Homeowners sometimes get blindsided when it turns out the GC they hired hasn’t paid his subs or materials suppliers. The lien waiver in your contract protects homeowners against this.
BY JIM CORY
If you live in Tampa and own a house, count your blessings that you never hired John Iacovino and Ike’s Roofing to replace your roof. If you had, you may have ended up like John Pfaff who paid Iacovino $8,800 to re-roof his home. The roof got replaced, only Iacovino, owner of Ike’s Roofing, never paid for the roofing materials he obtained on credit from Suncoast Roofing Supply. And because, after first sending a Notice to Owner, Suncoast Roofing Supply filed for a mechanic’s lien on the property, Pfaff is now obligated to pay for the $3,700 worth of materials the supplier furnished to do the job. According to the local sheriff’s office, Suncoast Roofing Supply is out about $150,000 and there are now 70 properties with liens on them, thanks to Iacovino, who has a history of drug and DUI arrests.
Secure the Receivable
What that lien could potentially mean for Pfaff is that Suncoast Roofing Supply can force the sale of his home at auction—foreclose on it—to satisfy the $3,700 it is owed.
More likely, however, is that when he goes to sell his property, or if he attempts to refinance it, the amount owed to Suncoast Roofing Supply will be paid from the proceeds of the transaction. A mechanics lien, in legalese, is designed to “secure the receivable.” Goods or services were rendered in good faith, and the lien, to ensure payment, becomes an encumbrance to the sale or transfer of the property.
The mechanics’ lien (standard usage is now ‘Mechanics Lien’) has been around since 1791 and was first conceived in modern form by Thomas Jefferson as a way to encourage construction on the nation’s capital. The concept owes its existence to the economics of the construction business. Mechanics liens were created as a unique legal remedy to protect contractors and those who supply them with labor (subcontractors), materials (supply yards), or specialized services, such as design (architects, etc.), from being stiffed. Wikipedia.com defines the mechanics lien as “a security interest in the title to property for the benefit of those who have supplied labor or materials that improve the property.”
On one level, a mechanics lien entitles a contractor to come after a homeowner who refuses to pay. But it also entitles subcontractors or suppliers to come after that homeowner, and specifically the property, should the general contractor fail to pay either party as agreed. Under the law—every state has one and every state’s will differ—the improved property becomes collateral for payment. “A mechanic’s lien has nothing to do with mechanics in the usual sense,” notes legal website Nolo.com. “It’s a legal claim against property being improved, and it can be filed by anyone who provides materials or does work on the project and doesn’t get paid. The property itself becomes responsible for the debt, and the people who are owed money can force its sale at auction if something isn’t worked out.” That is, the lien holder (say Suncoast Roofing Supply, in the example above) could sue for foreclosure to satisfy the debt. Even if sale of the house at auction is not in the picture, “you cannot sell or refinance your home without dealing with the mechanics lien,” notes Colorado law firm Robinson & Henry, P.C.
“Thus when a creditor is owed a few thousand dollars he may record a Mechanics’ Lien against real property which may have a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars. You can see the leverage he has in collecting this debt! This is a great tool for mechanics, tradesmen, subcontractors, labor providers, and material providers. But it must be used properly or the Mechanics’ Lien may be found invalid and thus unenforceable.”
Not That Complicated
If you’re a contractor who’s been stiffed, or a supplier left holding the bag, the idea of taking legal action around the concept of a mechanics lien might sound complicated and expensive. Actually, it isn’t at all hard to file a mechanics lien. In Pennsylvania, for instance, you could simply go to anscers.com, fill out the online forms, submit them, and allow the lien service to file for you. The cost: $290, though the price goes to $850 for a New Jersey residential lien. Generally, counties charge a filing fee of less than $50, but the cost of preparing a lien, which would require a lien service or a lawyer, would be anywhere from $250 to $500.
The key is to move quickly and not let the situation drag on. You snooze, you lose. In New York, for instance, “you must file your mechanic’s lien within four months of the time that you last provided labor or materials to the project,” according to the website for New York Mechanic’s Lien. The time frame will differ in every state. So, similarly, is the requirement that preliminary notice—Notice of Intent to File a Lien—must be given, or, in some states, you as a subcontractor or supplier forfeit your right to file a lien. (Click here for a state-by-state breakdown of requirements for preliminary notice.) So, for example, in Florida, to collect for the materials it supplied to John Iacovino and Ike’s Roofing, Suncoast Roofing Supply would have to have served John Pfaff with a Notice to Owner (NTO)—preferably by registered, Global Express Guaranteed, or certified mail— “within 45 days from first furnishing services or materials.” That’s not a huge amount of time. Note that, according to the site: “Failure to
provide the notice within the statutorily mandated time frame is fatal to the lien claim in Florida.” The lien itself would need to be filed with 90 days of the date the materials were supplied and must be notarized to be valid.
In the state of California, mechanic’s liens are a constitutional right guaranteed to contractors by the California Constitution. This right has been implemented in detail by statutes enacted by the California State Legislature.
What Pfaff could have done to save himself the aggravation and expense of the mechanics lien filed by Suncoast Roofing Supply was to demand a waiver of liens, or a subcontractor lien waiver, in the contract he signed with Ike’s Roofing, if in fact he signed one. “With a lien waiver, when the project is successfully completed, both parties sign off and state that the contract obligations have been met, including the general contractor [in this case, Iacovino] making all necessary payments to materials suppliers, subcontractors or vendors,” advises the Angie’s List review site. “If the general contractor doesn’t agree to sign off on the subcontractor lien waiver, you can withhold payment until he or she has proved they’ve paid their suppliers or subcontractors.”
As for Pfaff, he can take some small amount of comfort in knowing that mechanics lien claims … very rarely result in a piece of property getting put up for auction and sold. As in, almost never. According to the source, and based on a survey of mechanics lien filings from 2011, 64 percent of lien claims were paid within three months, “without any additional legal or collection efforts whatsoever.” Which means that the mechanics lien functioned as Jefferson intended. So Pfaff will almost certainly keep his house. But unfortunately for him, he paid 50 percent more for that home’s roof than he ever thought he would have to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philadelphia-based freelance writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.