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Unfortunately, we often hear stories of home renovations going south due to a bad contractor. If you have a dispute with a contractor over a breach of contract, poor workmanship, or for nonperformance consider suing the contractor in small claims court. In this article, learn how to sue builders, HVAC companies, or other types of contractors in small claims court.
Common Reasons to Sue a Contractor in Small Claims Court
Below are some common reasons people sue contractors for:
Breach of contract. You entered into a contract with a builder to finish your kitchen remodel by December 2021 and it is now March 2022 and your kitchen is still not finished.
Not performing. You hire a builder to construct a back deck in your home but the builder doesn’t show up as promised.
Property damage. You hired a contractor to work on your home remodel. As the contractor is working on your home they scratch up your hardwood floors.
Bad workmanship. You hired a roofer to fix a hole in your roof and the roofer improperly works on the roof and the hole is still there.
Unfinished work. For example, you hired an HVAC company to fix your air conditioning unit and they show up the first day to work but don’t come back again.
What To Do Before Suing a Contractor in Small Claims Court
Review Your Contract
If you entered into a contract or agreement with a contractor it may be worth reviewing your contract before taking legal action. For example, you hired a contractor to install a deck in your backyard. When you hired the contractor you both agreed to a written contract that said the work had to be commenced by June 1st, 2022. However, the contractor didn’t show up on that day or any time after that.
Note, you don’t need a written contract or agreement to bring a breach of contract claim to small claims court. You can sue based on oral contracts as well. The example above works just as well if the contract was oral or in writing. The point is that the contractor breached (broke) a term you both agreed to.
Save All Evidence
As soon as you start having problems with your contractor you should start saving any potential evidence you might need later. If you do end up suing in small claims court you will need to prove to the judge why you are suing the contractor and how you calculated the amount you are suing for.
Try to collect and save all evidence related to your relationship with the contractor and the dispute at hand.
Here is a checklist of potential evidence you may want to save:
The contract or written agreement. This also will help you demonstrate the relationship between you and the contractor to the judge.
Any correspondence between you and the contractor. This means written communications like text messages, emails, etc.
Receipts, estimates, or invoices. This should include any quotes or estimates the contractor you are suing provided but also any estimates from other contractors. For example, if you hired a painter and they did a bad job and you need a new painter to repaint you should include any estimate the second painter gave you stating how much it would cost you to hire a painter to repaint.
Pictures. Take pictures of the work as it is being completed.
Send a Demand Letter
A demand letter is a letter that outlines a set of requests you want the contractor to perform. For example, if the contractor improperly worked on your home and you want them to fix the defective work or refund you, make this request in the demand letter. A demand letter also serves as notice to the contractor that if they don’t meet your demands you intend to sue them in small claims court.
Some small claims courts require you to ask the party you are suing for payment before suing. For example, in California small claims court, you are required to demand payment before suing someone in small claims court. A demand letter can be used to fulfill this requirement. However, the most important reason to send a demand letter to a contractor is so you can settle your case outside of court without incurring court costs.
Read more: Explore writing a demand letter to a contractor.
How Much Does it Cost to Sue a Contractor in Small Claims Court?
Filing fees vary by state and sometimes even by court or by how much you are filing for. Anywhere from $10-$75 is the range for how much it will cost to sue a builder or other type of contractor in small claims court.
Once the lawsuit is filed, the contractor has to be notified that a lawsuit has been filed against them. This process is called “serving”. Depending on where you file your small claims lawsuits, there are different methods for serving a lawsuit at varying prices. Not all courts accept all methods of serving so you will have to confirm what options are available to you.
Below are some common serving methods:
Court clerk serving. Some small claims courts have the court clerk serve the lawsuit for you. This option is free.
Serving using a friend or family member. You may be able to have a friend or family serve the lawsuit for you (as long as they are not involved in the lawsuit). Generally, this option is free.
You can hire a professional process server to serve the lawsuit. A process server is someone licensed to serve lawsuits and they charge anywhere between $50 - $125.
You may also be able to use a sheriff. A sheriff may be able to serve your lawsuit depending on the county where the other party is located, this fee varies but is usually around $40 - $70.
Some small claims courts provide fee waivers for those who cannot afford to pay the filing fees or serving costs. Check with your local small claims court to see if they provide fee waivers and if you are eligible.
What is the Small Claims Statute of Limitations?
The deadline that determines how long you have to sue a contractor in small claims court is called the statute of limitations. Statutes of limitations vary by state and by type of claim. In general, many statutes of limitations range between 2-6 years and are the same for a small claims lawsuit as for other types of lawsuits. For example, in New York, the statute of limitations for breach of contract (oral or written) is 6 years.
Steps to Suing Your Contractor in Small Claims Court
If you have tried to resolve the dispute with the contractor and have not been able to get a response or the contractor refuses to address your concerns, it may be time to escalate your dispute to small claims court.
Here are the steps to suing a contractor in small claims court:
Prepare the lawsuit.
File the lawsuit.
Notify the contractor that they have been sued (this is called “serving”).
Prepare for and attend the small claims hearing.
People Clerk can help you file and serve your small claims lawsuit against a contractor.
Step 1: Prepare Your Small Claims Lawsuit Against a Contractor
One of the first things you need to do to prepare to sue a contractor in small claims court is to identify who you are suing. For example, is it just one contractor or is it a specific individual builder and the contracting company they work for?
Once you know who the “defendants” are you need to find their correct legal name and correct mailing address. This is necessary both because you need to notify the defendants that you have filed a lawsuit against them and to make sure you are suing the right business or individual.
You will also need to figure out if the contractor is doing business as an LLC or Corporation under a “trade name” or “assumed name.” For example, you hired Pro Builders to remodel your ensuite bathroom, but Pro Builders could be the trade name for ABC Builders LLC. Businesses will use trade names for marketing purposes if their legal name is long or hard to recognize.
Below are some ways to search for a contractor’s legal name:
Check any documents (e.g. a contractor, invoice, receipt) the contractor gave you and see what names are listed as the business name.
Run a business license search. Using the contractor’s business address, you can search for their business license within the city or county database where the contractor’s business is located.
Run a search on the Secretary of State website in your State as the business may be registered with the Secretary of State.
Search for the individual's professional license. Most contractors are sole proprietors, meaning the business is run by them, the owner. Sole proprietors may not come up on the Secretary of State's website. However, they should come up when you run a business license search or if you run a professional license search.
You will also need to decide how much to sue for (keep in mind that each state has different small claims limits). Make sure to calculate how much you initially paid the contractor and how much extra you have had to pay to fix their defective work, or to finish the work they abandoned.
Step 2: File Your Small Claims Lawsuit Against a Contractor
Once you know who to sue and have their information, you need to prepare the lawsuit against them using the correct forms. These forms are usually available for download on your local small claims court website. Here is a guide for California small claims and a guide for New York small claims.
The court will want to know why you are suing the contractor, how much are you suing the contractor for, and finally how you calculated the amount you are suing the contractor for.
There are several ways you may be able to file the lawsuit:
In person at your local small claims court,
Electronically (not available in all courts),
By fax (not available in all courts).
Step 3: Serve the Contractor
As discussed above, after filing your small claims lawsuit with the court, you will then need to “serve” (notify) the contractor that you filed a lawsuit against them.
Each state will have its own rules on how to serve a lawsuit. Make sure to review the rules for serving that apply to you. The rules in each state tend to be very specific about where you can serve the contractor, who you can serve on behalf of the contractor (if it isn’t them directly), and how much time you have to serve the contractor. In some states, the court clerk may serve your lawsuit for you while in other states, you will need to hire a process server or sheriff to serve your lawsuit.
Step 4: Prepare for Your Small Claims Hearing Against the Contractor
Your goal is to win your case against the contractor so being prepared for your small claims hearing is the most important step. The more prepared you are, the better you set yourself up for the hearing.
Here are tips that will help you win your lawsuit against a contractor:
Research the law. Generally, it is good practice to read up on any laws that support your claims before attending the small claims hearing. You can do your own research or consider consulting with a lawyer if you have any doubts about your case or the law. For example, if your claim is for breach of contract but you are not sure about contract laws you can always discuss your concerns with a lawyer.
Prepare your evidence. To win your case you will need to show evidence to the judge that supports your claims. Consider including pictures of your house or the work the contractor performed at the hearing. Also, consider including emails, text messages, and other correspondences between you and the contractor.
Prepare your statement for the judge. At the hearing, you will be able to present your side of the story. The contractor will have the same opportunity. Small claims hearings are usually informal and the judge will ask you questions about what happened and why you are suing for the amount you claimed. Be prepared to answer these questions and discuss background facts of your case. For example, if your claim is about bad work performed discuss what was bad about the work.
Bring copies of the evidence. Make at least three copies to bring to the hearing (one for the judge, one for you, and one for the contractor).
Consider Filing a Complaint Against a Contractor
Besides filing a small claims lawsuit against a contractor consider filing a complaint against the contractor with a state or non-government organization. Most states have consumer protection agencies that will handle complaints submitted against contractors. For example, in New York City, you can file a complaint against a home improvement contractor online with the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection (formerly the Department of Consumer Affairs). You may also be able to file a complaint against a contractor with your state’s Attorney General.
The contractor you hired may also be licensed under a state professional licensing agency. For example, in California, contractors are licensed by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Contractors State License Board. The Board has a complaint process that allows consumers to file a complaint online against a licensed contractor.
Legal Educator @ People Clerk. Claudia holds a J.D. degree and is a certified mediator in New York and Florida. She has participated in dozens of small claims mediations in New York City courts.