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 Construction-Contract.net 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.