Question: A customer of mine stated in a voicemail that she wanted her deck sanded. She signed my estimate quoting a price for 850 square feet of deck. However, I did not actually state what I was going to do in the estimate.

After signing the estimate she began to tell me how she was also going to need to stain the deck. I told her when I was finished sanding, I would come back and help her and her boyfriend stain the deck.

When I finished sanding and tried to collect, she informed me I wasn’t finished because the deck was not stained. I told her staining was not part of the deal, only sanding. Having left out exactly what I was going to do on the estimate, do I have any recourse in collecting the balance due?

Thank you,

Answer: This sounds like a job for small claims court. In Colorado, disputes that involve less than $7,500 can be resolved in a small claims court, which usually involves one hearing with just the parties. No lawyers.

Although the small claims process is meant to be much faster and simpler than typical litigation, you still are going to have to prove your case according to certain legal rules. The first step will be convincing the judge that the written contract is ambiguous or incomplete. Courts strongly prefer to resolve contract disputes based on what the document says, and not have to look at other evidence. The whole point of having a written contract is to avoid having to sort these kinds of he-said-she-said scenarios.

But if the contract really is ambiguous or incomplete (you don’t say exactly what it says), the court will consider other evidence to resolve the ambiguity. If you still have that voicemail from the customer, it could be enormously helpful to your case. If you have any notes from your conversation with her about what you’re going to do, that might be helpful too, but would be a lot less convincing than hearing the customer say what she wanted in her own voice. If you don’t have either, you can tell the judge your side of events, but she is going to say the opposite, and who knows who the judge is going to find more believable?

A problem with small claims court is that even if you prevail, all you get is a piece of paper saying you won. You still have to collect on it. And if the customer doesn’t cooperate, that can be more hassle than it’s worth. Depending on how much money is at issue here, you might want to just chalk this up to a lesson learned and have an attorney help you draft a clear, legally enforceable contract for future use that specifies exactly what you’re agreeing to do, what you’re customer is agreeing to pay you for it, who is responsible for supplying materials, etc.

Best of luck with this. I’m sorry that it went this way for you.