Sunday, February 20, 2011

Do CM Contractors Need a License?

Last month I listed advantages of construction management (CM) contracting over traditional general contracting. For example, construction contracting is a highly regulated occupation – liens, payments, codes, inspections, bonding, insurance, etc. CM contractors avoid most of these headaches. But if your state requires construction contractors to be licensed, do CM contractors need a license?

That’s a very good question. Remember that CM contractors are consultants. They don’t install materials and don’t have subcontractors. Why would they need a license?

Don’t answer that question before looking carefully at the licensing statute in your state. Usually the term construction contractor is defined very precisely. Sometimes that definition includes construction management and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, Washington D.C. Code of Municipal Regulations § 17-3905.2 requires that construction managers comply with all standards that apply to general contractors. The same is true in Virginia. VA Code Ann, § 54.1-1100.

Licensing statutes in other states don’t mention construction management. That leaves the issue open for courts to decide. Tennessee courts have decided that CM contractors need a license (Lowrey v. Tritan Group Ltd., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60312). The same is true in New York (Liberty Management & Construction v. Wasserman, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4408).

California courts have decided (at least for now) that CM contractors don’t need a contracting license. If you’re interested, the case is The Fifth Day, LLC v. Bolotin. The case was decided in March of 2009 by a court split 2 to 1 and includes a well-reasoned dissent. Expect the Bolotin decision to be overruled the first time a homeowner brings suit against an unlicensed CM home improvement contractor.

In other states where general contractors need a license, the licensing of CM contractors will remain an open question until the legislature speaks or a court has to decide the issue.

Even if your state doesn’t require a license, I think there are at least three reasons why a CM contractor should have the same license that a general contractor needs. First, having the appropriate license is reassuring to everyone concerned – the owner, trade contractors, suppliers, lenders and design professionals. Second, I believe courts and legislatures are going to recognize the growing popularity of CM contracting and close any loophole that permits CM contractors to work without a license. You don’t want to be caught in that loophole just when the loophole gets plugged. Finally, the penalty for operating without a license is severe. In many jurisdictions, an unlicensed contractor has no right to collect. Don’t take that risk.

I also recommend that your CM contracts include all notices and disclosures required in your state for the particular type project. Here’s a state-by-state list.

The AIA, AGC and CMAA publish model CM contracts. None include the notices and disclosures required by state and federal law. That makes these model contracts illegal for most jobs in most states. The free download of Construction Contract Writer includes a sample CM contract that complies with both federal law and the law in your state, regardless of the type of construction – residential, commercial or home improvement.