Of Mice and Men: Yes, you need a written construction contract!
Does a written contract *really* matter? Yes; yes it does.
While you can get by for years- decades, even- on handshake deals—when something goes wrong you will wish you had a written contract. Even the best projects, with familiar clients and trusted contractors, can go awry. (“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”).
Many of my clients come to me after having been in business 20, 30 years or more. They come to me because they have either already been sued, or the handwriting is on the wall and they are about to be brought into litigation. They tell me they’ve never needed a written contract before now. That’s well and good. However, I’d bet dollars to donuts those same folks have fire insurance, and yet very few if any of them have actually experienced a house fire. What’s different about business contracts?
The goal, of course, is that you will never need to rely on the written provisions in your contract. But if you ever find yourself facing a lawsuit, you’ll wish you had a written contract.
A written contract spells out expectations, rights, and responsibilities. It sets standards that may be understood by the parties, but very different from what the common law would allow. Without a written contract, you are trusting yourself to laws you may not agree with or giving up protections you may otherwise have. Why chance it?
Get something in writing—a signed proposal, an email which is confirmed—something that spells out basic agreements that might come into dispute later. A thorough contract written for each project is ideal, though not always practical on smaller, quick-turn deals. That’s fine. But get something on paper. You’ll be glad you did, if and when you ever find yourself on the courthouse steps.
*Photo: Have you seen the Muffin Mouse by delphwynd via Flickr and made available via Creative Commons license.