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Explore legal options when renovations go wrong

If a home contractor fails to finish a job or leaves behind shoddy workmanship, grab a camera and start recording the evidence, Ottawa paralegal Amri Murray tells AdvocateDaily.com.

“If you intend on taking legal action, you will need to illustrate that you suffered damages because of the contractor’s actions, or inaction, depending on the specific situation,” says Murray, principal of AJ Murray Legal Services.

“Most photos and videos are quite admissible within the small claims court to prove that what you got is not what you contracted for,” she says. “It’s your job to prove these damages.”

Murray gives the example of a client who used a video camera to show how a newly installed railing shook and wobbled when used.

She advises homeowners to hold onto all invoices, receipts and any other related documents. “You want to document the entire process,” she says.

If you intend to hire other contractors to finish the job, Murray recommends getting more than one estimate, so the court knows you are not giving an inflated price for the cost of repairs.

“Sadly, poor workmanship happens all the time,” she says. “There are shoddy contractors out there, who make themselves out to be competent when they really are not.”

People signing a contract for home renovations deserve quality work for their money, Murray says, “and it is reasonable to expect that it will be performed to the standard within that specific industry.”

She cautions that in some cases, a contractor may have a valid reason for not finishing a project on time.

“If the job is incomplete due to unforeseeable circumstances, such as acts of nature or something that was not within the control of either party, then there is a possibility that the matter may not be actionable,” she explains. “The reason for not finishing the job is one of the determining factors as to the recourse the homeowner is able to take.”

Murray says the maximum amount that can be claimed for damages in the small claims court is $25,000. “If the botched home renovation is a really big job that’s worth more, it will then be actionable in the upper courts,” she says.

Small claims court matters, heard by deputy judges, are guided by simplified rules and procedures compared to the upper courts, Murray says, “ensuring that the relatively high volume of everyday legal issues may be administered with great efficiency.”

She says a settlement conference is held before an actual trial, where many claims are resolved. If the case goes to trial through the small claims court, most trials are over in two days.

Murray says a majority of people in small claims court are self-represented, “which has been noted to sometimes contribute to certain delays, as judges often need to pause to explain processes and procedures to them.”

However, she is starting to see a shift.

“People are seeing the value of using a paralegal in these matters,” Murray says. “We provide affordable legal advice and a sense of relief for people who may be stressed or confused as they try to navigate their way through our legal system.” 

Murray has this advice to anyone thinking of taking a case to small claims court: “Balance the cost of litigation against a reasonable estimate of how much compensation you will receive, should you receive judgment,” she says. “The process doesn’t add up for some people.”

Many disputes with contractors can be worked out through dialogue, Murray says.

“It’s always good to try to reason with the other party, and come to some kind of arrangement before going down the road of litigation through a small claims court action,” she says.

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