What is a contractor’s legal recourse if a homeowner will not pay a bill in full?

Our company has done major painting for a homeowner. After paying 2 invoices he is now refusing to pay outstanding invoices saying our work is not good. We have sent the homeowner 6 invoices, 2 of which he paid in a timely fashion and in full. After billing him 4 more times, he is refusing to pay saying the work we did was not good and refusing to pay anymoney due. I have stated that you can’t just up and decide not to pay invoices if you’re not happy. He has never approached us complaining of the workmanship. We have no signed agreement, but a verbal “time and material” and the history of the payment that he made. Other than that, we have no signed contract. What is our recourse? Even though we have nothing signed, can we still collect whats owed?

Asked on March 28, 2011 under Business Law, New York

Answers:

SJZ, Member, New York Bar / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 9 years ago | Contributor

Ano oral, or verbal, agreement is enforceable, though as you can imagine, providing it's terms--i.e. what is owed under it--can be difficult, especially if it should also be the case that there are no good (not good enough) time records.

However, at the same time, not getting acceptable work is often a ground to not pay. In this case, we're not talking about deciding that it's not as good as you hoped; we're talking about significant issues, like the former paint color showing through, paint starting to peel right away, paint being bubbled or uneven, etc. If these conditions exist, the customer may have a defense to payment, or at least an offset against payment, since a contract is a two-way street; the customer must get acceptable work completed before he must pay.

The way to recover money if you feel someone owes you is a legal action. You need to weigh what you feel you are owed vs. the quality of evidence or proof and also whether and to what degree there may be significant issues with work, before deciding whether or not to sue.

In the future, always use a written contract; a lawyer can draw up  a template for you which you then easily fill out or even modify for each client, if you like.


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