Question: I signed a contract and paid a 25% down payment to have my kitchen floor and back splash tiled. Unfortunately, the contractor made no effort to cover anything before he started and now the entire main level of our house is caked in dust. It’s so bad that my wife and kids had to leave town to get away from the mess. Also, we’re already past the date by which he said he would be done, and he’s estimating that he still needs two more days to complete the job (admittedly, the delay is due in part to unexpected problems that he ran into in the middle of the job).

Can I make him clean up the mess he’s made? The contract doesn’t say anything about mess clean up.

Answer: Make him? No. You can’t make him do anything, even the stuff explicitly mentioned in the contract. But you can sue him for any damages that his failure to complete the job in a reasonable manner ends up costing you.

You probably want to avoid that though if you can. Suing someone, even in small claims court, is almost always an enormous hassle. And the amount of money that you could recover is going to be capped at whatever quantifiable damages you can prove. There is no recovery for “pain and suffering” in contract cases. I’m skeptical that you’ve got enough dust in your house to make this worthwhile.

You’re still holding 75% of the agreed upon fee. There’s a reason you didn’t pay for the whole thing up front. It would be reasonable to deduct the cost of any services you have to pay for as a result of his carelessness. For instance, if you have to pay a professional cleaning service to clean up after him, you have a good argument that it should come out of the remaining 75%. Or maybe if your wife and kids had to pay for a hotel, that cost could be deducted.

But be reasonable. You have to expect some hassle and mess with a major tiling job in your kitchen like what you describe. And remember, if you pay him less than you agreed to pay him, he could sue you. So make sure the costs you deduct are documented and that you are confident you can tie them to tasks that a reasonable person would have expected him to complete. Also, remember to give him credit for any additional costs he incurred as a result of the unexpected problems to which you alluded. Even if you don’t plan to sue, your negotiations about how to handle this are going to be shaped by what you could possibly recover in court, so you need to always have that in the back of your mind.

Good luck with this.