What Exactly is Retainage in Construction?

All - 34 Min read

May 24, 2024

Retainage, also known as retention, is a practice in the construction industry where a portion of the payment due to contractors and subcontractors is withheld until the project is substantially complete. This practice acts as a financial incentive for contractors to ensure that the project is completed on time and meets the required quality standards. Retainage helps ensure that any necessary corrections or adjustments are made before the final payment is released.

The Purpose of Retainage

Retainage serves several important purposes in construction projects:

Quality Assurance:

By withholding a portion of the payment, retainage provides the project owner with leverage to ensure that the contractor completes the project according to the specified standards and requirements. This helps to ensure that any defects or unfinished work are addressed before the final payment is made.

Financial Security:

Retainage protects the project owner by ensuring that the contractor has a financial stake in the project's successful completion. If the contractor fails to meet the contractual obligations, the owner can use the retained funds to hire another contractor to complete the work.

Project Completion:

Retainage encourages the contractor to finish the project promptly and satisfactorily. The withheld funds serve as an incentive for the contractor to complete the work on time and to the required quality standards.

Typical Retainage Amounts

The amount of retainage in construction projects can vary, but it is typically around 5% to 10% of each progress payment made to the contractor or subcontractor. This percentage is intended to provide a financial incentive for the contractor to complete the project according to the required standards and timeline. The specific percentage and the conditions under which retainage will be released are usually detailed in the contract agreement at the start of the project. This ensures both parties understand the terms and reduces the potential for disputes later on.

How Retainage Works

Contractual Agreement

The contract between the project owner and the contractor specifies the retainage percentage and the conditions for its release. This agreement provides a clear framework and mutual understanding of how retainage will be handled throughout the project, helping to prevent disputes and misunderstandings. Both parties agree on the terms before the project begins, ensuring transparency and accountability.

Progress Payments

As the project progresses, the contractor submits invoices for the work completed to date. The project owner reviews these invoices and makes payments accordingly, but withholds the agreed-upon retainage percentage from each payment. This withheld amount acts as a financial safeguard, ensuring the contractor remains committed to completing the project as per the contract terms.

Substantial Completion

When the project reaches substantial completion, it means the work is sufficiently finished to be used for its intended purpose, even if minor tasks remain. At this stage, a significant portion of the retainage may be released to the contractor. This partial release incentivizes the contractor to address any remaining minor tasks while still holding some funds back until full completion.

Final Completion

Once all work is completed, including any necessary corrections or punch list items, the project reaches final completion. At this point, the remaining retainage is released to the contractor. This final payment signifies the project's official completion and confirms that all contractual obligations have been met.

Retainage in Subcontractor Agreements

Retainage practices extend down the contractual chain to subcontractors, meaning that general contractors often withhold a portion of payments from their subcontractors as well. This practice mirrors the terms set by the project owner, ensuring that all parties involved in the construction process are equally incentivized to complete their work to the required standards and timelines. By applying retainage to subcontractors, general contractors ensure that each layer of the project team is motivated to address any deficiencies and complete their respective tasks. This helps maintain overall project quality and timeliness. Subcontractors, like general contractors, must manage their cash flow to accommodate the withheld amounts, making careful financial planning essential.

Legal and Regulatory Aspects

Retainage is subject to state laws and regulations, which can vary widely. Some jurisdictions have specific statutes that limit the amount of retainage that can be withheld or stipulate the timing for its release. For example, certain states may cap retainage at 5% of the total contract value and mandate that it be released within a specified period after the project reaches substantial completion. These laws are designed to protect contractors and subcontractors from excessive withholding and ensure timely payment. Contractors and subcontractors must be aware of and comply with these legal requirements to avoid potential disputes and legal issues. Understanding the local legal landscape is crucial for managing retainage effectively and ensuring compliance with all relevant regulations.

Common Issues and Considerations

Cash Flow Impact

Retainage can significantly impact the cash flow of contractors and subcontractors, especially smaller firms. Withholding a portion of the payment can create financial strain, making it challenging for these businesses to cover ongoing expenses such as labor, materials, and overhead costs. Effective financial planning and management are crucial to mitigate this impact and ensure the firm's financial stability throughout the project.


Contractors may negotiate the terms of retainage, including the percentage withheld and the conditions for its release. Successful negotiation can help balance the interests of both the project owner and the contractor, ensuring that the retainage terms are fair and manageable. Clear communication and a well-defined contract can prevent disputes and foster a cooperative working relationship.

Prompt Payment Acts

Some states have prompt payment acts that include specific provisions for retainage, ensuring that funds are released to contractors and subcontractors in a timely manner. These laws are designed to prevent undue delays and protect the financial interests of those performing the work. Compliance with these acts helps ensure that contractors and subcontractors receive their due payments promptly, reducing financial stress.

Escrow Accounts

In some cases, retainage funds may be placed in escrow accounts, ensuring that the withheld money is safeguarded and available for release upon project completion. This approach provides additional security for contractors, as it guarantees that the retained funds are properly managed and not used for other purposes. Escrow accounts offer a transparent and reliable method for handling retainage, benefiting both the project owner and the contractor.

Best Practices for Managing Retainage

Clear Contract Terms

Ensure that the contract clearly outlines the retainage percentage, conditions for release, and the timing of payments. Detailed and unambiguous contract terms help prevent disputes and misunderstandings between the project owner and the contractor. A well-defined contract sets clear expectations and provides a solid foundation for managing retainage effectively throughout the project.

Regular Communication

Maintain open communication with the project owner and subcontractors regarding the status of the project and any issues affecting retainage. Transparency in communication builds trust and ensures that all parties are aware of any developments or concerns that may impact the release of retainage. Regular updates help facilitate the timely resolution of issues and keep the project on track.


Keep detailed records of all work completed, payments made, and retainage withheld. Proper documentation is essential for addressing any disputes that may arise and ensures that retainage is released according to the contract terms. Comprehensive records provide a clear history of the project's progress and financial transactions, supporting accountability and transparency.

Timely Completion

Focus on completing the project on time and meeting quality standards to avoid delays in the release of retainage. Promptly addressing punch list items and any necessary corrections facilitates final completion and the subsequent release of the remaining retainage. Timely and high-quality work helps maintain a positive relationship with the project owner and ensures a smooth project closeout.

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