Late payments are not unusual in construction. From general contractors to subs and material suppliers, every construction project participant has dealt with delayed payments as part of business. However, there’s the issue of clients who refuse to pay. Not late--just no payment. For businesses big and small, a client who refuses to pay can make a significant impact financially and operationally. Many construction transactions are made on trust, and when a client doesn’t pay, some contractors and suppliers may make poor decisions. Yet, to get out of a project going sideways--with payment in hand or lessons learned--you need to be smart and proceed with your business interest in mind.
Why is the customer not paying?
This is where it begins. You must first identify the reasons why a customer refuses to pay. Were they unsatisfied with the quality of work? Do they feel that what was delivered was not aligned with what’s contractually obligated? Do they feel like the work was rushed or the materials used inferior? Was the job finished later than agreed? All these are possibilities that need to be investigated.
If the customer has not volunteered any of this information, it’s best to personally visit the project or set a meeting with the customer to discuss issues in person. If the problems the customer has raised are valid, plan how to resolve them right away. Suppose, after the discussion, you’ve determined that the customer demands things beyond what’s contractually obligated, and you cannot resolve them without incurring unreasonable time and costs. In that case, you might have a delinquent customer in your hands.
Let the customer know your decision. If you’ve decided to proceed and fix the issues they’ve raised, send the invoice for the unpaid work immediately upon commencing the remedial work. Of course, there is no guarantee that addressing their concerns will result in swift payment, so exercise your best judgment. If you think you’ve exhausted all the cordial means to get them to pay as the contract requires, you might need to consider your legal options.
A legal option to recover payments: Filing a mechanics lien
State laws protect construction providers like contractors and material suppliers from non-payment through lien laws. Mechanics liens work by placing a hold on the property where the work or materials were provided as a security in case of non-payment. Mechanics liens can result in a sale of the property where the lien is attached, and the proceeds will be used to pay unpaid vendors.
When a client fails to pay after a good-faith pursuit to resolve the payment issue, filing a mechanics lien becomes the smartest next move. However, note that to file a mechanics lien, you must have fulfilled the requirements of lien laws specific to the state where the project is located. For many states, the main requirement is sending a preliminary or pre-lien notice to secure your right to file liens. It’s only good business practice to file preliminary notices for every project you work on. It’s not an indication of distrust in the client’s ability to pay–and that is mentioned in the wording of many statutory statements included in preliminary notices. It’s just industry standard to file prelim notices.
Filing a mechanics lien includes a period where the client still has the opportunity to pay arrears before the lien is enforced. Suppose the client fails to pay in this period. You are now allowed to enforce the mechanics lien through a lawsuit. This is a complex process, but it presents itself as the last resort to recover payments. As long as all your documents are in check, you’ve filed the necessary notices in the time and manner required by law, and you’ve fulfilled your contractual obligations to the client, a ruling in your favor is the likely outcome.
Promoting timely payments
It’s in your best interest to promote timely payments from your customers. While construction contracts are primarily reliant on trust, there are many things you can do to encourage and facilitate timely payments from your clients. Here are some ideas:
- Use detailed contracts and progress billing
- Vet clients through background research, credit history, references, and public financial records
- Send regular on-time invoices
- Ensure your invoices are aligned with the formats used by your client’s payables department
- Provide multiple payment methods
- File the necessary preliminary notices throughout the project
In the case of construction payments, the adage prevention is better than cure applies. There are many reasons why payments get delayed or skipped, some malicious, some not. It’s in your best interest to ensure that you are doing everything from your end to promote timely payments and that you’re fully protected by rights granted to construction businesses by law.
About the Author:
Patrick Hogan is the CEO of Handle.com, where they build software that helps contractors and material suppliers with lien management and payment compliance. The biggest names in construction use Handle on a daily basis to save time and money while improving efficiency.