Need Advise

4 months ago

Two weeks after my upstairs bathroom project completed, my downstairs bathroom ceiling start leaking. We contact the same contractor who did our project. He came and check around the ceiling and told us that the leak was from the toilet in other bathroom (not the one he remodeled). So he said it was not his fault.
He ask if we want him fix the leaking ceiling. I asked him how much will cost us ? He reply “it will be hourly rates, same rates as the bathroom project contract and it will takes about 2 days after the plumber fix the toilet upstairs.” We agreed so he and his employee spend 1 hour and 45 minutes taking the ceiling apart . The plumbers came the next day for 55 minuses to fix the toilet. Two day later, the contractor texted me with his rate, his employee’s rate and he charges travel time and 20% mark up. We figure it will cost over $4,000 to fix the ceiling, so we did not asking he to come back to complete the work. We hire someone else.
A week later, we got an invoice for 3 hours each (contractor and his employee) and 2 hours of plumber plus 20% mark up. He never mention the travel time and 20% mark up until several days later via text and now he is threaten us that if we don’t pay by certain day, he will file a lien again our property.
Can the contractor just NOT communicate any such charges IN ADVANCE and bill the consumer later day ? Do the we have to pay ?
Hope all make sense, please let me know if anything is not clear and please advise.

Senior Legal Associate Levelset

I’m really sorry to hear that – it sounds like this project has caused quite the headache. Before diving in, I should note that I’m not able to advise you on how to proceed. However, I can provide some legal information which should be helpful in determining how to proceed.

First – it’s important to understand that a lien claim can actually be filed, even if the claim is ultimately invalid. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean an owner must pay the claim, and it doesn’t mean the claim can’t be fought. But, because mechanics lien claims can be easily filed with the county recorder’s office, and because the county recorder cannot investigate each claim made, the filing, itself, can happen. As we’ll discuss below, though, there are ways to fight an improper lien claim.

Validity of the lien claim
There are a number of different things that could invalidate a California mechanics lien claim. For one, when home improvement work is done, there are very specific contract requirements that must be followed. We discuss those requirements in depth here: California Home Improvement Contracts Require Specific Language [Free Download] But, essentially: when work is being done on residential property in California, the contract for that work must be in writing and must contain very specific language. If it doesn’t, a potential mechanics lien claimant might not be able to file a lien for their work.

It’s also worth looking into whether the contractor is licensed – especially since a licensed contractor would know and understand the rules associated with doing home improvements. If a California contractor is not licensed, that contractor will not be able to file a valid and enforceable mechanics lien. You can search a California contractor by their license number, their business name, or even their personal name here: California Contractor License Search.

Finally, note that California has strict requirements on what amounts can be included in a mechanics lien claim. In California, a lien claim is limited to the lesser of the following 2 amounts: “(1) The reasonable value of the work provided by the claimant. (2) The price agreed to by the claimant and the person that contracted for the work. (b) The lien is not limited in amount by the contract price for the work of improvement…” So, even if a contractor is entitled to file a lien – that contractor can’t just pick a price for the work and lien it. No, the claim would be limited to the value of the work that was actually done – regardless of what the contractor intended on charging for it.

How to fight off an improper lien in California
It can be hard to fend off a lien claim before it’s actually filed. In a payment dispute, knowledge can be power. Showing a contractor that you’re unafraid to fight off a mechanics lien, and showing them why their lien claim would be unsuccessful can often help to prevent a mechanics lien filing. After all, when contractors file improper liens and lose a mechanics lien challenge, they often face serious liability.

Further, threatening to bond off a contractor’s lien might be helpful, too. Bonding off a lien doesn’t make the claim disappear, but it does make it harder to recover on an improper lien claim. In order to recover payment from the bond, the claimant would need to file suit against the bond – much like a lien enforcement suit. Note, though, that securing a mechanics lien bond can be an expensive option.

Finally, keep in mind that every dispute is different, and consulting a local construction attorney could help clear up what potential options make the most sense in your situation. They’ll be able to take a deeper look into your circumstances and advise on which steps should be taken to avoid further dispute.

Lastly, for more information on exactly how mechanics liens work, this is a good resource: How Do Mechanics Liens Work? 17 Ways a Lien Gets You Paid. It’s written more about how to recover payment, but the resource is valuable for understanding how a lien claim might affect your property.

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