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. 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!
A mechanics lien is a powerful tool to help construction businesses get paid for the work they do. 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!
Successfully filing a California mechanics lien can require you to jump through some hoops. 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. Keep reading to learn the pitfalls and missteps – and how to avoid them.
Questions to Ask Before You File a California Mechanics Lien
Make sure you understand California’s rules and requirements for mechanics liens. 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.
Is your role included under the California mechanics lien statute?
The list of parties who can file a mechanics lien is found in California Civil Code Section 8400. This statute says that any person who provides labor or materials on a work of improvement can file a lien if they are unpaid.
- Direct contractors
- Material suppliers
- Equipment lessors
- Design professionals (including 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.
Did you send the required 20-day preliminary notice?
Nearly everyone has to send California’s preliminary 20-day notice to be eligible to file a mechanics lien. Subcontractors need to send preliminary notice to the owner, prime contractor, and the construction lender (if there is one).
If it wasn’t clear enough from the document name, you need to send the notice within 20 days after first furnishing labor or materials to the project. Missing this deadline won’t kill your lien rights, but it will reduce the amount you can claim in a lien. A late preliminary notices will only secure lien rights for the 20 days before the notice was sent.
The prime contractor is largely exempt from the preliminary notice requirement. The only time the GC needs 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 how you actually file one!
How to file a California Mechanics Lien
1. Preparing the California Lien Form
It’s important that you get the right mechanics lien form for California, 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.
Video: Preparing the lien form
Information to include on a California Mechanics Lien Form
Now it’s time to produce the lien document.
California has specific requirements about the information you must include in the lien form. Failing to include the required information, including a specific statement in bold type, can invalidate your lien.
Here’s a list of information that you must include on your lien form.
The lien claim amount
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 mechanics lien. Though every circumstance may have some differences, the general answer here is almost always the same.
In California, you have the right to file a 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. Padding your lien with extra amounts puts your entire claim at risk.
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. This seemingly simple field can turn complicated quickly.
Description of the 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 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 a clear sense of your contribution to the job.
Your hiring party’s information
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.
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.
Need more help? Download the Legal Property Description Cheat Sheet.
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 are often challenged because companies misidentify themselves. Don’t be one of those companies!
Include the warning statement
California’s mechanics lien laws also require that the mechanics lien form include a very specific statement. The law is very clear about this.
It even specifies that the statement must be in at least 10-point boldface type. The last sentence must be in all caps, except for the Contractor’s State License Board website url (www.cslb.ca.gov).
Here is the notice 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 MECHANICS 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 mechanics lien is recorded.
The party identified in the enclosed mechanics 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 mechanics 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 mechanics 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 MECHANICS LIENS GO TO THE CONTRACTORS’ STATE LICENSE BOARD WEB SITE AT www.cslb.ca.gov.
Sign & verify your California lien claim
Finally, you must sign your mechanics lien claim, and “verify” it. California does not require you to notarize a 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.
You should now 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.
2. Serve your lien on the property owner
Before you file your lien claim, you need to serve a copy of the lien on the property owner. You’ll need evidence that you completed this step in order to properly file your lien claim.
Watch the Video (Part 2)
California mechanics lien law requires you to deliver a copy of your mechanics lien to the property owner…and to deliver it FAST. In fact, you must send it out for delivery before filing your lien.
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.
Prepare a Proof of Service Affidavit
What’s important and required is that you keep a record of your mailing and that you prepare and sign a “proof of service affidavit.” This affidavit 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. The affidavit should identify the date it was sent and the manner it was sent (e.g. Certified Mail). You can write this statement and sign it yourself.
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 proof of service affidavit 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.
3. File the lien with the county recorder’s office
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.
You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time before the lien filing deadline. It’s incredibly common to encounter problems during the process that can delay filing:
- Getting the filing fees wrong
- Filing it in the wrong government/county office
- Not understanding the county’s turnaround time and filing late
- Missing your lien window because the recorder rejected it
- Showing up without the right paperwork and delaying the lien process
How long do you have to file a California Mechanics Lien?
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” on the job.
- Deadline For Prime Contractors: 90 Days if the owner doesn’t file a notice of completion; 60 Days if they file one.
- Deadline for Subs & Material Suppliers: 90 Days if the owner doesn’t file notice of completion; 30 Days if they file one.
California calculates lien deadlines from 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.
File your lien with the correct recorder’s office
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.
What the recorder’s office will need
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.
2 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 after they record the lien. 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.
Filing options: In-person, by mail, or electronically
Filing liens electronically in California is only possible when going through a qualified third party who has an account with the county offices. If you want to file the lien yourself, you have two options: Deliver 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! Literally, if you send a lien to Los Angeles via mail or FedEx, 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 (trust us – you want a copy).
Best Practice: File your California lien in person or by courier
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. It’s very similar to the experience of 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 collecting payment on your job.
What to do after filing a CA mechanics lien
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 recording date. After this 90-day period, if you don’t foreclose or extend the lien, it will become void and unenforceable.
You’ll want to take one of three actions by the time your 90-day deadline is approaching: Extend, enforce, or release your lien.
Extend Your Mechanics Lien
Unlike most other states, liens in California can be extended. This allows claimants more time beyond the 90-day period to make collections attempts before needing to enforce the lien.
Extending a lien can be tricky in California. The property owner must agree to a lien extension and sign the extension document, called a “Notice of Credit.” Therefore, you and the property owner must likely be in negotiations, or on some payment plan, for the owner to agree to an extension.
Learn more: How to Extend a California Mechanics Lien
Foreclose / 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. 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 in California to do this for you.
Release (or cancel) the lien
Once you receive payment, the owner will probably ask you to file a lien release. While some states can penalize you for failing to release a lien, California doesn’t have a release requirement. Even though CA doesn’t require it, it’s good practice to release the lien.
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.
More California Payment 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.