
The mechanics lien is filed against the property, and it must identify the name of the property owner. Among many other reasons, this is important because it is part of how the county will index the lien in their records. Getting the property owner identified on your lien, and getting the owner right, is a key part of filing your lien.
There are situations that can make this difficult. If you’re working on a job that is commissioned by a tenant, you may wonder whether to identify the property owner or the tenant (answer: identify both!). The property may have been sold during the course of the project and you might not know which owner to identify. There may be multiple joint owners and you’re not sure which ones to list. (Answer: All of them.) And, of course, you may not know who the owner is and need to research this. However, this simple field can turn complicated quickly.
3. Provide a general description of the kind of work or materials you provided
This is a pretty simple and straightforward part of the lien. Here you will briefly describe the work or materials that you provided to the job and that is the subject of the lien. The difficult thing here is to figure out the level of detail required in this statement. We’ve seen some counties, like Los Angeles, reject liens because the description wasn’t detailed enough. You don’t need a ton of detail here – California law only requires a “general statement” – but anyone reading this statement should have some sense of your contribution to the job.
4. Identify who hired you
For this part of the lien, the California lien statute provides that you identify the “name of the person by which the claimant was employed or to who the claimant furnished work.” This basically means that you need to identify your customers. Provide your customer’s name (the legal name of the person or company you contracted with), address, and telephone number. If you were hired by the property owner, you’ll have the owner listed twice, once as your customer, and a second time as the owner.
5. Include an accurate description of the property
California’s mechanics lien laws require “a description of the site sufficient for identification.” This does not require a formal “legal description,” but it’s a good idea to use one because this makes sure that you meet the “sufficiency” requirement. However, a simple physical address could very well meet the requirements here. If you need help researching the legal property description on a property, check out this article: Researching The Legal Property Description for your Mechanics Lien. You may also find help by downloading our Legal Property Description Cheat Sheet.
6. Identify yourself (name & address)
The lien law requires you to identify yourself and provide your address. This is an easy one, so don’t mess it up! It’s important that you identify yourself correctly. You need to use your company’s legal name. Liens can be and have been challenged because companies misidentify themselves. Don’t be one of those companies!
7. Include the legal/statutory statement
California’s mechanics lien laws also require that a specific text block be included on your lien. This is very specific. The statute even specifies that the statement must be in at least 10-point boldface type and that some text must be UPPERCASE. Here is the text as it should appear on your lien form. Make sure your lien form has this text!
NOTICE OF MECHANICS LIEN
Upon the recording of the enclosed MECHANIC’S LIEN with the county recorder’s office of the county where the property is located, your property is subject to the filing of a legal action seeking a court-ordered foreclosure sale of the real property on which the lien has been recorded. That legal action must be filed with the court no later than 90 days after the date the mechanic’s lien is recorded.
The party identified in the mechanic’s lien may have provided labor or materials for improvements to your property and may not have been paid for these items. You are receiving this notice because it is a required step in filing a mechanic’s lien foreclosure action against your property. The foreclosure action will seek a sale of your property in order to pay for unpaid labor, materials, or improvements provided to your property. This may affect your ability to borrow against, refinance, or sell the property until the mechanic’s lien is released.
BECAUSE THE LIEN AFFECTS YOUR PROPERTY, YOU MAY WISH TO SPEAK WITH YOUR CONTRACTOR IMMEDIATELY, OR CONTACT AN ATTORNEY, OR FOR MORE INFORMATION ON MECHANIC’S LIENS GO TO THE CONTRACTORS’ STATE LICENSE BOARD WEB SITE AT www.cslb.ca.gov.
8. Sign & verify your California lien
Finally, you must sign your mechanics lien claim, and “verify” it. While a California mechanics lien must be signed and “verified,” there is not an independent requirement that requires claimants to notarize a California mechanics lien. Confusion arises because the mechanic’s lien statute requires verification, but a “verification” requirement is not the same as a “notarization” requirement.
A verification is simply a statement by the claimant verifying that the matters within the claim are true and correct, all done subject to the perjury laws of the state. A notarization or acknowledgment, on the other hand, is not a verification of the facts but instead an acknowledgment as to the signature on the document. When a document is notarized it is self-proving in court as to the signatures. In other words, it proves that the signatures are the actual signatures of the claimant.
California mechanic liens do not need to be notarized, but you must sign it under a “verification statement,” which is a statement whereby you verify the facts alleged to be true.
Once you get through these 8 steps, you’ll have a completed mechanics lien form ready to go. But you’re not done yet. Your next step – even before filing – is to get a copy sent for delivery to the property owner.
Watch the video: Serving and Filing Your California Mechanics Lien
Step 2: Deliver Your Lien To the Property Owner
Now you have a prepared mechanics lien form. BEFORE YOU FILE, you need to complete this next step. You’ll need evidence that you completed this step in order to properly file your lien claim.
The California mechanics lien law requires you to deliver a copy of your mechanics lien to the property owner…and to deliver it FAST. As a matter of fact, you must send it out for delivery before filing your lien and attach a proof of service affidavit with the lien you’re filing.
So for this step, simply make a copy of the fully completed and signed mechanics lien, and put it in the mail addressed to the property owner! You must send this to the owner by US Regular Certified Mail, or first-class mail. You can send it with “Return Receipt Requested,” but this is not required.
What’s important and required is that you keep a record of your mailing and that you prepare and sign an “Affidavit of Delivery.” The “Affidavit of Delivery” is simply a document stating and swearing that you did, in fact, mail a copy of the prepared mechanic’s lien to the property owner, identifying the date it was sent, and identifying the manner it was sent (i.e. Certified Mail).
Further, according to the laws, the affidavit must also list out “the name and address of the person(s)…upon whom the copy of the claim of mechanics lien was served, and, if appropriate, the title or capacity in which he or she was served.” You can send the lien to the property owner(s) addressed to the owner’s residence or place of business address or at the address shown by the building permit on file for the work.
This affidavit must be signed by you (or, whoever performed the mailing).
Attach this affidavit of delivery and the proof of mailing with your mechanic’s lien form. You don’t need to wait for the mailing to get actually delivered. Once you put it in the mail, you’re ready to move forward to Step 3: Filing your lien.
Step 3: File the Lien with the County Recording Office
Now it’s finally time to file your mechanics lien. At first blush, this may seem like the easy part, but don’t get too confident. A lot can go wrong with lien filings, such as:
- You might get the filing fees wrong;
- You can file it in the wrong government/county office;
- You can not understand the county’s turnaround time and file late;
- You can get you lien rejected and miss your lien window;
- You can show up without the right paperwork and delay the lien process;
How long do you have to file a California Mechanics Lien?
One important requirement when filing your California Mechanics Lien is to make sure it is filed on time! California has strict deadlines for when liens must be filed, and nothing will extend those deadlines. If someone is promising you payment, that’s great, but a promise won’t change your lien deadline.
The time period you have to file a California mechanics lien depends on whether or not you’re a general contractor, and whether or not the owner records a “Notice of Completion” or “Notice of Cessation” has been filed on the job (note, it can be complicated to figure out whether a notice of completion has been filed).
- Deadline For Prime Contractors: 90 Days if there isn’t a notice of completion filed. 60 Days if one is filed.
- Prime contractors meaning any general contractor or other direct contractor
- Deadline for Subs & Material Suppliers: 90 Days if there isn’t a notice of completion filed. 30 Days if one is filed.
The California lien deadlines calculate from the end and substantial completion of the work of improvement (i.e. if the 90-day deadline is used), or from the filing of the notice of completion (i.e. for the 30/60 day deadlines).
Finally, keep in mind that sub-tier lien claimants have to wait until after they’ve ceased work to file their lien claims.
Which California County Office Records Mechanic Liens?
Generally speaking, you need to file your California mechanics lien in the county “Recorder’s Office” in the county where the property being liened is located.
Counties record a lot of different documents in a lot of different offices. You need to be sure that you’re filing in the right county, and then that you’re filing in the right office! This can be confusing, so we’ve compiled a list of all the California county recording offices that file mechanic lien claims, and provide you with some information about how to file in the county here:
- Alameda County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Alpine County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Amador County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Butte County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Calaveras County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Colusa County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Contra-Costa County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Del Norte County Recorder for Lien Filing
- El Dorado County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Fresno County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Glenn County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Humboldt County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Imperial County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Inyo County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Kern County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Kings County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Lake County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Lassen County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Los Angeles County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Madera County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Marin County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Mariposa County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Mendocino County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Merced County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Modoc County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Mono County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Monterey County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Napa County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Nevada County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Orange County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Placer County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Plumas County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Riverside County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Sacramento County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Benito County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Bernardino County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Diego County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Francisco County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Joaquin County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Luis Obispo County Recorder for Lien Filing
- San Mateo County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Santa Barbara County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Santa Clara County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Santa Cruz County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Shasta County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Sierra County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Siskiyou County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Solano County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Sonoma County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Stanislaus County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Sutter County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Tehama County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Trinity County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Tulare County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Tuolumne County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Ventura County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Yolo County Recorder for Lien Filing
- Yuba County Recorder for Lien Filing
What You Need To Bring Or Deliver to the California County Recorder’s Office?
Here are instructions to file your mechanic’s lien with the appropriate county recorder. These instructions will help you avoid making multiple trips or sending multiple mailings back and forth, as something always seems to come up when dealing with county offices.
- Send 2 Original Copies of your Lien & Affidavit of Delivery. One copy is for the recorder to keep and record. The second copy is for the recorder to return to you. You’ll want and need this, so make sure to bring 2 copies. Most county recorders will not make copies for you.
- Bring multiple blank checks. You can calculate your filing fees beforehand, but you shouldn’t be too confident; something always comes up! Bring blank checks so you can make the check out there on the spot. Generally speaking, depending on your county and the number of pages in your lien, the filing fee will be approximately $70-100 in California. The filing fees can be determined by calling the county recorder, or asking in person if you bring the lien for filing in person. Generally, the fees are set at one amount for the first page with an additional, smaller, amount for each additional page.
Should You File In-Person, By Mail, or Electronically?
Filing liens electronically in California is restricted only possible when going through a qualified third party who has an account with the county offices. Accordingly, if you want to file the lien yourself, you’ll be stuck either delivering it by mail or in-person. If at all possible, whether personally or through a courier, try to get your lien filed in person.
Filing your lien by mail in California can be quite risky
You are on a tight deadline to get your lien filed. If your lien is sitting in the county’s mail bin, it is not considered filed. And California counties are notorious for having long filing backlogs that can extend out for weeks (counties have back logs)! Literally, if you send a lien to Los Angeles via mail or fed ex, for example, it may not get recorded for up to 6 weeks! Note that if you are sending your lien in by mail, you’ll need to get the filing fee exactly right, and provide a self- addressed stamped envelope with return instructions if you wish to receive a copy of the recorded lien for your records.
Filing your lien in person or by courier is a best practice
Filing your mechanics lien in person, or by a courier, is a best practice and is fairly straight-forward. Doing this filing in person lets you address all of the issues that arise in real-time, helps avoid delays related to rejections and misunderstandings and gets the recording done instantly without dealing with a backlog. When you go to the county office, however, you can expect a line, you can expect this to take some time, and you can expect the experience to feel a lot like going to the DMV.
Once you have a stamped copy of the recorded lien in your possession, then you have an official recorded mechanics lien.
Congratulations! You’ve just taken a major step towards getting paid on your job.
After You File Your California Mechanics Lien: What You Need to Know & Do
Once you have a valid mechanic’s lien on the books, you may be wondering, what to do next?
A California mechanics lien only stays effective for 90 days from the date on which it was recorded. After this 90-day period, if the lien is not foreclosed upon or extended, it will become void and unenforceable.
You’ll want to take one of three actions by the time your 90-day deadline is approaching:
1. Extend Your California Mechanics Lien
Liens in California (unlike most other states) can be extended, allowing lien more time, beyond the 90-day period, to make collections attempts before needing to enforce the lien. Getting a lien extended can be tricky in California, however, as the lien extension is only valid if the property owner agrees to it and signs the extension document, which is called a “Notice of Credit.” Therefore, you and the property owner must likely be in negotiations, or on some payment plan, for an extension to be agreed to.
Learn more: How to Extend a California Mechanics Lien.
2. Foreclose on the Lien / Enforce Your Lien
If you cannot extend your deadline, and you still have not been paid, you’ll likely want to bring an action to enforce the lien. Doing so enables you to foreclose upon the property to recover the money you’re owed. This will keep the lien viable during the lawsuit, and at the end of the suit, if you win your case, the lien will turn permanent, and you’ll be allowed to foreclose on the property to sell it and pay off your debt.
Enforcing a lien requires filing a lawsuit. You can hire a construction attorney to do this for you
3. Release (or cancel) the lien
If you’ve been paid, you will probably be asked to file a lien release. The process of filing a lien release is similar to that of filing a lien. You must file the release in the same office in which you filed the lien.
California Mechanics Lien Resources
This is a guide on how to file a California mechanics lien, but you may have some other questions about your mechanics lien rights, deadlines, and more. Here are some other helpful resources to get you paid on a California construction job: