Q: How can I find out if there is a lien on my property? A painter painted the house, but he never came back to paint over some spots he missed. He also did not come back to collect the rest of his payment for the job. Can he file a lien?
A: Usually, a contractor or subcontractor has the right to “lien a home” (the actual lien itself is known as a “mechanic’s lien”) when the contractor or subcontractor has performed work and has not been paid by the homeowner.
Given the limited information you've shared, the painter probably has a right to put a lien on the home for the lack of payment for the work completed. We suspect that the painter hasn't filed a lien, as contractors will usually demand payment before spending money to file the lien.
Laws governing mechanic’s liens are on the books to protect contractors, subcontractors and companies that provide materials to a job site should they go unpaid. In most instances, the homeowner and contractor must have a verbal or written agreement regarding the work that will be done. A contractor who shows up at your home and paints it without your permission should not have a right to lien your home for work you did not ask for or approve. (Please note that the contractor might have the right to lien the home even if you have not agreed to the work but you don’t take steps to actively disallow him to perform the work.)
In your situation, you actually hired the painter. The painter performed some of the work but didn't finish it. From the information you included in your letter, it seems to us that the painter substantially finished the job but there were some final details to be finished — a punch list.
If that’s how it played out, we think the painter is entitled to payment for the work that was performed. He might not be entitled to the full amount but is probably owed most of the amount that you and he agreed the job was worth.
So why did the painter walk out on your job? Can we assume that you and the painter had some sort of falling out and that’s why the painter never came back? Have you tried calling or texting your painter?
Regardless, you should expect to hear from the painter at some point, and he’ll probably demand payment. If there are hard feelings, the painter might be able to file a lien against your home. On the other hand, if there were no hard feelings and he simply disappeared, the painter may show up in the near future to request payment.
We’ve heard of contractors who disappear in times of a family crisis — a death in the family, a health situation or another matter that requires them to travel outside the country. What typically happens is the contractor eventually shows up, explains the situation and gives the homeowner the final bill.
Finally, if you want to check to see whether the painter has filed a lien against your home, you can search for your property’s records at the website of your recorder of deeds' office or a different office that handles document filings for your area. When you find the website, you’ll need your property tax identification number or parcel identification number to look up the records. The process of looking up the information is pretty simple: You simply plug in the parcel identification number and you should get a list of all documents that are on the title to your property.
This list will have everything online from the time that electronic handling of documents began. The website will show old mortgages as well as the deed conveying ownership to you. Most of the time, these documents are shown by date. The most current document would be the lien, if the painter actually filed the document.
Don’t make the mistake of looking at the website and thinking you’re free and clear of a mechanic’s lien if it doesn’t show up. That only means the painter has not yet filed a lien. Most states have a set period of time from the date that work is completed for a contractor to file a lien. For example, one state may require a contractor to give you a notice of an intent to file a lien within 45 days and to then actually file the lien within two years of the completion of the work.
We give you this example to understand the very basics of the process and for you to understand that if you are looking for a lien, you might have to search the website several times over the next couple of years. If you don’t see anything after that, you’re probably in the clear.
Ilyce Glink is the author of “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask” (4th Edition). She is also the CEO of Best Money Moves, an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact Ilyce and Sam through her website, ThinkGlink.