Saturday, October 23, 2010

Down Payments on Residential Jobs

Nine states place limits or impose restrictions on advance payments for some types of residential construction. If you have jobs in any of these nine states, you walk a fine line when asking for a down payment: Arizona, California, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada (pools only) Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

I agree that states have an interest in limiting how much a contractor can collect in advance. But I feel there are legitimate reasons to ask for more cash up front on some jobs. For example, suppose you have to order (and pay for) custom windows for a job. And suppose those windows aren't returnable. I think it’s reasonable to ask for a hefty payment up front on that job. The same is true for nearly any job with special order materials, especially if those materials come with a long order-to-ship time.

Some of these nine states cut contractors a little slack when special order materials are required for a job. Massachusetts and Pennsylvania limit the down payment to one-third of the contract price but make an exception if materials have to be special ordered. In Maine, the initial payment on home improvement jobs can’t exceed one-third of the contract price. But the owner and contractor can waive the one-third limit by mutual agreement.

Tennessee limits the initial payment on home improvement contracts to one-third of the contract price but allows two exceptions: (1) if the contractor provides performance and payment bonds or other security guaranteeing performance, or (2) if the contract discloses the right of the owner to withhold payment until work is done and the owner volunteers to make a larger initial payment.

Maryland and California are a different story.
Maryland limits the initial payment on home improvement work to one-third of the contract price. California is even more restrictive. The initial payment can’t exceed $1,000 or 10% of the contract price, whichever is less. And there are no exceptions! I think that’s going to be unreasonable on some jobs. For example, a while ago I had a call from a contractor re-doing the interior of a luxury home in Malibu. Bare material cost for the marble flooring on this job was well over $10,000. And the flooring order required a 60-day lead time with full payment up front. I think that job required an advance payment when the flooring went on order.

If you agree and do home improvement work in either Maryland or California, I’m going to suggest a better way to handle advance payments. The law in Maryland and California limit only down payments. Fine. Don’t even mention a down payment in your contract. Instead, make the scheduled start of construction the day non-returnable materials are placed on order. Identify that in the contract as the first job phase. Then make payment due on job phase 1 when you order those materials. That can be the third day after the contract is signed. I believe that set of conditions complies with both the letter and spirit of the law.

To try this yourself, have a look at Construction Contract Writer. The trial version is free.


  1. Dear Gary;
    A a home improvement contractor in the Los Angeles area I am familiar with the 10% deposit or $1,000.oo which ever is less rule. Your statement is basically sound except that alifornia has a three day wait period before construction can start. Any money spent durung the wait period cannot be billed back to the owner should he back out of the contract within that period. So you could eat a serious amount of money. The smart thing to do is to wait the three days, Collect the money for the purchases and then order them. The other solution is to have the owner pay for the materials with his own money and deduct that amount from the contract. I like the second solution the best because it relives me of a coniderable amount of liability, the client doesn't have jitters about the money and it satisfies the law.
    Just thought you would appreciate the comment
    Mike Brainard

  2. I'm an unlicensed painter in PA and last year I took $175 downpayment for a spackle job. I got into some trouble and was arrested before I could do the job. Once I got out she asked for her downpayment back because the job was complete, which is understandable. I haven't had much luck with work since I got home and the little work I did get I had to feed my family. I have a big job coming and told her I'd have it very soon, evendors ofeed to double it. She doesn't want to hear it. She wants it now(it has been awhile) I offered to work it off, she said no. I offered to buy her something at home depot worth $175(credit) she said no. I don't want any trouble. Can I be arrested for this if she calls the cops?

    1. Pennsylvania's Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act applies if (1) the value of the job was $500 or more, (2) work was on a residence and (3) your income from home improvement work was $5000 or more last year. If the Act applies, any agreement that does not comply with the Act is void. You could be liable for triple damages and attorney fees. But there is no criminal penalty (jail time). Suggestion: Offer to begin making regular payments ($5 or $10 peer week) until the $175 is repaid in full.

    2. If you're going to go out and take jobs as an unlicensed painter/contractor in Pennsylvania then at least don't go to jail or bail on the job. It is people like you who have made the State come up with these H.I.C. numbers and liscense! People were and still are getting ripped off of the deposits or getting crappy work because of dirtbags. I get the whole feed the family thing, I have to feed mine but I also have to keep my insurances up to date, liscense valid and most importantly my name on the work all in tip top shape. If you're good enough to go and paint on your own then go find an established painting get company and take your skills to them and you don't have to worry about the "paperwork" aspect of the buisness.