Q: Last summer we signed a proposal with a local contractor to renovate our kitchen and two bathrooms within the existing footprints. The proposal totaled more than $50,000 not including the cabinets. Listed under the Scope of Work was all necessary plumbing (e.g., “Install shower drain and fixtures”) and electrical work (e.g., “Install under-cabinet lighting”).
Now, on the eve of beginning the work, the contractor claims that the plumbing and electrical work were not included in the pricing and that we must find and hire people to do this work ourselves. This isn’t our first home renovation, and nothing like this has ever happened before–and this contractor boasts on his website that they “do everything” including plumbing and electrical work.
Before we consult with an attorney in our area, we would like generally to know if a signed proposal with all the items included in it constitutes a binding contract. — N.W
A: In general a written construction agreement of any kind, signed by both parties, constitutes a binding legal contract. It doesn’t matter whether it is called a proposal, contract, or estimate. However, the specific language used may affect the terms of the contract and their enforceability. .
Scope of Work
The description of the of the work included in the contract, called the Scope of Work, is determined by both the drawn plans and writing specifications. It sounds like the plumbing and electrical work were clearly included in the proposal. Since the contract did not specifically exclude some or all of the plumbing or electrical work, the commonsense assumption is that the contract price would include all the work normally associated with completing this phase of work.
While this sounds pretty cut-and-dried in your case, that doesn’t mean that lawyers – if this were litigated – could not get deep into the weeds of the specific contractor language, who signed the contract and when, or unique circumstances of the job, and win one side or the other on a technicality. As you well know, lawyers can and do argue both sides of any issue.
In your favor is a legal principle in contract law which states that unclear language in a contract is typically interpreted by a court to favor the party that did not write the contract – in this case, you. In other words, the contractor can’t intentionally leave something fuzzy and then claim that it favors his interests.
The practical problem is how to move forward with a contractor that you no longer trust. Once you initiate legal action, or even send a formal lawyer’s letter, the relationship will just deteriorate further. Do you really want to move ahead with this project under that kind of cloud?
You may want to get a lawyer’s input to help assess the strength of your legal position, and to help you formulate a strategy, but you are probably best off keeping the lawyer out of the negotiation at first.
With a clear strategy in mind, see if you can resolve the problem by friendly negotiation with the contractor. It you hit a stalemate, then your best option may be to move on and find another contractor. This will take time, but not nearly as long as the settling of a lawsuit – an expensive and time-consuming effort that rarely leaves anyone happy at the end.
Get Your Deposit Refunded
If you have made a deposit, you may also need help from your lawyer in getting that returned if the contractor claims that own him money for the planning time put into the project. Again, it sounds like you should receive a full refund as you acted in good faith and the contractor did not. But the contractor may claim otherwise. Again you may find that settling for a partial refund is your best (lease expensive and least time-consuming) way out.
Best of luck in working things out with your current contractor or (more likely) moving on to a contractor with a more professional approach to the business. Always check references as well as the Better Business Bureau and Contractor Licensing Board for consumer complaints.
NOTE: Please be advised that I am NOT a lawyer and that you should consult a lawyer for valid legal advice. — Steve Bliss, BuidingAdvisor.com