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The word “retainage” can strike fear into the heart of anyone in the construction industry. The tool is a necessary evil, but it is often abused and almost always the source of job site confusion. This article aims to describe key features of retainage laws across the country and explain how to use, but not get burned, by them.

Why Retainage Laws and Practices Became Necessary

Retainage practices have a long history dating back as far to the construction of the United Kingdom railway system in the 1840s (Learn more at Wikipedia entry for Retainage). These laws are a responsive creation to the complexity of most construction projects, which involve multiple parties, delays, interfaces and more.

The retainage concept has two general purposes: (1) To provide an incentive to the contractor or subcontractor to complete the project; and (2) To give the owner some protection against problems like liens, contractual defaults, delays, and more.

Some may argue that retainage practices further complicate the already cumbersome construction accounting process. This may be true, but it’s hard to imagine the construction industry without the use of retainage as it is a fairly effective way to accomplish the two above-stated goals. To read more about the pros and cons of retainage laws, read Retainage: It Gets The Job Done.

Retainage practices have now been built into United States law to both promote its use (in government contracts) and prevent its abuse (in private projects).

How Retainage Laws and Practices Are Abused

The first section discusses why retainage laws and practices are necessary, but because I believe they are a “necessary evil,” I must now report on why they are evil. Retainage practices are problematic because they cause practical issues and personality issues within the construction world’s already complicated accounting and payment system.

First, practical issues. It is clear that cash flow is an issue in the industry. Cash suffocates construction businesses faster and more often than any other industry, as highlighted in the industry’s failure rates. The industry also has low profit margins, and in fact, the margin percentages are often times lower than the percentage of retainage withheld from a contractor. Do the math – retainage is a brutal cash flow issue in a brutal industry.

Second, retainage causes personality problems and opportunities for abuse. A few weeks ago I wrote a brilliant (yay!) article that discussed the various problems to getting paid in the construction industry, and one specific problem was “tempers.”  It’s no secret that personalities complicate the construction process from start to finish and that better funded and more sophisticated parties take advantage of those further down the food chain.

Retainage laws provide another opportunity for abuse as contractors and subcontractors need the money pretty bad (see cash flow discussion above) and can probably be driven to negotiate for what they can get if those holding the money hold it long enough.

Legal Variables To Understand About Retainage Laws

State lawmakers have made a plethora of attempts to balance the good and bad and creative a productive tool for the industry. Every state’s laws are different, of course. Nevertheless, they do follow a general formula.

Retainage on Public Projects

On government projects, the retainage is usually pretty controlled. The statutes usually require the government to retain a certain percentage for retainage and dictate when that retainage must be released. In some states, after a project is 50% complete, the retainage amount must decrease.

Since the government is regulating the government, it usually presumes that there won’t be any abuses. Accordingly, there is little in the laws governing public retainage to punish the agency if there are any abuses.

Retainage on Private Projects

On private projects, the retainage is less controlled, meaning that the state laws never require a party on a private project to hold back retainage. To the contrary, most retainage statutes applicable to private construction will serve the sole purpose of preventing abuses by providing punishments if retainage is held without authorization or if an unreasonable amount of retainage is withheld.

The challenge with the private laws is that those who need the retainage money the most won’t have the cash to fight for the penalties.

Keeping Up With Retainage Laws

How do you keep up with the retainage laws as they apply to your project if it’s different in every state? This is a particular challenge for companies who operate in multiple jurisdictions.

For a simple breakdown of retainage rules by state, view our Map of Retainage Rules Across the United States. You can click on any state to view local details and FAQs.

The American Subcontractors Association also publishes a 50-state Retainage Law Guidebook, which is a pretty good desk manual for a run-down of state legislation.

How To Get Your Hands On The Retainage Money

So, you’re entitled to retainage money and it’s being withheld from you? You can:

  • Make a legal demand
  • File a lawsuit
  • The most effective way to get paid, however, may be to file a mechanics lien

As we’ve discussed in the past, filing a mechanics lien is one of the most effective ways to get paid on a construction project, and this is especially applicable when you’re trying to get retainage money owed to you.