I am located in Pennsylvania, USA and have hired a home improvement contractor to make some repairs, which they are currently in the middle of. In their proposal, which I signed and accepted, there are four sections describing the four different parts of the project. At the bottom of each section, there is, in big bold type, a "TOTAL" dollar amount listed for the cost of the work described in that section. The proposal does not list a grand total at the end, I assume because I was able to pick and choose which parts I actually wanted them to do. I always wanted to do all four so picking a subset of them was never a consideration.

In the middle of the first section (the most costly one), the specific cost of acquiring permits for the work is listed. It is not described as an additional cost, I assumed they were listing it to help explain where their costs are coming from. When I signed the proposal, I considered the total cost of the project to be the sum of the four totals listed, which would include the permit cost.

My problem is that the work has started and the contractor has sent me their draft invoice for the project and it lists the cost of the permits as separate, in addition to the four totals. As I write this, I have paid them a little over a third of the total cost of the project (the permit cost is less than 10% of the total cost of the project).

So, with the proposal having four sections, each with a total cost in bold type beneath it, the absence of a "grand total", and the absence of any language describing the permit cost being above and beyond the total listed for the section the permit is listed in, does the contractor have any right to add the permit cost on top of the four totals?

  • 2
    Reread your contract. Then get a lawyer. Many lawyers give a free consultation to help you understand the situation. We can't give legal advice here.
    – Trish
    Oct 31, 2022 at 15:18
  • @Trish Thanks. I doubt I'll hire a lawyer for this, the cost of the permit isn't that much. I just wanted to get a second opinion on whether my assumption was reasonable and maybe some reassurance before I respond to the contractor.
    – Dan C
    Oct 31, 2022 at 17:48

1 Answer 1


does the contractor have any right to add the permit cost on top of the four totals?

At the outset, the answer is no. But the exact terms of the signed proposal or contract could make a difference because of some subtlety that might have [unreasonably] gone unnoticed by you.

The lack of some disclaimer regarding variability of cost(s) supports your reasonable presumption that the subtotal of each section is final. In that case, the contractor is responsible for additional costs, more so on items which the project reflects the contract clearly had in mind at the time of drafting the proposal.

Also the doctrine of contra proferentem favors your position. The doctrine would defeat even a subtlety if the latter is premised on ambiguous language.

  • 2
    Contra proferentem applies to contracts where one power lacks negotiation power. Home-reno contracts are highly negotiable.
    – user6726
    Oct 31, 2022 at 17:19
  • @user6726 The wikipedia page cites the American Law institute for the proposition that the doctrine "is applicable to other cases" and not just to "situations involving standardized contracts or where the parties are of unequal bargaining power". Other citations given there indicate that compensating an imbalance of negotiation power is not the only purpose of the doctrine. Oct 31, 2022 at 17:32

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