Monday, December 24, 2012

Changes in Construction Contract Law

Twenty-five states have made changes in the last few months. Highlights follow. As you read down the list, keep a tally. How many of these changes make it easier to do business as a construction contractor?

Alabama – Owners have ten days to cancel residential roofing repair contracts if any part of the insurance claim is denied. Work can’t start until the claim is settled. Contractors are barred from negotiating the settlement. Effective August 1, 2012

Arizona – Contracts for repair of storm damage require specific notices and disclosures. Owners have three days to cancel after any part of the insurance claim is denied. Work can’t start until the claim is settled. The down payment can’t exceed 50% of the contract price. Enacted April 2012.

California -- No matter what the contract says, a 2% per month penalty plus attorney fees applies on retention wrongfully withheld. Operative July 1, 2012. Licensed contractors and subcontractors are prohibited from inserting into any contract either an indemnity clause or a waiver of lien rights which would be void under California law. Operative July 1, 2012. Residential construction consultants need a contracting license and have to comply with construction contract law. Effective January 1, 2013.

Delaware – Home construction fraud is now considered either a class B, D, or G felony or a class A misdemeanor. Approved July 20, 2012.

Idaho – Any contract clause which limits the right to sue in Idaho or limits the time to bring suit is void. Enacted April 5, 2012.

Indiana – On public works contracts, claims of subcontractors and suppliers to retained funds are barred once the public agency has settled with the prime contractor. Effective July 1, 2012. Pay-if-paid clauses in subcontracts will be enforced. Court decision on May 11, 2012.

Iowa – Contracts for residential work must include a specific lien notice. Omitting the notice voids all lien rights of the prime contractor. Effective January 1, 2013.

Kentucky -- Owners have five days to cancel residential roofing repair contracts after any part of the insurance claim is denied. The right to cancel has to be disclosed in the contract. Work can’t start and no payment is allowed until the claim is settled. Effective July 12, 2012.

Louisiana – Owners have three days to cancel residential roofing repair contracts after any part of the insurance claim is denied. The right to cancel has to be disclosed in the contract. Effective August 1, 2012.

Massachusetts – No claim for extras on public works projects will be approved without prior notice to the comptroller. Effective January 1, 2013.

Nebraska -- Owners have three days to cancel contracts for repair of residential roofing after any part of the insurance claim is denied. Contractors can’t offer to rebate any part of the deductible. Effective July 19, 2012

North Carolina –Submitting a false statement of charges for home improvement work is a misdemeanor and grounds for license revocation or suspension. Effective January 1, 2013

Ohio – The limitation period for making contract claims is reduced from fifteen years to eight years. But claims for defective work under a construction contract retain a ten-year limitation. Effective Sept. 28, 2012.

South Dakota – Owners have three days to cancel contracts for repair of storm damage to residential roofing after any part of the insurance claim is denied. Contractors can’t offer to rebate any portion of the insurance deductible. Effective July 1, 2012.

How many of these changes are contractor-friendly? None, in my opinion. All make it harder to do business. But there’s an easy way to stay legal, no matter what changes come your way. Have a look at Construction Contract Writer. The trial version is free.


Friday, November 30, 2012

Storm Damage Repair in Thirteen States

This isn’t about what happened on October 29. It’s about another storm, the rising tide of states that regulate contracts for repair of storm damage. A little more than a year ago, no state had special rules for insurance repair contracts. Now there are thirteen (by date enacted):
  • May 24, 2011– Minnesota Statutes § 326B.811
  • June 30, 2011 – Missouri Revised Statutes § 407.725
  • July 1, 2011 – Official Code of Georgia Annotated § 10-1-393.12
  • August 26, 2011 – Oklahoma Statutes Title 59 § 1151.21
  • January 1, 2012 – Illinois Compiled Statutes, Title 815, § 513/18
  • April 10, 2012 – Arizona Revised Statutes § 32-1158.02
  • May 22, 2012 – Louisiana Revised Statutes § 37:2175.1
  • July 1, 2012 – Indiana Code Annotated § 24-5-11-10
  • July 1, 2012 – Tennessee Code Annotated § 62-6-601
  • July 1, 2012 – South Dakota Codified Laws § 37-24-51
  • July 12, 2012 – Kentucky Revised Statutes § 367.620
  • July 19, 2012 – Nebraska Revised Statutes § 44-8603
  • August 1, 2012 – Alabama Code § 8-36-2
If you repair storm damage in any of these states, your residential contracts have to comply with the new law. All thirteen states:
  • Require a notice in the contract if any part of the work may be covered by insurance.
  • Give an owner the right to cancel the job if any part of the claim is denied.
  • Require a full refund within ten days if the job is cancelled.
  • Impose serious penalties for failure to comply.
Storm repair law is different in each of these thirteen states. But the following four states are typical:

Arizona – Covers all repairs to a residence damaged by a “catastrophic storm” in a “specific area.” The owner has three days to cancel after an insurance claim is denied. Work can't start until the three-day period has expired. The contract has to include a copy of the repair estimate showing damage to be repaired or not repaired and any emergency repairs already completed. If repair of the roof is included, the contract has to describe the work and how the roof was inspected. The contractor is barred from negotiating settlement of the insurance claim. The penalty for non-compliance is revocation or suspension of a contractor’s license.

Kentucky – Applies only to repair of the roof system. The owner has five days to cancel after any part of the insurance claim is denied. The contract has to include a detachable notice of cancellation in duplicate. Prohibits any payment before the end of the cancellation period. Work done to prevent further damage is exempt. The contractor is barred from negotiating settlement of the insurance claim. Prohibits reimbursement of the insurance deductible.

Louisiana – Applies only to repair of the roof system. The owner has three days to cancel after any part of the insurance claim is denied. The contract has to include a detachable notice of cancellation in duplicate. Exempts emergency work if acknowledged in writing by the owner. Prohibits doing any work before the contract is signed. Violation of the law risks a fine of up to $1,000 plus costs and attorney fees.

Missouri – Applies only to repair of the roof system. Prohibits any offer to rebate the deductible. The owner has five days to cancel after any part of the insurance claim is denied. Exempts emergency work if acknowledged in writing by the owner. The contract has to include a detachable notice of cancellation in duplicate. A contractor who doesn’t comply can be slapped with an injunction, restraining order and a civil penalty up to $1,000.

And Now Comes Sandy
Expect to see similar laws enacted in many of the 24 states affected. If your state hasn’t acted yet, stay tuned.

I’ve got a suggestion for any contractor with too little time and patience to deal with every new law that comes along. Construction Contract Writer makes it easy to stay legal. And the trial version is free.


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Construction Contractor or Consultant?

Change is inevitable, even in the construction industry. One of those changes is construction consulting, sometimes called CM (construction management) consulting – or CM for short.

Veteran builders will remember a time when residential contractors did most framing and finishing with their own crews. Today, a residential contractor with payroll is the exception. Most let subs handle nearly all work.

CM consulting takes this trend one step beyond. A CM contractor is a consultant to the owner, pure and simple. No subcontractors. No payroll. No payroll taxes. No risk. The CM recruits contractors and subs, schedules the work, orders materials, supervises the job and tells the owner when it’s time to pay bills. But all decisions and contracts are in the name of the owner. Simple and easy.

Now the Hard Part
Is a CM consultant a “contractor” for licensing and contracting purposes? Only a few states have decided the issue. Washington D.C. Code of Municipal Regulations § 17-3905.1 to § 17-3905.14 requires that CM consultants comply with standards set for general contractors. Tennessee (Lowrey v. Tritan Group Ltd., 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 60312) and New York (Liberty Management & Construction v. Wasserman, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 4408) are the same. In nearly all other states, whether a CM consultant is a contractor is anybody’s guess. So if there’s no answer, you might ask, “Why should I care?”

Here’s why. Where contractors are licensed, an unlicensed contractor has no right to collect. So a CM with no contracting license might not be able to collect. That gets the attention of anyone working as a CM. But it’s only the beginning. A consultant needs only an employment contract – or no written contract at all. If your state considers CM consultants to be contractors, every CM agreement has to include the notices and disclosures required in construction contacts – up to 18 pages of fine print in some states. Without those notices and disclosures, the CM contract is probably void.

Maybe you’re beginning to understand the problem. Use the CM loophole and you risk getting pinched if the loophole closes without warning.

States have an interest here. They’re not going to let the increasing popularity of CM consulting knock state regulation of contractors into a cocked hat. California is an example. A March 2009 appellate decision (172 Cal. App. 4th 939) allowed CM consultant Fifth Day to collect from Bolotin like any contractor even though Fifth Day did not have a contracting license. To stop an end-run around licensing law, the California legislature clawed back. Last month, Governor Jerry Brown approved a revision of California Business and Professions Code § 7026. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2013. The new definition of “contractor” includes what every CM consultant does:

(A) Provides or oversees a bid for a construction project.
(B) Arranges for and sets up work schedules for contractors and subcontractors and maintains oversight of a construction project.

That settles it, at least in California and at least for home improvement work. Starting January 1, 2013, CM consultants in California need a contracting license and have to work under a legal construction contract. Expect other states to fall into line one by one.

Protect Yourself
The AIA and CMAA publish model CM contracts. Neither includes 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 sample CM contracts that comply with both federal law and the law in your state, regardless of the type of construction – residential, commercial or home improvement.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Employee or Subcontractor?

Every contractor understands the advantage of getting work done with subs rather than employees. Employees come with headaches like payroll taxes (F.I.C.A., F.U.T.A., S.U.I), employee insurance, fringe benefits and overtime. Collectively, those add about one-third to labor cost. With subcontractors, you simply write a check payable to the sub. No withholding tax. No fringe benefits. No overtime.

So why would any contractor have employees?

The simple answer is that many don’t. That’s known as paper contracting. For details, see my blog post.

But there’s another reason, usually referred to as employee classification. States and the I.R.S. have rules about who qualifies as a sub (an independent contractor) and who has to be paid as an employee.

What makes a sub?
Simply labeling someone a subcontractor doesn’t work. In fact, no single test settles the matter. States and the I.R.S. apply their own rules. But all would agree that most employees:
  • Work under employer control and can be laid off.
  • Comply with work hours and the sequence of work set by the employer.
  • Can’t substitute someone else to do the work.
  • Are paid by the hour, week or month rather than by the job.
  • Use the employer’s tools and get reimbursed for expenses.
Subcontractors are in business for themselves. They:
  • Promote their services and have a business address.
  • Usually work under contract for several prime contractors.
  • Work for a contract price and cover their own job expenses.
  • Have to redo unsatisfactory work at their own expense.
  • Stand to make a profit or suffer a loss on the job.
What’s the risk of misclassification?
Make a mistake about who’s a sub and who isn’t and you could get hit from two directions. The employee could file I.R.S. Form 8919 to collect unpaid Social Security and Medicare Tax on wages. Then your state and the I.R.S. could claim a tax lien for failure to withhold. The I.R.S. can be a pit bull when collecting delinquent payroll tax – including seizure of personal assets.

If you’re concerned that subs on your jobs could be classified as employees, here’s a case in point.

Bernie Kurio had worked for several years as a Houston drywall contractor before he got caught up in an I.R.S. sweep. An audit of Bernie’s books resulted in an assessment of $89,063 for failure to withhold payroll taxes. Bernie’s protest of the assessment was denied by the I.R.S. regional commissioner. But that wasn’t where it ended.

Bernie appealed to U.S. District court. Surprise! He won. The tax lien was discharged. The court’s decision makes good reading for every contractor concerned about employee classification. Here are the facts that won the case.

When Bernie landed a drywall job, he called several hanger team leaders. The team with the best price per square foot got the work. Hangers, tapers, floaters, sanders and truckers used their own tools and equipment. Bernie controlled only the result, not the hours or who did the work. Drywall crews understood they were independent contractors and – here’s the key point – most reported earnings on their Schedule C.

Bernie’s case, Kurio v. United States, dates from 1970 and has been followed ever since. Stay within the facts of the Kurio decision and you should have no trouble with either state or federal authorities.

Use written subcontracts to end any debate about employee classification:

  • Payment will be by the job.
  • You control only the finished product.
  • Subs are responsible for their own taxes.
Construction Contract Writer makes that easy. The trial version is free.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Time and Material Construction Contracts

Many contractors prefer time and material (cost-plus) contracts. And for good reason. With T&M, you’re sure to recover expenses and earn a profit. There’s no dispute about the cost of changes. Work can start before design is complete. The job gets done just the way the owner wants – and at the owner’s expense. What could be better?

I agree. But it’s not automatic. You’re headed for trouble on any T&M job if the contract isn’t airtight. Some signs of trouble:

I didn’t agree to pay for that. Most disputes on a T&M job will be about labor cost. For example, does the contract set a specific hourly rate for each trade? If not, does the charge for time include all taxes, insurance and benefits? What about overtime? Are there limits on pay rates? Is it legitimate to charge for non-productive labor (supervision)? Or does non-productive labor have to come out of OH&P? What’s the charge for contractor-owned tools and equipment?

How do I know these charges are right? Few owners will be satisfied with a simple expense summary. Most want to see copies of invoices, receipts, cancelled checks and pay ledgers. Some will insist on the right to audit your books – and may decline charges that aren’t fully documented. No contractor feels comfortable in that position.

Why charge me for your mistakes? The owner’s cost will be higher when work doesn’t pass inspection, has to be torn out or repaired. Few owners are eager to cover expenses like that. None want to pay for what they consider pure negligence.

Your OH&P seems excessive. The charge for overhead and profit can be a lump sum or a percentage of total cost. If OH&P is a set sum per week or month, the owner won’t see a reason to pay if the job sits idle for weeks. If OH&P is a lump sum for the job, a contractor takes a hit when the job runs behind schedule. If OH&P is a percentage of job cost, a careful owner will scour every labor and material charge for padded expenses that inflate your net.

Are you sure this was really necessary? Owners don’t understand construction the way a contractor does. You’re on the hot seat if an owner wants a full explanation of everything that seems out of line.

T&M contracts are illegal for home improvement work in six states. See my blog of July 2010 for legal ways around this restriction.

A good contract can avoid nearly all the likely sticking points in a T&M contract. For example, to settle the “Was that really necessary?” question, define “reasonably necessary” very precisely in the contract. Then point to that definition when you sense “really necessary?” is about to become an issue.

Three more points on T&M jobs:

1. An owner and a contractor remain potential adversaries. Only the context for disputes has changed.
2. Nearly all the likely disputes on a T&M job can be resolved with a good contract.
3. The best tool for drafting T&M contracts is Construction Contract Writer. The trial version is free.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Construction Contract Law Gibberish

The law in most states puts residential contractors at a disadvantage. Omit a required notice or disclosure and your contract is probably unenforceable (at best) and could earn you a fine (or worse). That’s called consumer protection law. No use complaining. It’s not going away.

To help protect consumers, several states require that contracts be written in plain English. Among these, my favorite is Connecticut’s objective test of understandability. By law, every consumer contract in Connecticut:

(1) Has to average less than twenty-two words per sentence.
(2) Can’t have any sentence with more than fifty words.
(3) Can’t average more than seventy-five words per paragraph.
(4) Can’t average more than 1.55 syllables per word.
OK. So if construction contracts have to be easy to understand, shouldn’t construction contract law also be easy to understand? That makes perfect sense to me. It’s a two-way street. Contractors shouldn’t have to guess at what the law requires. Lawyers shouldn’t have to apologize to clients about gibberish in the law. If a legislature really wants contractors to comply with the law, shouldn’t they make the law easy to understand?

Case In Point
Last week a California contractor asked me a simple question: “Nearly all my jobs are for home owner associations. Do my agreements with HOAs have to include all the notices and disclosures required in California home improvement contracts?”
That’s easy, I thought. A HOA isn’t a consumer in the classic sense. Consumer protection law shouldn’t apply. But just to be sure, I looked up the law before answering. Here’s what I found.
California Business and Professions Code § 7159 prescribes the 18 notices and disclosures required in home improvement contracts. But § 7159 refers to § 7151.2 for the definition of “home improvement contract:”
"Home improvement contract" means an agreement, whether oral or written, or contained in one or more documents, between a contractor and an owner or between a contractor and a tenant, regardless of the number of residence or dwelling units contained in the building in which the tenant resides, if the work is to be performed in, to, or upon the residence or dwelling unit of the tenant, for the performance of a home improvement as defined in California Business & Professions Code § 7151, and includes all labor, services, and materials to be furnished and performed thereunder.”
Read those words any way you want. I don’t believe they answer the contractor’s question, “Is an agreement with a HOA a home improvement contract?” No California court has interpreted § 7151.2 and nothing on the State License Board web site helps define “home improvement contract”. So we’re left to guess.
Here’s my best guess. Insert the words “of the owner” after “upon the residence.” That would make it clear. It’s home improvement only if work is done on the residence of the owner. That makes sense. Consumer protection law protects consumers, not a business entity such as a HOA. As amended, work done for a HOA would not be home improvement.
Here’s My Point
As written, § 7151.2 doesn’t answer a simple question. That’s bad. Even worse, California § 7151.2 is far from plain English, at least as Connecticut sees it. No sentence can have more than 50 words. Section 7151.2 weighs in at 95.
My recommendation: If you want to comply with state law but aren’t eager to parse the fine points, rely on Construction ContractWriter to keep you legal. The trial version is free.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Waiving the 3-Day Right to Cancel

Every residential contractor knows about an owner's 3-day right to cancel, sometimes called the Reg Z notice. Any time you do work on the principal residence of an owner (whether new construction, improvement or repair) you have to:
  • Give each owner two copies of the notice.
  • Show on each form the date the right to cancel expires.
  • Wait three days (excluding Sunday and holidays) before starting work.
My blog of February 2010 described how vicious this little form can be. Make a mistake and the owner has three years to cancel – and get a full refund! Imagine making a refund on a job you finished nearly three years ago.

What I didn’t explain
There are times when beginning work without waiting three days makes perfect sense  – and is in the owner’s best interest. If you do it right, there’s no risk. Here’s what the law (12 CFR § 226.15) allows.
  1. The owner has a true personal financial emergency. To me, a financial emergency means that delay is going to make things worse.
  2. The owner has to give you a written waiver of the right to cancel. The statement should be handwritten (not a printed form) and has to be dated and signed by everyone with the right to cancel.
  3. The statement has to describe the emergency. For example, “My roof blew off and a storm is due later this week.”
  4. The statement has to waive the right to rescind. For example, “I give up my right to cancel this contract.”
With that statement in your file, it’s OK to start work right away. But don’t abuse the privilege. Waiving the right to cancel shouldn’t be routine.

Worse still, don’t routinely ask for a post-dated confirmation that the 3-day right to cancel has expired.  That’s likely to be confusing.

Your Turn
The focus of Reg Z is lenders – banks and credit card merchants. But Reg Z affects nearly all residential contractors. It should address the construction context. Specifically, Reg Z allows waiver of the right to cancel only for financial emergencies – not practical emergencies like flood, fire or wind damage.  Storm damage can be an emergency by any standard. But it may not be a financial emergency. The law should be clear. And this is a good time to have your say.

Responsibility for Reg Z has been transferred to the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. And the CFPB has asked for public comment on a revision they’re preparing for Reg Z. The comment period ends July 8. If you agree that Reg Z should do a better job of defining what construction contractors need to know, the CFPB want to hear from you. Here’s where you can leave a comment.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Changes in Construction Contract Law

Most state legislatures make their changes to the law effective on either January 1 or July 1 of each year. Here’s a state-by-state summary of major changes to construction contract law taking effect on July 1, 2012:

California – Forty pages of lien laws will change. Civil Code § 8000 to § 9566 will replace Civil Code § 3082 to § 3267. The 40 pages are completely reorganized. Many sections are changed, including some that affect construction contracts. For example, new Civil Code § 8170 changes disclosures required in contracts for non-residential work. If you need a correlation table that relates old lien law section numbers to new section numbers, drop me a note.

Idaho – Idaho Code § 29-110(1) voids anything in a contract which would shorten the statute of limitations.

Indiana – On a residential job at least partially covered by insurance, Indiana Code § 24-5-11-10 requires that the contract include a notice giving an owner the right to cancel if any part of the claim is denied. There’s more on insurance jobs below.

Maryland – Business Regulation Code § 8-501 requires new disclosures in home improvement contracts.

Tennessee – On July 1, Tennessee code will create four new hurdles for construction contractors:
§ 66-34-103 and § 66-34-104 change retention rules on both private and public contracts.
§ 47-18-104(b) creates additional requirements for home improvement contracts.
§ 39-14-154(b) adds to the list of prohibited acts by home improvement contractors.
§ 62-6-601 to § 62-6-606 require that residential roofing contracts covered at least in part by insurance include a notice of the right to cancel if any part of the claim is denied.

Most of these changes come with heavy penalties for non-compliance. For example, Tennessee § 62-6-606 makes omission of the new right to cancel notice “a deceptive act or practice” under TN consumer protection law and gives owners a private right of enforcement.

Insurance Jobs
On July 1, 2012, Indiana and Tennessee become the second and third states to join Illinois in giving owners the right to cancel a construction contract after an insurance claim is denied. See my blog post of November 28, 2011 for more on the Illinois law. As in Illinois, IN and TN require that multiple copies of a special cancellation form appear in the contract.

The TN law applies only to roofing. Contractors can’t accept a down payment or start work (except for emergency repairs) until the insurance claim has been processed. If any part of the claim is denied, the owner can cancel the entire contract, even for work already completed.

The IN law covers all insured exterior repairs and allows a down payment. If the contractor starts work before the claim is processed, the owner’s right to cancel extends only to the part of the job not covered by insurance. Indiana Code § 24-5-11-10(c)(5). That’s a better outcome for contractors.

If you’re using Construction Contract Writer to stay in compliance with the law in your state, the program will revise automatically when these new laws go into effect. If you’re not using Construction Contract Writer, the trial version is free.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Living with Pennsylvania's HICPA

My March2009 blog suggested that Pennsylvania's Home Improvement Consumer Protection Act (HICPA) didn’t have to be a deal breaker for residential contractors in PA. The law (effective July 1, 2009) was written to tip the playing field in favor of owners when negotiating for home improvement work. But the legislature in Harrisburg didn’t think of everything. There are still good ways for contractors to protect themselves. The March 2009 blog lists seven good ways to cut your risk on Pennsylvania home improvement jobs.

Some of HICPA makes good sense, starting with a requirement for written, professional-grade contracts. A simple handshake isn’t enough. Pennsylvania home improvement contracts have to explain exactly what’s included and what’s excluded. When should work start and when should it be done? When are payments due? There’s a limit on down payments. You have to list subs and their phone numbers. Change orders have to be in writing. I like that. And you should too. The best way to avoid disputes is with a professional-grade contract.

But don’t be confused. Boilerplate contracts sold by the professional trade associations aren’t professional-grade for HICPA purposes. Contracts for home improvement work in Pennsylvania have to be written specifically for Pennsylvania. HICPA makes the entire contract unenforceable by the contractor if any of ten common clauses appear in the document. The poisonous ten includes hold harmless clauses and terms that award attorney fees to a contractor. Clauses like these appear routinely in trade association contracts.

Changes to HICPA
The law was amended in July 2011 to cut big box stores some slack. Major retailers like collecting in full before work starts. The attorney general didn’t consider that when drafting the 2009 law. So the law was changed last July to accommodate big box retailers.

And now a Pennsylvania court has jumped in, interpreting HICPA for the first time. The case is Gelacek v. Lunz, 2012 Pa. Dist. & Cnty. Dec. LEXIS 6. The owner, Dr. Gelacek, refused to make final payment on a room addition to his home on River Road in Freeport, PA, basing his refusal on non-compliance with HICPA. The contractor, Lunz, argued that HICPA doesn’t apply to room addition jobs. Room additions are new construction, reasoned Lunz. Construction of a new home is specifically excluded from coverage under HICPA.

True, the law’s definition of home improvement omits any mention of additions to a home. According to HICPA, home improvement is any “repair, replacement, remodeling, demolition, removal, renovation, installation, alteration, conversion, modernization, improvement, rehabilitation or sandblasting.” Judge Valasek had a different opinion, ruling that HICPA applied and Lunz was out the final payment of $31,559.76.

I see two take-aways from this case. The first is obvious. Room additions are home improvement even though the law doesn’t say so. The second is more subtle. The contractor, Mark Lunz, made a contractor’s worst mistake, agreeing to extras without a written change order. Dr. Gelacek and Lunz had a written contract for $118,805. But Lunz agreed to changes that added $163,495.51 to the job – without any written agreement whatsoever. Lunz felt he had an oral contract for time and materials for the extras. That doesn’t work under HICPA for two reasons. Both oral agreements and cost-plus contracts are illegal for home improvement work in Pennsylvania -- an expensive lesson for Lunz.

A Better Choice
Good HICPA contracts are easy with Construction Contract Writer. Written change order forms are included. CCW even writes cost-plus (GMP) contracts and owner’s representative (consulting) contracts. All comply precisely with Pennsylvania law. The trial version is free.

Monday, March 19, 2012

If you’ve been a contractor for a while . . .

You know about headaches that come with any project – risk of loss, regulation, code compliance, employees, warranty claims, liens, and – always – the need for more capital.

If you’re looking for a better way to make a living in construction, consider a contractor I know. He doesn’t have these problems – and still makes a good living as a residential contractor.

He gets involved early in the project, before plans are drawn. He works with the architect, gets owner approval of the plans, guarantees a maximum price, selects trade contractors, makes sure work is done right -- and then collects a little extra for finishing under budget. It’s a good business. But it’s not a general contracting business. It’s a consulting contractor business: no employees, no inventory, no payables, no warranty, no investment, no liens, no risk.

His clients are very comfortable dealing with consultants – lawyers, accountants, financial advisors, etc. In their eyes, he’s just another consultant, a construction consultant.

Is this legal?
Of course. No state requires that general contractors have employees and payroll. In fact, the deck is stacked against any general contractor with large crews: worker’s comp insurance, high overhead, high payroll taxes and liability insurance premiums.

Is anyone really doing this?
It’s the way most federal, state and municipal jobs are done today, including many of the largest projects, e.g. the Corps of Engineers. Many commercial and residential jobs are run by consulting contractors – sometimes called paper contractors. Some of the most experienced, most successful, most respected construction professionals I know fit the definition of paper contractor. And for good reason.

A consulting contractor is the owner’s representative – answers only to the owner. The consultant’s job is to protect the owner against high costs, delay, shoddy work and risk of loss. No one else on the site shares that agenda.

But understand one point. Construction consultants walk a fine line. A construction consulting contract has to be very different from any construction contract you’ve ever seen. Refer back to my January 25, 2011 blog and you’ll understand the problem.

Finding work as a construction consultant
It’s not hard. In fact, it’s good practice to suggest consulting on any job you bid. The pitch goes something like this:

I can save you some money on this job. I’ll act as your consultant at a price my competition can’t touch. There’s zero profit for me in this job. Just pay me for my time. I’ll give your job the same attention I give to every project I take on, but with no markup. You can’t beat that deal. Say the word and I’ll write up a contract we both can live with.

If working as a consulting contractor appeals to you – and if you aren’t exactly sure how to do it – consider a new book published this week by Craftsman. The title is Paper Contracting. The co-author, William D. Mitchell, has completed over 100 projects as a construction consultant – everything from home remodels under $100 thousand to government projects worth over $100 million.

Paper Contracting could open your eyes to a better way to do construction business.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Illegal Construction Contracts

All states set standards for construction contracts. The notices and disclosures required by state law vary with the size of the job, type of work, materials used, who signs the agreement and even where the contract is signed. To see what’s required where you do business, go to and click on your state.

Some of what states require in construction contracts is pretty trivial stuff. For example, a contract may not be legal if a notice is in less than 12 point bold type or is printed someplace other than just above the signature line. Or, failure to specify when payments are due and the amount due may make a contract illegal. It’s easy to make a mistake. What happens then? If the contract is illegal, does the contractor lose the right to collect?

Two Connecticut cases shed some light on that question. Both cases were decided on the same day, January 19, 2012. Both jobs were done under Connecticut’s Home Improvement Act. In both cases, the owner wasn’t satisfied with the work and refused to make final payment. In both cases, the owner raised the issue of an illegal contract when the contractor filed a lien to collect the full price. The contractor won the first case. The owner won the second. Here are the details.

Zunda v. Hess Construction (2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 198) involved a $700,000+ job and was heard by a court in Stamford. The contract omitted the transaction date, the commencement date and a notice of cancellation. All are required by Connecticut law. Plus, the contract wasn’t signed by the owner’s spouse.

Currier v. McCue (2012 Conn. Super. LEXIS 169) was heard by a court in New Haven and involved a job with $51,845.45 in financing. The signed "Homeowner/Contractor Agreement" didn’t describe the work to be done. Again, that’s required by Connecticut law.

Both courts found the contracts to be defective -- not in compliance with Connecticut law. But that’s where the similarities end. The New Haven court ruled that the contract was void. The lien was discharged. The contractor was out the final payment due under the agreement. The court in Stamford found defects in the contract to be “technical.” Hess Construction could collect the full amount due.

What’s the difference?
The New Haven court simply applied the law as written. Period. “No home improvement contract shall be valid or enforceable against an owner unless . . .”

The Stamford court found that substantial compliance with Connecticut law was enough. “The legislature intended the Act to protect homeowners from unscrupulous contractors not to lead to unworkable and unjust results. . . The homeowners here were not prejudiced in any way by the Contractor's failure to comply technically with the Act.”

My point here is that no contractor should have to depend on a judge’s decision to collect what’s owed. You won’t make a dime on a job if collection requires two years of litigation. Whether you’re building in Stamford or New Haven or anywhere else, don’t give an owner excuses to withhold final payment. Use contract forms as complete and professional as your work on the job.

Fortunately, that’s easy: Construction Contract Writer drafts construction contracts that comply with your state law. The trial version is free.

Monday, January 23, 2012

E-Sign Your Construction Contracts

I’ve been asked, “Can I get my contracts E-signed -- send my contract to a client as an email attachment, get an electronic signature and then have the E-signed contract emailed back to me?”

The short answer is “Yes.” And it makes good sense. If you draft contracts with your computer, it’s easy to get E-signatures from clients. No printed contract required. No program to install on your computer. It’s quick, costs nothing extra and is perfectly legal. If you’re E-filing tax returns, you’re already E-signing documents. If you haven’t tried E-signing construction contracts yet, you’ll be surprised at how convenient it can be.

To Get Started E-Signing
Search on the Web for “Free E-sign.” You’ll find a dozen or more vendors offering free or low-cost ways to E-sign contracts. I’ll use Silanis E-signLive™ to explain how it works. There’s no charge if you E-sign ten contracts or less per month.

Start with a contract in either PDF or RTF (MS Word) format on your computer. If you use Construction Contract Writer, that’s easy. Then go to E-signLive. Enter your email address and name to create a new account. Assign a secure password. (Security is an important issue when E-signing.) Then click to create an E-sign Room. You’ll need one E-sign Room for each contract. Give the room a name, such as “Jones Contract.”

Now you’re ready to upload the contract to be signed. Click “Add document” and then “Browse” to find the contract on your computer. Click to upload. When the upload is complete, click on the contract file name. You’ll see the full document.

Now identify who is going to sign the contract. Click “Add signer” and enter the email address and name for each person who will be signing. Scroll down the contract to where a signature is needed. Click “Add Signature.” Then drag and drop the signature block on the signature line. Do the same for each signature in the contract. When done, click “Send.”

Each signer will receive an email notice that the contract is ready to E-sign. Each signer clicks a link in the email message to see the contract. Then click the yellow sticky note in the contract to add a signature and the date. When you and your clients have signed, all get an email notice and can print the contract. Simple.

A few points to note:
  • E-signing won’t work for anyone who doesn’t use email and the Web.
  • You can draw a “signature” with your mouse. But a written signature isn’t required.
  • A new E-sign customer has to create an account before E-signing the first time.
  • Be sure to drop a signature block everywhere a signature is needed in the contract.
  • Don’t send a contract out to be signed until it’s exactly the way you want it.
  • Any attempt to alter a signed contract will invalidate the digital signatures.
Another important point. Consumers have to receive a disclosure notice and E-sign a consent form before E-signing their first contract. Both the notice and consent form can be delivered automatically with the first contract.