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Q.When we pulled off the siding and sheathing from the gable end of an existing house in preparation for an addition, we were surprised to find that the roof has a 4x12 structural ridge beam supporting common rafters. We had assumed that the roof was framed with trusses, since the home is only nine years old. The load from the ridge beam will need to be carried down to a solid footing, adding about $600 of unexpected costs to the job. Unfortunately, our contract has no language covering such a surprise. My question is, who is responsible for these unexpected costs: the homeowner or the builder?

A.Patricia McDaniel, owner of Boardwalk Builders in Rehoboth Beach, Del., responds: From the client’s point of view, it is always the contractor’s fault. At this point, you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to close the barn door after the horse has escaped. If you could have inspected the attic but didn’t, the homeowners have a good case that it isn’t their fault that you didn’t know what was up there.

At the start of the job, it’s essential to communicate with your client about how you will handle hidden conditions. The following suggested contract language comes from a sample contract in Gary Ransone’s book, The Contractor’s Legal Kit: "Unless specifically included in the ‘General Scope of Work’ section above, this Agreement does not include labor or materials for the following work: … correction of existing out-of-plumb or out-of-level conditions in existing structure. Correction of concealed substandard framing. Removal and replacement of existing rot or insect infestation.…" A similar clause in your contract could have helped protect you in your present dilemma.

The best defense against such surprises is a good offense. Always plan ahead, and take time to look around all the nooks and crannies of the job site. It’s also important to charge a professional markup, so that you can absorb the costs arising from fights you can’t win. Look on the bright side: The lessons learned from this $600 surprise may help you avoid a much more expensive misunderstanding in the future.