Investors can't pay bills; liens pile up

Triangle developers, desperate to trudge through a frozen lending landscape, are facing new pressures: mountains of unpaid invoices from contractors, suppliers and consultants who need to pay bills of their own.

Architects, engineers and contractors are increasingly heading to court, seeking payment for services rendered to developers before lenders shut the spigot on construction loans. These companies have led a surge of lawsuits and liens filed this year detailing expenses for fancy renderings, complicated foundations, lumber and paint.

There have been at least 9,355 lien claims filed in Wake County Superior Court. That's a five-year high and 35 percent more than the annual average over the previous three years. In Durham County, claims are up 34 percent over the three-year average, reaching a four-year high of 3,162.

"A lot of people aren't getting paid," said Lisa Strickland, a deputy clerk at Durham County Superior Court. "And that's kind of sad because these people need their money for Christmas, too."

The spike in liens -- which are monetary claims against properties that must be settled before a residential or commercial property is sold -- is the latest indicator that the development community is anticipating a painfully drawn-out recession.

Two years ago, contractors were less likely to file liens in part because the free-flowing credit markets made it easy for consumers to buy homes and for companies to expand into commercial space. That offered confidence invoices would be paid.

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