If you think the likelihood of a termite problem in the house you buy is remote, think again. Last year, termites were found in 600,000 U.S. homes and the damages reached $800 million, the National Pest Control Association tells us.
Termites are tiny subterranean insects that can thrive wherever wood meets ground. They relish dining on garage doors, decks, porches, tree stumps, wood fences and firewood.
They can tunnel their way through tiny cracks in a concrete foundation to reach a home's wood joists, even if the place has a brick exterior.
And they flourish in remote areas where moisture can accumulate, such as under a carport slab, shower pan, within a crawl space or near a leaky basement wall.
"The homebuyer should be aware that where there's wood, there can be termites. Wood is their life and their survival," says Joel Paul, a National Pest Control Association spokesman.
Termites are delighted by the current popularity of wood chips used as mulch --which many people use in landscaping near their homes.
Wood chips made of cedar or pine bark probably won't present a problem, says Gary L. Gilley, president of Millersville-based Maryland Pest Control Co. "But using chips made out of pine, spruce, fir or any of the softwoods is like putting out caviar or hors d'oeuvres for termites," he says.
Termites aren't picky about where they build colonies. They likeswank properties as well as modest homes, new places as well as old. As a prospective homeowner, you can't afford to be cavalier about the possibility of termites.
Chances are that if a nearby neighbor discovers a termite problem, you may eventually have one as well. That's because termites, though weak fliers, can move considerable distances by way of wind. And if your neighbor cuts off their food at his place, they'll soon be foraging for a new source.
What's maddening is that destructive as termites can be, they're usually tough to detect through what is known as a "visual inspection." A homebuyer may believe that a favorable report from an inspector means the property he is buying is termite-free -- only to discover a serious problem when he undertakes a remodeling job.
Adding insult to injury, termite inspectors typically don't stand behind a visual inspection on the basis that, unlike Superman, they can't see behind walls or under floors. Read the fine print on the inspection form and you'll see it's laden with loopholes which give the inspector a legal out if he fails to detect termite damage that is discovered later. Furthermore, the typical homeowner's insurance policy won't cover the cost of treatment or repairs.
To the wary homebuyer, pest control specialists offer these pointers:
* Do your best to find a qualified termite inspector willing to hunt for subtle as well as obvious signs that a problem is present, says Jay Nixon,vice president at American Pest Management in Takoma Park.
Subtle signs can include termite wings on window sills or tiny mud tunnels on the ground near the property. They can also include patches of eggshell-thin paint on baseboards in a home's interior -- evidence that termites have eaten their way through baseboard wood. A thorough inspector should search out these signs.
When selecting an inspector, "look for longevity, referrals from people you trust and members of a trade association," advises Mr. Nixon. While there is no guarantee that an inspector active in a trade association will be well-trained, the odds are he will be more current on the technology of pest control than one who's not a member.
* Look beyond the names of inspectors provided by your realty agent. The agent can have a built-in conflict of interest and, in rare cases, may actually favor a superficial inspection report, according to Mr. Nixon. That's because a report which cites termite problems or potential problems can be very upsetting to the prospective buyer and has the potential to botch a deal. If the buyer walks away and the home sale falls through, the agent loses a commission on that deal.
* Try to be present during the termite inspection done on your prospective home, Mr. Nixon counsels. Even if no serious problem becomes evident, you'll be able to ask questions and learn more about the conditions that create termite problems. You'll realize, for instance, the importance of removing a tree stump next to the house, to move a pile of firewood away from the home, and to rectify a leaky basement that could be creating the conditions for termite damage.
If being present at the inspection is impossible, try to get the inspector to report directly to you as the buyer, recommends Mr. Gilley, the Millersville inspector.
* Consider a second opinion from a termite inspector if the one your property received was lined up and paid for by the seller. * Be skeptical of a termite inspector who advocates a chemical treatment of your property on a preventive basis -- even if your neighbor has discovered termite damage, Mr. Nixon says. "I'm too much of an environmentalist to dump gallons of chemicals in the ground without a good reason," he says.