Four Practical Points for Avoiding and Responding to Construction Liens

Step 1: Who’s healthy in 2010?

Within the bounds of the Fair Credit and Reporting Act and any state obligations, it is imperative for both owners and general contractors to understand the financial fortitude of the parties doing the work. If you don’t obtain the bonds to protect the project, you need to be aware of what you can do to protect your rights. While you cannot request a complete financial audit, good due diligence will save you time, energy, money, and headaches in the future. Keep an eye out and an ear to the ground for any questionable items or rumblings related to the trades. Has anyone complained of “slow-pay” issues? Are there any “marks” against the contractor on any registration or licensing entity with the state? How timely is the contractor in meeting and agreeing to the terms you proposed (discussed below) that have active and proactive involvement for ensuring that the project remains clear of liens? Where is the contractor’s facility? Will it be condemned because it’s so rundown or has that “almost vacant” look, or is everything shiny and “new,” which in this economy could reflect an overleveraged or overextended trade contractor just waiting to fold if that next job doesn’t come through? While these items alone cannot “tell” you the contractor’s financial status, do not race past any yellow flags – the red ones are just behind it waving in the wind. These precautions are as true for the owner, who can get sideswiped by the general contractor or any of the lower-tier trades or suppliers.

Step 2: Is it time to update your contracts and specifically your right of inspection, payment, and mechanic’s lien provisions?

Do you know what your contract allows you to do at the beginning of the contract term or during the project to avoid liens? Do you have a list of the trades and suppliers (at least the major ones if not everyone) in the contract or within 30 days of its execution? Is your state a “preliminary notice” state such as California or Nevada, or a “surprise” state such as Idaho? Is your contract an “open-book” agreement? Can you communicate with lower-tier trades at any time? Do you have payment provisions relating to timing of payment for lower-tier trades or suppliers in your prime agreement? Do you require a sworn statement for the work performed for prior payment applications and a listing of the trades? Do you have joint pay or direct pay provisions if you have any concern whether those trades might be paid? Can you require waiver and lien releases with each payment (as permitted by law, of course)? Are you allowed to offset payments if you do discover there are some financial or payment concerns?

Step 3: Do you check in on the status of the work?

It is important to both monitor the work to keep up on the status and to communicate with the trades and suppliers on a regular basis to make sure they are being paid. While a few trades may promptly bring a slow pay or non-pay to the owner ’s or general contractor’s attention, many others in this economy will not until the very last minute out of pressure from the nonpaying party or fears of “not playing along” and not getting future work. The key is to allow the owner or general contractor to discover any issue early in the process – early enough so that any money can get to the right party and not the party that disappears with the dollars.

Step 4: Someone’s filing a claim; what do I do?!

There are times when something may slip past you despite the best-laid plans. Do you have a checklist action plan? Does everyone know what to do and what information and documents are required? Many times these claims arise at the most inopportune times and create a “fire drill” atmosphere. Avoid the confusion and rush, and know what you need to get done in your state to avoid a lien on the property or obtain the prompt removal of the lien if one has already been filed. The more information you have in advance, the better decisions you will make during the process and the less money it will cost you to address the issue.