Getting the Final Payment

A business owner gets advice about applying pressure when payment is slow in coming and you're not getting any answers. September 17, 2014

I finished a large (for us) remodel for a large bank. The contractor said the check would be a couple of weeks. Now six weeks later the contractor is not answering or returning my calls, texts and emails. What should I do? We're in Washington State.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor T:
Call a lawyer. Sometimes a well written note on lawyers letterhead is all thatís needed. Otherwise make his life miserable - lien, civil court, etc until itís not worth it anymore. Then forget about it, as hard as that maybe. Don't let one guy sour you when the next big job comes in.

From contributor R:
Good advice so far but perhaps others will add to it. Call from a phone he doesn't know to see if he answers anyone. Visit the bank and find someone to listen to you. Find out if the bank has paid the contractor yet. If they haven't paid him they may be able to help. Tell them you don't want to lein but are ready to. Knock on the contractors door, both his business and his home. Show up at a jobsite and tell the subs you haven't been paid! Check your local laws because time to act may be running out.

Once back in the 80's I was in your situation and called the architect to ask about the money flow. Turned out the contractor had not listed me as a payee. He had obtained lein releases from all the other subs and simply left me off. The architect gave me the phone number of the guy who was writing a big check in a few days. I called the contractor and told him that if there wasn't someone waiting at my shop the next day with full payment I knew who to call. The next morning a man who had driven 80 miles to get there before me paid me in full! Sometimes you just need to find where the money is. Try to be sure he isn't in the hospital!

From the original questioner:
Every call goes to an answering machine so it doesn't matter which phone I call from. One of the branches we did was our personal and business bank. We have a call into the branch manager. The slow pay isn't a huge problem but when I can't talk to anyone from their office I begin to worry. If I don't hear from them on Monday I will see what the bank manager says and then start the lien process.

From contributor C:
1. What does your contract say? It should outline exactly how/when you should be paid and according to what terms.

You do have a signed contract, right? If so have they breached the terms of that contract? Again take a look at what it says, carefully. Study it, and consider it from their viewpoint as well. You have to know exactly what both parties are obligated to do before you start to go any further with this. If youíre going to make demands, or negotiate, know your stuff. Have the facts in hand - period. If you did not have a contract you will say one thing, and they will claim otherwise. There will be no documentation of what you agreed to in the first place. If this is the case, good luck.

2. Is there a reason why they may be withholding payment? Has the work been signed off on, and accepted as complete? If not get something in writing ASAP that says it is. Get someone to acknowledge that you completed your job, and that they are satisfied. The contractor may very well try to claim later on that there were problems, and defects.

3. Have you sent them an actual invoice/bill or just tried to text or call them?
Forget the text messages, phone calls emails, etc. A voicemail does not provide documentation that you billed the client, or asked for payment. Send an invoice and letter via certified mail. Ask for payment. Once again, what does your contract say? Remind the client what he agreed to when he signed the contract, and what his obligations are.

4. Given that you are six weeks out, I think you need to sit down and consult with an attorney. You will probably want to begin the process of filing a Lien. This is not a time for DIY legal work, as you don't want to be caught with your pants down later with procedural mistakes or loopholes when the contractor gets a real lawyer who is trained to rip people like you or myself to shreds.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your advice. A certified letter with copies of the invoices went out this morning. I spoke with the branch manager who also called and left messages and is pursuing the issue from her end and is supposed to call me with some answers. The contractor was at the branch last week taking pictures so they are still around (they must still be in business). We have a very basic form of contract/invoice which we are shoring up per Contributor C's input. The contractor did issue us Purchase Orders so I feel somewhat protected by that. If I don't get any answers soon I will begin the lien process. My feeling right now is that the contractor is waiting payment and will issue my check soon after. But why not tell me instead of avoiding me? The bank was adamant that I sign a lien release with their logo on it for the deposit portion so I think they will make sure I get paid. What do you think?

From the original questioner:
I just heard from the contractor. A little pressure from the bank seemed to do the trick. What a relief. They are waiting to be paid from the bank and will pay me after. How long? Hopefully a week.

From the original questioner:
Just to follow up I did get paid at last. The check arrived today. Thanks again to everyone for your advice.