Guide to Understanding
The Term "Mechanics Lien"
A mechanic's 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. The lien exists for both real property and personal property. In the realm of real property, it is called by various names, including, generically, construction lien. It is also called a materialman's lien or supplier's lien when referring to those supplying materials, a laborer's lien when referring to those supplying labor, and a design professional's lien when referring to architects or designers who contribute to a work of improvement. In the realm of personal property, it is also called an artisan's lien. The term "lien" comes from a French root (via William the Conqueror), with a meaning similar to link; it is related to "liaison." Mechanics liens on property in the United States date from the 1700s.
Reasons For Existence
With respect to real property, mechanic's liens are purely statutory devices that exist in every state. The reason they exist is a legislative public policy to protect the contractors. More specifically, the state legislatures have determined that, due to the economics of the construction business, contractors and subcontractors need a greater remedy for non-payment for their work than merely the right to sue on their contracts. In particular, without the mechanics' lien, subcontractors providing either labor or materials may have no effective remedy if their general contractor isn't sufficiently financially responsible because their only contractual right is with that general contractor. Without the mechanic's lien, the contractor would have a limited number of options to enforce payment of the amounts owed. Further, there is usually a long list of claimants on any failed project. To avoid the specter of various trades, materialmen and suppliers attempting to remove the improvements they have made, and to maintain a degree of equality between the various lienors on a project, the statutory lien scheme was created. Without it, Tradesperson A may try to "race" Supplier B to the courthouse, the project site or the construction lender to obtain payment. Most lien statutes instead mandate strict compliance with the formalized process they create in return for the timely resolution and balancing of claims between all parties involved - both owners and lien claimants.
Mechanic's liens exist to secure payment for services, labor and material on both personal and real property. However, the creation and enforcement mechanisms differ depending on whether real or personal property is involved. The law of mechanic's liens on real property governs the creation and enforcement of these liens on items of personal property that have been attached to real property in such a way as to be a fixture.
Creation and Enforcement
The English common law recognized mechanic's liens respecting only personal property. The lien was created by the fact of the artisan working on the personal property item or attaching additional material to it. However, to maintain the lien, the artisan had to retain possession of the article until he or she was paid. If the property were returned to the owner before that time, the lien was lost. The lien was enforced by a sale of the property and applying the sale proceeds to payment of the amount owed for the workmanship. The sales were non-judicial, i.e., they were held in the same way as a sale of property pawned for a debt.
Some 34 states now appear to have statutes providing for mechanic's liens on personal property
Creation, Perfection, Priority and Enforcement - Real property
Mechanic's liens on the title to real property are exclusively the result of legislation. Each state has its own laws regarding the creation and enforcement of these liens, but, overall, there are some similar elements among them.
Real property of the government (public property) is ordinarily not subject to the claims of private parties. Therefore, unless the state specifically so provides, mechanic's liens do not attach to the title owned by the state or its administrative subdivisions, such as cities. Similarly, mechanic's liens under state law are invalid on federal construction projects. To protect subcontractors and suppliers federal projects, where the contract price exceeds $100,000.00, the Miller Act requires general contractors to provide a surety bond which guarantees payment for work done in accordance with the terms of the contract. Many state and municipal governments similarly require contractors on public works projects to be bonded.
Creation and Perfection
Under the statutes, the lien is usually created by the performance of labor or the supplying of material that improves the property. Just what type of contribution counts as a valid basis for a mechanics lien varies, depending on the particular state statute that applies. Some common examples are:
Laborers, carpenters, electricians, and plumbers working on the project site;
Lumber yards, plumbing supply houses and electrical suppliers;
Architects and civil engineers who drew up the construction plans and specifications;
Offsite fabricators of specialty items that are ultimately incorporated into the project.
Often, there is no simple dividing line that is useful in every state, or even in every case, for determining this eligibility. Deciding whether a party has a legitimate lien right may depend on examining court cases that have either upheld or rejected lien claims in the same state.
Unlike other security interests, in most states, mechanic's liens are given to contractors and material suppliers who may or may not have a direct contractual agreement with the owner of the land. In fact, this is often the norm because in most cases, the owner of the land contracts only with a general contractor (often called a "prime contractor"). The general contractor, in turn, hires subcontractors ("subs") and material suppliers ("suppliers") to perform the work. These subs and suppliers are entitled to liens on the owner's property to secure their payment from the general contractor.
However, to have an enforceable lien, it usually must be "perfected." This means that the holder of the lien must comply with the statutory requirements for maintaining and enforcing the lien. These requirements, which contain time limits, are generally as follows:
Providing the required preliminary notice to the property owner disclosing the entitlement to the lien (some states).
Filing notices of commencement of work (some states).
Filing notices in the required public records offices of the intention to file a lien if unpaid (some states).
Filing the notice or claim of lien in the required public records offices within a specified period of time after the materials have been supplied or the work completed (all states). The law varies from state-to-state on both the triggering event and the timing of this. Some states require the filing within a period measured from the time when the claimant completes its work, while others specify the event as being after all work on the project has been completed. The filing time periods after the triggering event vary, with 4-6 months being common.
Filing a lawsuit to foreclose the lien within a specified time period.
Priority Respecting Other Interests
The statutes creating mechanic's liens usually give them a higher priority with respect to other interests in the title than the law gives most real property security interests. Among other things, priority is the attribute that determines which of several competing security claims will have the first claim to the funds of a foreclosure sale. In this context, the priority of a mechanic's lien is determined either by the time the lien attaches to the title to the property or by the point in time to which it "relates back." With some exceptions, the lien attaches or relates back to a time prior to the time that any notice of it appears in the public records. In many states, this is specified as the time when the first visible construction commences on the building site. In others, it is when the contract is executed for the work to be done. In still others, each contractor or supplier's lien attaches at the time when it commences its own work. Therefore, persons dealing with the owner of the title to the property risk having their interests unexpectedly subject to mechanic's liens of which they had no knowledge.
Special provisions are made in some states for determining the priority between a mechanic's lien and the lien of a mortgage that is financing the construction on the land. For instance, in the State of New York, the appearance of specified language in the mortgage to the effect that it is a construction loan preserves its priority over mechanic's liens arising out of the construction, as long as subsequently filed lien claims that are legitimate are not ignored. In other states, such as Florida, it is an all or nothing proposition. There, the recording of the construction mortgage before the filing of a statutory notice of commencement of construction provides the mortgage with absolute priority over mechanic's liens arising out of the construction. Still other states, such as California, provide priority for a construction loan mortgage recorded before the visible commencement of construction where the lender is obligated to disburse the funds. In the State of Illinois, there is a statutory funds disbursing scheme that, if followed, provides construction loan mortgage priority. In other states, there are still other arrangements and some states, such as Colorado, provide almost no practical means for a construction loan mortgage to obtain priority at all.
Mechanic's liens are enforced exclusively through judicial foreclosure sales, i.e., through court proceedings similar to mortgage foreclosures. The court must determine whether the requirements of the statute have been met and, if so, the priority of the mechanic's lien being foreclosed relative to the other liens or encumbrances on the title. Once that is determined, the court will order the property sold and the proceeds of the sale applied to the liens in the order of their priority.