If you're a homeowner in California and you've had a negative experience with a contractor, you may be wondering what steps you can take to file a complaint. Whether the contractor didn't complete the work as promised, did a poor job, or engaged in unethical behavior, there are ways to seek recourse. In this post, we'll walk you through the steps to file a complaint against a contractor in California.

Step 1: Gather your evidence

Before you file a complaint, it's important to have documentation to back up your claims. Gather any contracts, receipts, invoices, and correspondence with the contractor. Take photos of any shoddy work, incomplete work, or damage caused by the contractor. If you have witnesses who can attest to the contractor's behavior, get their contact information.

Step 2: Contact the contractor

Before you take legal action, try to resolve the issue directly with the contractor. Contact them in writing and explain the problem you've had. Ask them to fix the issue, complete the work as promised, or refund your money if necessary. Give them a reasonable deadline to respond, such as two weeks.

Step 3: File a complaint with the Contractors State License Board (CSLB)

If you're unable to resolve the issue with the contractor, it's time to file a complaint with the CSLB. The CSLB is the agency responsible for regulating contractors in California. You can file a complaint online, by mail, or by phone. To file online, visit the CSLB's website and fill out the complaint form. You'll need to provide your contact information, the contractor's information, and a detailed explanation of the problem. You'll also need to upload any relevant documents.

To file by mail, download the complaint form from the CSLB's website and fill it out. Mail it to the CSLB's headquarters in Sacramento, along with copies of any relevant documents.

To file by phone, call the CSLB's complaint hotline at 1-800-321-CSLB (2752).

Step 4: Wait for the CSLB to investigate

Once you've filed a complaint with the CSLB, they will investigate the matter. They may contact you for more information or to schedule an inspection of the work. They may also contact the contractor for their side of the story. The CSLB has the authority to discipline contractors who violate California law, including revoking their license, imposing fines, and requiring them to pay restitution to the homeowner.

If the CSLB's investigation doesn't resolve the issue to your satisfaction, you may want to consider taking legal action. You may be able to sue the contractor in small claims court.

The first step of suing in Small Claims Court

The first and most important thing to do when suing anyone is to ensure that you sue the right legal entity. Big companies often own lots of smaller companies that are very interconnected, so be sure to review the contracts you’ve signed with the contractor for any legal entities they mention in your membership contract with them. By suing the wrong company, even if owned by the same parent company, you can have your case dismissed and you’ll have to file another small claims lawsuit.

Will I need a lawyer to file a small claims case?

Not necessarily.

The benefit of small claims court is that lawyers aren’t required. This makes small claims less intimidating and more affordable for most Americans. But the small claims process can get complicated. Consider filing through Dispute, as we simplify the small process with our tools.

Some find it helpful to get legal advice from a lawyer. So you can ask a lawyer for help with your small claims. But check your local small claims laws before you bring your lawyer to court. They may not be allowed to join you during the trial.

Write a Demand Letter

demand letter is a formal letter asking for payment. Strongly worded demand letters on professional letterhead have a better chance of reaching a settlement out of court than regular letters. At Dispute, you can generate a demand letter in minutes.

  1. On the top, in the address block, put in the company name and address. You can find the registered agent at the bottom of this page.
  2. Next, put the subject line as 'Re: Demand for Payment'
  3. In one sentence, tell them how much the company owes you which you will claim in your small claims lawsuit.
  4. Then, in two to three sentences describe your issue.
  5. Finally, state in plain language that you will go to small claims court if necessary. Don't say that you will do anything else, such as speaking poorly about them.
  6. On the bottom, include your name and address

How to Send a Demand Letter

After you write the demand letter, you’ll want to send it to their registered agent so that it’s guaranteed to go to the legal department. Make sure that you get a tracking number for the mail you send them. It can become important evidence in your case.

Demand letters are often mailed. But if you don’t have time to find a printer, buy an envelope, and visit a post office, we can mail it for you. Send your demand letter with just a click from the comfort of your home with Dispute.

Start your Small Claims Forms

If the company does not pay you after receiving the demand letter, you can file a small claim to win your money back. Although this may sound complicated, small claims are actually less complicated than regular court. There are some county guidelines you’ll have to follow, but filing with Dispute can make it easier for you.

You’ll need to find and prepare your small claims form based on where you decide to sue. Usually, people sue where the defendant lives or does business.

Then, wherever you decide to sue, look up the county's small claims system. They’ll provide details on their website about what small claims forms are necessary. You can read more about the small claims process here.

Serve your Small Claims Paperwork

One of the last steps before your trial will be to physically give the small claims paperwork to the defendant. This is called “serving” the defendant. You can’t serve the defendant yourself, but you can find someone else to do it. Many people hire professional process servers. There are legal guidelines that you must follow so that your case can go to court.

Defendants may sometimes avoid service. In order to keep your court date, you should hire a professional process server so that you can be sure all legal guidelines are appropriately followed.

Attend your Small Claims Trial

On the date of your small claims trial, be sure to arrive early and well prepared. Bring at least three copies of all evidence you intend to present, and if your hearing is remote be sure to have provided copies in advance to the other party and to the court. Failure to follow the strict local guidelines can result in your case being dismissed, but if you’ve followed the rules then you can often win by default when the other party doesn’t show up.

How Much it Costs

So how much will you spend by suing in small claims court?

  • Court Filing Fees: The amount you will pay to file a small claims lawsuit depends on how much you are suing for and where you are suing. You can expect to pay between $30 to $400 to file the lawsuit. If you cannot afford to pay court fees, you can ask the court to waive the fees.  ‍
  • Serving Costs: Once the lawsuit is filed, you must notify the defendant that you have sued them. This is called "serving." Serving Costs can range from $20-100 depending upon the local area.

‍Remember, if you win, you can request that the other party pay for your court fees and serving costs.‍

The Benefits of Small Claims Court

  1. Court filing fees are cheaper in small claims than in other courts.
  2. The process is faster in small claims than in other courts, as your hearing will usually be scheduled 30-70 days after you file the lawsuit.
  3. Lawyers are generally not allowed in small claims, which helps keep the costs of suing low.  

Taking the First Step in Your Lawsuit

If all of this work seems complicated or daunting, rest assured that it's easier than it initially seems. 2.7 million small claims court cases are filed annually in the US, which is only growing as more people realize how easy it is to enforce their legal rights in court.

It's essential to gather evidence and understand the legal process. If you believe that you have been the victim of a bad deal with a contractor, don't hesitate to seek legal advice. By taking action, you can hold the seller accountable for its actions and receive the compensation you deserve.