A Homeowner Guide for How to Handle Unfinished Contract Work

Ben Kissam
Written by Ben Kissam
Updated February 21, 2022
Hammer on table
Photo: Mongkol Nitirojsakul / EyeEm / Getty Images

Confidently handle unfinished contract work even when it’s unexpected

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Dealing with unfinished contract work can be extremely frustrating, especially if you’re waking up each morning to a half-built wall in your kitchen or sawdust footprints in the hallway.

In some cases, extended delays to a project may be warranted (i.e. sickness, injury, or factors out of the contractor’s control, such as a lumber shortage). But if you’ve been ghosted for no good reason after paying a reasonable down payment or if you and a general contractor have different ideas about what “finished” means, it could be time to take action.

This step-by-step guide will help you responsibly handle unfinished contract work.

1. Talk to Your Contractor

While it may seem like a stretch, the first thing you should do when a contractor doesn’t finish a job is to try to work it out and come to a resolution. Because the truth is, every step on this list gets progressively more serious. Ultimately, you could be looking at arbitration, mediation, or even filing a full-fledged lawsuit.

It’s worth doing everything you can to settle the matter proactively—even if that means agreeing to mutually part ways and receiving a partial refund.

Also, it can’t hurt to take a step back and assess your frustration. Is it truly the lack of quality or failure to meet deadlines that’s upsetting you? Is what you consider to be “unfinished” subjective in any way? The answers to these questions could become relevant quickly.

2. Keep Talking—and Document Everything

Try to contact the contractor, especially if you’re being ignored. Make sure you’re using all forms of communication; even if all your previous exchanges have been on the phone, try texting or emailing.

Document everything during this process:

  • Take pictures of the unfinished or unsatisfactory work

  • Print out email or text message communications

  • Screenshot and print call logs

  • Find and carefully read the initial contract agreement

Email is an effective method here, as you can print and use them to make a case later if it comes to that. You can even craft and send an accompanying email to outline the voicemails you’ve left.

3. Make a Definitive Decision

If you can’t get a hold of your contractor or it’s clear that your situation is untenable, you’ll need to make a choice. Follow-up actions could include:

  • Terminating the contract work

  • Mutually agreeing to part ways and settle

  • Allowing them to keep working on revised terms (after you’ve asked your contractor the right questions you maybe didn’t ask the first time)

If you decide to end the work relationship, send a written letter explaining in detail why it’s being terminated (with pictures). Make sure it’s dated, then store this letter with your other documents.

At this point, while it might be tempting to leave a one-star review or deliver a nasty gram to their email, it’s a good idea to take another deep breath and consider if any additional follow-up action is needed.

4. Tap Their Bond

Room under renovation
Photo: Fancy / Veer / Corbis / Getty Images

Hopefully, you hired a licensed and bonded contractor. If so, you can file a complaint with the licensing board against their bond, which could help you get your money back.

A contractor licensing bond is a way of financially protecting consumers when a situation like this arises. Licensed contractors have already paid a surety company who can reimburse you for the damages or costs incurred, so long as you can provide proof. If they did negligent work, their insurance might cover what the bond does not.

This is just one example of how hiring an unlicensed contractor can cost you.

5. Contact the Better Business Bureau

For over 100 years, the Better Business Bureau has worked to connect consumers with companies they can trust. Filing a complaint with the BBB could be enough to persuade the contractor to finish the job or pay you back what you’re owed.

The BBB also offers mediation and arbitration services. These come in various forms, ranging from informal to conditionally binding. But it might be a good way to settle the issue with your contractor out of court.

6. File a Suit In Small Claims Court

If arbitration or mediation doesn’t work, it may be time to take legal action.

Your first step, unless your project is very large and expensive, is to file in small claims court. You’ll save substantial amounts on legal fees by going this route, and will also receive a verdict much quicker.

Each state has a maximum for small claims court settlements. For example, Delaware’s limit is $25,000, while Connecticut is just $5,000. Research yours to make sure your unfinished contract work falls within the limit.

7. Hire an Attorney

If all else fails, and you’re facing losses that exceed your state’s small claims court limits, it may be time to hire legal help. A contract attorney can give you insights into whether your case is worth taking to court.

Keep in mind, contract attorneys can charge up to $120 per hour. That might be fine if you hope to recoup five or six figures from the contractor in your lawsuit, but you should always weigh the potential downsides—and financial ramifications—of hiring a lawyer and not winning your case.

Can You Sue for Unfinished Contract Work?

You can, but only if you have proof the person or company you’re suing did not fulfill the duties of the agreed contract.

Typically, this means the contractor:

  • Didn’t complete the work as per agreed upon

  • Did a subpar job that doesn’t meet reasonable standards

  • Did a subpar job that may also be considered negligent (i.e., posing safety hazards to your family)

A legal case will be built around the specifics of the job outline in your contract, which should be included in the paperwork your contractor provided. Carefully reading the description could help you decide whether going to court is worth it or not.

8. Responsibly (and Truthfully) Leave Feedback

After the legal process plays out and a verdict has been reached—whether you won, lost, or reached a settlement—you may consider leaving a review (or reviews) online. Waiting until the case is settled (in or out of court) and gives you time to gather the facts.

Just remember, the point of leaving a review isn’t just to slander a business. In lieu of contractor references, online reviews are one way people get answers to questions before they hire a contractor. Be thorough but honest. You can make your point—and probably detract others from having the same negative outcomes as you—without using foul language or taking cheap shots.

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