If you are a contractor or materials supplier working in Washington DC and are dealing with payment problems, a mechanics lien might be just the thing you need. Mechanics liens are the most powerful tool to protect payments on a construction project.
Securing and enforcing your lien rights can be a complicated process. However, if you’re willing and able to go at it alone, you’re in the right place. This guide will provide every step you need to take to file a Washington DC mechanics lien, to get you paid what you’ve earned.
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Do you have the right to file a mechanics lien in Washington DC?
Mechanics lien rights in Washington DC are incredibly limited. The ability to file one within the district is limited to those who provided labor or materials for the improvement or construction of real property who contracted directly with either owner of the property or the general contractor. Second-tiers subs and suppliers, such as sub-subcontractors, do not have lien rights.
Furthermore, there are no preliminary notice requirements in DC. However, even though DC doesn’t require it, it’s still a good idea to send preliminary notice regardless of your tier. Preliminary notice provides other valuable benefits besides securing lien rights. It increases your visibility on the project, opens channels of communication, and can work to speed up payment times.
Now that we’ve established who can file a lien in Washington DC, let’s get into the actual process.
Step 1. Fill out a Washington DC mechanics lien form
First and foremost, you will need to be sure that you have the correct mechanics lien form (also known as a Notice of Mechanics Lien). DC Code is fairly lenient when it comes to the actual form itself, as long as it meets all of the statutory requirements. And the recorder’s office does provide a copy of the form for download.
The following is a list of all the information and additional documents you’ll need to file your Washington DC mechanics lien.
Here’s a seemingly easy one. Yet, many contractors still seem to mess this one up. If filing as an individual, use your full legal name. Or, if filing on behalf of a company, you’ll need to provide the full, registered name along with the designation; i.e. LLC, Inc., etc.
In this section, you will need to provide the property owner’s (or the owner’s registered agent’s) name and current address or their last known address. If there are two property owners, list both of them. This information isn’t always readily available. If you find yourself having trouble locating this information, learn how to find a property owner’s info on a construction project.
General contractor’s information
Here is where you need to provide the general contractor’s (or the contractor’s registered agent’s) name and current address. This section should be simple as you should have all of this information already. Just look at your contract documents. If there is no written contract, just request this information straight from them.
The amount claimed should be the total amount due under the contract. This should be the contract price minus any credits for payments made up to the date of filing. In the absence of an express contract, provide a reasonable, good faith estimation of the value provided to the project. Be cautious with this one, as claiming too much on your mechanics lien can make you liable for filing a fraudulent claim of lien.
Description of labor & materials (including first and last dates)
Here you will provide a brief description of the work or materials you provided to the project. Finding the right balance here is crucial because providing too little information is one of the more common reasons why a mechanics lien will be rejected by the recorder’s office. But, the more information, the better. There’s no penalty for providing too much info, only when not providing enough.
In addition to providing this description, you’ll also need to indicate the first and last days of furnishing labor or materials to the project. If the project is yet to be completed, provide the estimated date of completion set forth in the agreement.
Description of property
This section is one of the more strictly enforced sections on a DC mechanics lien claim. The lien statute requires both a full, legal description, as well as the street address of the real property. A legal property description in DC will be expressed according to block and lot numbers. This information should be available in the tax assessor’s office.
Copy of contractor license & certificate of good standing
One requirement that’s particularly unique to DC is that a photocopy of the contractor’s current license to do business, along with a certificate of good standing needs to be attached to the claim as well. If organized under DC law, the certificate must be issued from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs that was issued, at minimum, 180 days before filing the claim. If organized and licensed in another state, then a copy of each under the applicable law.
Copy of home improvement contract (if applicable)
There is a rule under the District of Columbia Municipal Regulations §16-808 that requires any contract for home improvement is memorialized in writing. So, if you are filing a lien on a residential property, be sure to not only have a written contract but also that a copy is filed along with your lien claim.
Signed and notarized statement
Lastly, you’ll need to sign the mechanics lien form under the verification statement which states that all of the information is correct and accurate to the best of your belief and personal knowledge and that you’re signing under penalty of perjury. But don’t sign this too quickly. You’ll need to wait to sign in front of a notary public, as a DC lien won’t be valid unless it’s notarized.
Step 2. File your Washington DC mechanics lien
Once you have all the required information filled out on the lien form, along with any required attachments, it’s time to file your mechanics lien. This may seem like the easy part, but there are still mistakes that can happen. Some of the more common ones being:
- Filing in the wrong office
- Improper filing fees
- Forgetting the required attachments
- Having the lien rejected, and missing the deadline
Deadline to file a Washington DC mechanics lien
You must file your lien claim within 90 days after the completion or termination of the project, whichever is earlier. The only thing that remains slightly unclear is whether 90 days from completion of the project as a whole or the contractor’s individual work. Therefore, it may be the safest practice to start counting from when you finished working on the project.
Where to file a Washington DC mechanics lien
Given how small the District is, this is incredibly easy. There’s only one office where mechanics liens can be recorded. This is the Office of the Recorder of Deeds- Land Records Division. Before you go down to the office, or otherwise send out your claim, you should contact the office ahead of time to ensure that you have all the required documents and filing fees.
How to file a Washington DC mechanics lien
Now that we know when and where to file your mechanics lien, the next question is how. In DC, you have three options of how to physically file your lien. Each with its own advantages and disadvantages.
The first, and likely best option, is to go down to 1101 4th Street SW in person and file the document yourself. This may seem time-consuming and tedious, but it’s the best way to (a) counteract and solve any problems associated with your filing, and (b) ensure that the claim is filed on that day. If going in person, you should bring an extra copy of the claim and any attached documents. Also, an extra blank check would be a good idea in case you’ve miscalculated your filing fees.
Although many decide to go this route, there is some risk involved. Most notably a timing issue. Many claimants fail to take into account the amount of lag time involved in filing through the mail. The time it takes to get to the office and the potential backlog the office might have at the time. Even worse, if the claim is rejected for some reason, it will need to be mailed back, corrected, and re-sent. This can put your back against the wall if your deadline is steadily approaching.
If you decide to mail your claim in you may want to include an additional copy of the claim, along with a stamped, self-addressed envelope with return instructions included. That way, you can have a certified copy of the filed claim for your records.
The DC Recorder’s Office does allow for the filing of mechanics liens electronically. You will need to register with a third-party E-Recording vendor such as Simplifile. This option is incredibly convenient, and similar to in-person filing it will be recorded on the day it’s received. Yet, this route does have its own inherent problems. Most notably is the resolution and formatting of uploaded documents. Be sure that they are formatted properly and that the documents are legible before sending any documents over to the office.
Step 3. Sending a copy of the Washington DC mechanics lien
After you’ve filed your mechanics lien in the recorder’s office, there’s one more thing you need to do to have a valid lien claim. You need to send a copy to the property owner. This must be sent by certified mail within 5 business days of filing the claim. If returned undelivered, the copy can be posted on the job site in a place that’s “generally visible from the entry point.”
Once the property owner receives a copy of the notice, they are required to retain an amount sufficient to cover the amount secured by the lien from any subsequent payments to the GC. And since DC is an “unpaid balance” jurisdiction, the earlier the better.
What to do after filing a Washington mechanics lien
A Washington mechanics lien won’t last forever, in fact, they will only be effective for 180 days after the claim was recorded. After this time has passed, the lien will no longer be valid or enforceable. So before this deadline passes, you’ll need to either enforce or release the lien.
Enforce (foreclose) your lien claim
As just mentioned, an action to enforce must be filed within the statutory 180-day period. In addition to filing an action in court, a notice of pendency of action (lis pendens) will also need to be filed in the recorder’s office within 10 days of filing the action. Failure to file either one of these documents will result in a loss of lien rights.
Keep in mind, that a foreclosure action is a full lawsuit. So depending on the amount in controversy, you should ask yourself if foreclosure is worth it. If it is, we highly recommend that you contact a local construction attorney to help guide you through this process.
If you’re not quite ready for all that, there’s one more thing that you can do. You can send a Notice of Intent to Foreclose. This isn’t a required document. But rather a simple letter stating that if payment isn’t made within a certain amount of days, then you are willing and able to enforce your lien claim. This letter is usually enough to convince property owners to pay up.
Release (cancel) your lien claim
If you’ve eventually been paid, that’s great news! But just because the lien may be satisfied or expired, doesn’t necessarily mean the lien isn’t still listed on the title. Typically, when a property owner pays off a mechanics lien, they will only do so on the condition that the lien is released. In DC, in particular, DC Code §40-303.15 states that whenever the lienholder’s claim has been satisfied, the owner may demand the removal of the lien claim at their own cost. If the claimant refuses or fails to release the claim, the will be penalized $50 and any other damages caused by the failure to release the claim.
That’s pretty much everything you need to know about filing a mechanics lien in Washington DC. If you have any other questions regarding Washington DC mechanics liens, visit our Ask an Expert Center, or browse our additional resources below.