As the real estate market contracts, contractors, subcontractors and suppliers with unpaid balances will need to protect their interests by, among other things, taking advantage of applicable lien laws. In construing New Jersey’s lien laws, definitions of “residential” and “commercial” construction have long been considered by many to be a gray area.

The Bankruptcy Court for the District of New Jersey recently addressed the distinction. It held that agreements with general contractors or developers in which contractors, subcontractors, and suppliers agree to provide work, services, material or equipment to large-scale residential developments are residential construction contracts. In re: Kara Homes, ____ F.Supp. _____ (D.N.J. August 29, 2007).This means that such contractors, subcontractors and suppliers must follow the more complex provisions applicable to residential construction contracts when they wish to secure an unpaid balance with a construction lien.

In New Jersey, the Construction Lien Law (“CLL”) (N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-1 et seq.) distinguishes residential construction contracts from construction contracts that are commercial in nature. The CLL defines a residential construction contract as
any written contract for the construction or improvement to a one- or two-family dwelling, or any portion of a dwelling, which shall include any residential unit in a condominium subject to the provisions of P.L.1969, c. 257 (C.46:8B-1 et seq.), any residential unit in a housing cooperative , any residential unit included in a fee simple townhouse development, any residential unit contained in a horizontal property regime as defined in section 2 of P.L.1963, c. 168 (C. 46:8A-2), and any residential unit contained in a planned unit development as defined in section 3.3 of P.L.1975, c.291 (C. 40:55D-6).

N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-2.

No lien shall attach for work, services, material or equipment provided as part of a residential construction contract unless the provider strictly complies with the requirements of N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-20 and 21, which impose additional requirements for liens filed on residential construction. N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-5c. The Legislature premised the additional requirements for perfecting liens on residential construction on the need to preserve and enhance the State’s economy, promote a stable marketplace in which families can purchase homes with expedience and certainty, allow lending institutions to conduct their business in a stable environment. N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-21a.

The defendants in Kara Homes, which were various contractors and subcontractors of Kara Homes and/or one or more of its affiliated entities, contended that contracts relating to construction of numerous homes within Kara’s developments were not residential construction contracts in that Kara’s construction of homes for resale was commercial in nature and in that the scope of Kara’s developments exceeded the “one- or two-family dwelling” that was the target of the additional lien-filing requirements. Kara Homes and its affiliates argued that, because the developments were residential, their contractors and subcontractors needed to have strictly followed the provisions of N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-20 and 21 for a valid lien claim to have been filed and perfected.

After observing of the few available unpublished cases considering the question “that the issue of whether a large scale construction project is residential or commercial in nature is unsettled and the analysis arbitrary,” the Bankruptcy Court concluded that the literal language of the statute was not dispositive of its intended scope. In light of the legislative purpose articulated in N.J.S.A. 2A:44A-21a, said the court, large scale residential projects must be included among residential construction contracts. Accordingly, contractors, subcontractors and supplier should be careful to observe the additional requirements applicable to residential construction contracts when working on large scale developments.