Legal issues will unfortunately rear their ugly head in some remodeling projects from time to time, and they usually result from contractual omissions or misunderstandings. These problems arise typically when some specifications or details were left out of the plans and the customer is left with something they are not happy with. Other times some contractors, albeit few, have left the job unfinished with the home owner despondent and at a loss as to how to finish the job. Some people are not aware that a subcontractor, or supply house, who provided services or materials for your job and has not been paid by the GC can come after the home owner for payment. These are just a few examples of the types of legal issues that can occur on any given remodel project. 

In the State of California there are laws that protect both the home owner and contractor. For the contractor, who has been unpaid by the home owner, there is the 'Mechanic's Lien Law' which allows the contractor to place a lien on your property so that he gets paid out of escrow when you sell your home. This lien can also affect your credit as well. For the home owner there is the 'Surety Bond Requirement.' In California the minimum surety bond amount is $12,500.00. All contractors are required to have a surety bond for this minimum amount. A surety bond is a fund from which the home owner can draw money to use toward finishing the job in the event the contractor bails without finishing the project. It is a good idea to make sure that your contractor's bond is at a minimum equall to the value of your job. You can check the contractor's bond amount by going to your State Contractor's Licensing Department.

Toward the end of your project you will be asked to make a final payment to your general contractor. Before making the final payment to your GC you want to require him to provide to you an 'unconditional lien release' from each and every subcontractor and materials provider who has performed work, or supplied materials for the job on account. Materials suppliers, when delivering materials to your project on account, will send to you a letter letting you know they have the right to seek payment from you should the GC fail to pay them. An unconditional lien release lets you know that the GC has paid their bill and you will not be liable for it. This is very important, and you will want to let your GC know that you will be requesting these before final payment is made. Put this into your contract so he knows this upon signing the contract.

One last thing about contracts is that they are notoriously difficult to get out of. Knowing this you need to be very careful before signing any contract. In California a contract is considered irreversible three days after it is signed. That means you have three days to reconsider the contract, after that you are locked into that contract. Also, if you renege on a contract you can be held liable for 'lost wages' which is basically the contract amount, minus any amount paid so far, minus any materials not used but returnable. This can be a sizable amount of money so be sure to vet your contractor carefully. 

Most legal problems can easily be prevented by proper planning and proper contract writing, and both of these topics will be discussed later in this article.

Any substantial work being performed on a structure should be done with a permit. When a permit is pulled for a construction project along with it comes a series of inspections. These inspections are performed to determine that the work has been completed to at least the minimum code standard. Minimum code standards are the minimum to which any work can be performed on a structure and still be deemed safe. Knowing these inspections were done will give you some piece of mind long after the crews have left. Another benefit of permits and inspections is being able to prove to a future buyer of your home that all substantial work done to your home was done to code.

You can prove this because you will keep the signed inspection form after the final inspection has been performed. Real Estate inspectors are prone to advising their clients to ask for this proof. If you have the unfortunate experience of your contractor failing numerous inspections, or if he complains that the inspector is just too picky you should be very concerned. The problem is more likely your contractor and not the inspector. Inspectors have a job to do and that is to ensure your safety by making absolutely sure that the work being done is code compliant. Never listen to any contractor, licensed or not, who claims that permits are unnecessary as he is only looking out for himself.

In the world of construction and remodeling planning must be one of your top priorities. This is not something that can be done on a whim. You will need time for this. Planning starts with the customer contacting, and retaining the services of, an architect or professional designer to create a set of plans by which the contractor can build or remodel your structure. One note of caution here- beware of designers who might claim to be professional, but are nothing more than interior decorators with a computer program allowing them to print out small plans that do very little to help the builder. As was mentioned before an architect brings to the design process many years of experience with being as detailed as possible. These details are what make a job run smoothly and we will discuss them more as we go. Unfortunately some building owners feel the expense of an architects services is not in their budget and they will regretfully opt for other means of planning their project. Usually this means the owner will attempt to do the planning themselves, not fully understanding the daunting task that lies ahead. Some customers can, and actually do, take the time to create a plan for themselves. This can be done for the smaller job, but most would be hard pressed to pull off a larger job this way. Even a small job can overwhelm someone not familiar with construction and remodeling. There are many things to consider so lets name a few of them.

  • Energy management codes as they pertain to lighting, insulation, and the type of windows and the number of them......
  • Structural concerns like hold downs for the wall framing, shear panel siding, lumber quality for framing- especially roofing, rebar sizing, the strength (psi) of concrete needed for any footings and grade beams, and much more.
  • Plumbing is full of code related concerns like venting, pipe types and sizes, a little thing called fixture units, to name a few.
  • Electrical too has many codes like wire types and sizes, securing intervals, conduit size, conduit fill, outlet box size, how many wires can go into a particular sized box, circuit breaker types and sizes, Arc fault circuit interrupters, GFCI's, conductor protection (nail plates), circuitry as it applies to switching, and the list goes on.
  • There are also many general building codes to consider like the need for tempered glass when adjacent to a bath tub, smoke detectors, self closing hinges on the door that leads from the garage into the home, windows that are large enough to be used for egress in the event of fire, and many more too numerous to mention here.

There are varying degrees to which a project can be planned. A small job, say a bathroom remodel, can be shown on just a sheet of letter sized paper (8.5 x 11 inch). A simple plan like this might include a floor plan indicating a top view of the proposed project, with very little information telling the contractor what type of furnishings and equipment to install ie: sink, faucet, lights, door hardware, cabinets, heights of light fixtures at vanity, type of trim rings for recessed can lights, toilet style, tile, paint color, cabinet hardware, base board and other molding types. These items fall under the category of details, as was mentioned earlier, and will have to be determined prior to that portion of the job being completed. If you care what goes into your project you are encouraged to specify everything. Some customers will try to utilize cabinet drawings from places like Home Depot and Lowe's as their only plan, but these are merely cabinet drawings which do not make any mention of things such as back splash height, lighting layout, appliance electrical and gas requirements etc. These drawings are essential but insufficient to rely on solely. Call it what you want but a simple plan like the one mentioned above is unspecified (non-spec) and is certainly not ready to build from until many more decisions have been made. This is where many run into trouble when they begin their project before completing the planning. Don't fall victim to the exhilaration of starting a new project by putting the cart before the horse, so to speak. If you do this your project will undoubtedly experience complications that will only delay the completion date, and increase the cost.

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The plans for a large scale project will be much more detailed. There will be multiple pages including a floor plan, interior elevations pages (this is where the architect indicates things like the height of  switches, wall sconces, niches in walls, windows, countertops and the like), exterior elevations, structural pages, electrical plan pages, plumbing plan pages, HVAC pages, a lighting fixture schedule page (indicating each type of light fixture by make, model, color, voltage etc), and detailed cabinet drawings among others. This lighting fixture schedule page will correspond to a lighting plan (click and zoom in to see details), which is a floor plan showing the locations of all the different light fixtures going into the project. Notice the lighting fixture designation letters next to each fixture icon and how they are listed in the 'type' column on the lighting fixture schedule. These large scale project plans will also many times be specified in many other ways using various materials schedules which can eliminate many frustrations during the course of the project, and help tremendously in budgeting for the project.

The typical home remodeling project will have a plan that has been drawn up by an architect or designer. This plan will appear very professional and complete to the homeowner, but in reality it will be lacking in many of the details needed to efficiently build the project. This is because the depth to which these plans are compiled will fall somewhere between the previously mentioned small plan for a bathroom remodel and the much larger plans for a commercial project like a hotel, or shopping mall, and are typically un-specified, meaning that the details like make, model, color, style, etc of everything that will going into the job have been omitted. These details have been omitted because the architect, or designer who drew up the plans felt he was not being paid to involve himself in the very time consuming endeavor of specifying all of the details for your project. One place this happens often is in the placement, and selection, of lighting fixtures. Many architects will quickly admit they are no lighting experts so it is not a bad idea to take at look at this lighting design section and familiarize yourself with some lighting design techniques. Commercial building plans usually include specifications for each and every item to be used and they will be listed on various materials schedules. These schedules, or lists if you will, help tremendously to eliminate escalating job costs and provide for a very smooth running project. For a good example of a residential remodel plan which is lacking in details see this 'interior elevations' view of a typical vanity wall where you can see there are no dimensions for the center of the sinks, and the width of the mirrors making it very difficult for the electrician to properly wire the lighting outlet boxes where the wall sconce lights will eventually be mounted. When a contractor puts in a bid to perform your remodeling, or construction work, he is proposing to do the work exactly as the plan was drawn. Contractors are taught to build precisely the way the plan shows it, and when many of the finer details are left out of the plan the builder will have to stop the work until the details are finalized so the work can continue. You should never leave any decision making regarding the details of your remodeling job to the contractor. This is where the nightmare remodeling stories, and extensive added costs, so often begin. Often times a remodeling project will start with the owner thinking that because they signed a contract for a certain amount, the job cost will never increase. Usually this is not the case as it is likely that some, and perhaps many, of the details were not addressed in the planning stage. How many times have you heard before of someone complaining that their contractor wanted to charge them more and more above the initial contract amount? Does this sound familiar?

When a remodel project goes south and becomes a nightmare it is not necessarily the contractor's fault, but rather that the homeowner has been brainwashed by commercials and advertisements that say something like 'find the right contractor this time by calling so-and-so ratings agency'. This leads the homeowner to thinking that all they have to do is dial the phone and all their problems with their remodel project will be solved and it will proceed like clockwork. This is very misleading as it should be known that even the best contractor will have a difficult time making a poorly planned project into a desirable experience.