Mechanics' Liens in North Carolina

November 4, 2023

Protect your home from mechanics' liens. Learn what they are, how to prevent them, and what to do if you find one on your NC property. Get tips!

In the realm of home improvement and construction in North Carolina, understanding mechanics' liens is crucial for homeowners. These legal instruments can impact your property rights significantly, especially if you're planning to build or renovate your home. This guide aims to demystify mechanics' liens, offering strategies to prevent them and advice on handling them should they arise.

Understanding Mechanics' Liens

A mechanics' lien is a security interest in the title to property for the benefit of those who have supplied labor or materials that improve the property. Imagine you've contracted someone for a kitchen remodel, paying in full upon completion. However, if your contractor fails to compensate the carpenter or the materials supplier, they can legally claim a lien on your property. The rationale is that their contributions have enhanced your home's value, placing a responsibility on you to ensure their compensation.

Definition and Legal Basis

A mechanics' lien is a legal claim that a contractor, subcontractor, or material supplier can place on a property when they have not been paid for work performed or materials provided. In North Carolina, the right to file a mechanics' lien is established by state law, specifically the North Carolina General Statutes Chapter 44A, Article 2. This law aims to protect the interests of those who contribute to the improvement of real property by ensuring they have a means to secure payment for their services.

Impact on Property Owners

When a mechanics' lien is filed against a property, it becomes a matter of public record and attaches to the property's title. This can create significant challenges for the property owner, even if they were not directly responsible for the non-payment that led to the lien. A lien can make it difficult or impossible to sell or refinance the property until the underlying dispute is resolved and the lien is removed. Additionally, if the lien is not addressed in a timely manner, the lien holder may have the right to initiate a foreclosure action, putting the property at risk.

How Mechanics' Liens Arise

Common Causes of Mechanics' Liens

Mechanics' liens often arise due to payment disputes between property owners, contractors, and subcontractors. Some common scenarios that can lead to a lien include:

  1. A property owner fails to pay a contractor for work performed according to the terms of their contract.
  2. A contractor fails to pay subcontractors or material suppliers, even if the property owner has paid the contractor in full.
  3. There are disagreements about the quality or scope of work performed, leading to withheld payments.
  4. A project is abandoned or terminated prematurely, leaving unpaid balances for work already completed.

The Process of Filing a Lien

In North Carolina, a contractor, subcontractor, or material supplier must follow a specific process to file a valid mechanics' lien. This process includes:

  1. Providing a Notice to Lien Agent: Before starting work on a project, potential lien claimants must serve a Notice to Lien Agent, identifying themselves and the work they will be performing.
  2. Timely Filing of the Lien: A Claim of Lien on Real Property must be filed with the Clerk of Superior Court in the county where the property is located within 120 days of the last furnishing of labor or materials.
  3. Serving Notice of the Lien: The lien claimant must serve the Claim of Lien on the property owner within 180 days of the last furnishing of labor or materials.
  4. Perfecting the Lien: To perfect the lien and maintain its enforceability, the lien claimant must file a lawsuit to enforce the lien within 180 days of the last furnishing of labor or materials.

Proactive Measures to Avoid Liens

To navigate the complexities of mechanics' liens and protect your property, consider the following strategies:

  • Selecting Contractors Wisely: Opt for contractors with a solid reputation and ethical business practices.
  • Insisting on Contractor Bonding: This can serve as a financial safeguard, covering payments to workers and suppliers.
  • Direct Payments: Whenever possible, pay suppliers and subcontractors directly, using checks that explicitly name them as payees.
  • Staged Payments: Manage your project's finances by releasing payments at specific milestones, ensuring work completion before full payment.
  • Securing Lien Releases: Obtain signed lien releases from all involved parties as each payment is made.

Contractual Safeguards

In addition to best practices, homeowners can incorporate specific provisions into their contracts with contractors to further protect against mechanics' liens:

  1. Lien Waivers: Require contractors to provide signed lien waivers from themselves and their subcontractors and suppliers as a condition of payment.
  2. Payment Bonds: For larger projects, consider requiring the contractor to obtain a payment bond, which provides an alternative means of recovery for subcontractors and suppliers in the event of non-payment.
  3. Indemnification Clauses: Include provisions that require the contractor to indemnify and hold the homeowner harmless from any liens or claims arising from the contractor's work or failure to pay subcontractors and suppliers.
  4. Retainage: Withhold a portion of each progress payment (often 5-10%) until the project is completed and all lien waivers have been obtained, providing leverage to ensure the contractor addresses any outstanding issues.

Resolving Mechanics' Liens

Immediate Steps Upon Receiving a Lien Notice

If a homeowner receives notice that a mechanics' lien has been filed on their property, they should take the following steps:

  1. Review the lien notice carefully, noting the identity of the claimant, the amount claimed, and the basis for the lien.
  2. Gather all relevant documentation, including contracts, invoices, payment records, and correspondence with the contractor and subcontractors.
  3. Contact the lien claimant to discuss the issue and attempt to resolve the dispute amicably.
  4. Consult with an attorney experienced in construction law and mechanics' liens to assess the validity of the lien and explore legal options for resolution.

Dispute Resolution and Lien Removal

If a mechanics' lien is determined to be invalid or the underlying dispute is resolved, the homeowner can take steps to have the lien removed:

  1. Negotiate a Settlement: Work with the lien claimant to reach a settlement agreement that includes the release of the lien in exchange for payment or other agreed-upon terms.
  2. Petition for Lien Discharge: If the lien is invalid or frivolous, the homeowner can petition the court for an order discharging the lien.
  3. Pursue Legal Action: If necessary, the homeowner can file a lawsuit to challenge the validity of the lien or to seek damages for any improper filing.
  4. Bond Off the Lien: In some cases, the homeowner can "bond off" the lien by filing a surety bond with the court, which effectively removes the lien from the property while the underlying dispute is resolved.

Addressing Invalid Liens

If a lien is erroneously filed against your property, it might be removable, especially if the claimant has not adhered to the proper legal protocols. Consulting with a real estate attorney can provide clarity on the lien's validity and the best course of action for having it removed.

Expert Insights for North Carolina Homeowners

Drawing from over 15 years of experience in North Carolina's real estate market, I've witnessed the challenges mechanics' liens can pose. Here are some additional tips to fortify your defenses:

  • Thorough Contractor Vetting: Beyond checking reviews and licenses, ask for direct referrals.
  • Transparent Agreements: Ensure all project details and costs are clearly outlined and agreed upon in writing before work commences.
  • Active Project Management: Stay engaged with the project, monitoring progress and managing payments closely.
  • Networking: Cultivate relationships with trusted local suppliers and subcontractors.
  • Leveraging Agent Relationships: Real estate agents often have a network of reputable contractors and can offer valuable recommendations.

Your Agent as Your Ally

In my 17 years as a real estate professional in The Raleigh-Durham Triangle area, I've seen the confusion and stress that mechanics' liens can cause homeowners. The key to navigating these challenging waters is preparation and education. Always conduct due diligence when hiring contractors, and don't hesitate to seek legal advice if a dispute arises. Remember, the goal is not just to resolve liens as they occur but to implement practices that prevent them from happening in the first place. By understanding your rights and responsibilities and maintaining open lines of communication with your contractors, you can protect your property and ensure smooth real estate transactions.

As a homeowner, it's essential to be proactive in preventing mechanics' liens and to address them promptly if they do arise. By carefully selecting contractors, maintaining clear communication, and incorporating contractual safeguards, you can significantly reduce the risk of liens on your property. If a lien does occur, gather all relevant information and consult with legal professionals to determine the best course of action. Remember, the earlier you address a potential lien issue, the more likely you are to achieve a favorable resolution and protect your property rights.

Frequently Asked Questions about Mechanics Liens

What is a mechanics' lien?

A mechanics' lien is a legal claim placed on your property by someone who provided labor, materials, or services for a construction project but wasn't fully paid.

How does a mechanics' lien get placed on my property?

Workers or suppliers file a claim at the county clerk's office. This puts a lien on the property even if the homeowner has paid the contractor in full.

What types of projects can lead to a mechanics' lien?

Any construction project like building a home addition or remodeling a kitchen. Maintenance work like painting or roof repairs can also prompt a lien.

Can a subcontractor file a mechanics' lien without involving the general contractor?

Yes. Subcontractors and suppliers can file liens on their own if they are not paid.

What if I have already paid the general contractor in full?

You can still face liens from subcontractors and suppliers who were not paid by the general contractor.

How much time do I have before a lien can be filed?

In NC, liens can be filed up to 120 days after substantial completion of the project.

What happens after a mechanics' lien is filed?

The lienholder can choose to enforce the lien and force a sale of your home to receive payment.

How can I get a mechanics' lien removed from my home?

Prove the lien is invalid due to improper filing procedure or show you have resolved the payment issue.

Should I just pay the lienholder to avoid legal issues?

Not necessarily. Consult a real estate attorney to review your options.

How can I prevent mechanics' liens in the first place?

Vet contractors thoroughly, pay subs/suppliers directly, get lien waivers, and manage payments carefully.

Tim M. Clarke

About the author

17 years as a Realtor in the Research Triangle, Tim seeks to transform the Raleigh-Durham real estate scene through a progressive, people-centered approach prioritizing trust & transparency.

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