Avoid going to court because of your custom home project!
Sheri Scott, Founder and Principal Architect, Springhouse Architects
Over the past couple of years I have been hired to serve as an expert witness on a number of custom home projects that have gone terribly wrong. It is some of the hardest work I do. I continue taking these cases because I get satisfaction from helping people that are lost in a difficult process. The homeowners don’t know how they got where they are, and are at a loss of how to fix it all.
The first thing I am hired to do is write a report based on my experience as a residential architect that guides my clients through the entire custom home process, I am particularly well suited to identify what things should look like through each stage of the project. Over the past 15 years, I have witnessed projects that went far off course in terms of structural integrity and workmanship. When having concerns, homeowners should make every effort to get an independent expert opinion as early in the process as possible.
I have written material aimed at getting you back on track, what to do if you are over budget, and how to start a project strong so you have the best chance of a successful outcome. However, if you find yourself in the situation of a bad custom home project and you are considering a lawsuit - here are some things I have learned that might help you get through.
Don’t let it get that far.
Every project has a number of milestones that can be identified as moments when you should have an understanding of where you are. When the permit is issued, when a trade finishes, and when the builder submits for a draw, are a few examples. If any of these milestones pass and you are feeling uneasy about progress, completion or workmanship, then you need to speak up. Ask for a separate meeting with your architect or builder. Ask specific questions and don’t end the meeting until you are satisfied that you understand where you are headed from here. Then keep talking - communication and managing expectations are key from both perspectives.
Sometimes things just cannot be worked out. If you have exhausted all possible resolutions and you are on course for a lawsuit, you need to find a good attorney that has experience in residential construction litigation. Hire them and follow their advice. Every situation is different, however, an experienced attorney will know key strategies for approaching the conflict. I have learned over my last several cases that you should keep working on your project. Note the date you asked your architect, or builder, to quit their work. Fully document the project with photographs, reports from experts (residential architect, structural engineer, product representatives) and any other means to record a full understanding of where you are currently in the project. Then hire new partners to continue the repair and/or building work. There are two reasons for this. First, these lawsuits tend to take a long time to resolve. You as the homeowner will still be responsible for your current living expenses as well as the construction loan. The project needs to keep moving forward for you to mitigate your losses. Second: if, by the time of trial, you have corrected all of the faulty work, you will have detailed expenses that can be justified with quotes and work completed in a real world scenario.
From experience, I can tell you a jury’s view of your construction site can be tough on your case. Inexperience and a lack of construction knowledge has proved to be detrimental to even the strongest cases. If you have the corrective work completed you may be able to avoid the jury deciding that “it doesn’t look that bad.”
There are too many unknowns in a jury trial. It is always the right thing to do to make an attempt to settle. Trials are expensive. They not only involve large sums of money; but they consume an enormous amount of your time and energy. You have to pay every expert that you bring in to testify. The judge will decide who pays court costs, and then there are the attorney’s fees. You pay for site visits, depositions, and the actual trial time. It can really add up and could amount to more cost than the damages you are seeking.
Never trust an attorney that will tell you that you have a sure thing. Even if every part of your case is solid and provable, the jury will always be an unknown. Will you get a pool of people that are less well off and think you should just be thankful for what you have? Will there be two strong personalities that pull the rest of the jury to their opinion, regardless of the evidence? How can you be sure they will be smart and attentive and reasonable? You can’t. A jury trial is one of the biggest risks you take.
Compromising to settle a case rarely leaves either side feeling like they won. However, in most cases, it is the smartest thing to do.
Ideally we all start a project with the best of intentions, the right structure, the best team, etc.. If you find yourself in a less than perfect situation, do everything you can to turn it around. If it further deteriorates, hire an attorney, document the project and hire the work to be completed. Try to come to a resolution with a settlement that will help you move forward. Leave your ego behind, finish your house, and move on. Click here to learn more about our culture at Springhouse Architecture.