Wet wood brings termites, headaches Unintended toilet leak results in spending of many dollars

HOMEWORK

August 24, 1997|By Karol V. Menzie & Randy Johnson

Randy's been working on a house with one of those problems that should have been simple: Fixing a leak in a toilet flange. The tale is a cautionary one for everybody hoping some small problem will simply go away.

Most of the house, a brick veneer rancher on the outskirts of the city, was in great shape -- except for one part that had been out of use for a couple of years.

The previous owner had used a bathroom off one of the bedrooms as storage and simply closed the door on it.

That would have been OK if not for a small leak under the toilet, which slowly saturated the subflooring. No one knows how long the leak went on without intervention.

At some point the owner must have realized there was a problem -- there's an indication that a pipe burst in the floor, which might have gotten his attention -- and the water to the bathroom was turned off.

But by then the damage was done.

Water had spread out from the toilet and soaked the joist and the bottom of the wall framing (the plates).

Wet wood can recover as long as it dries out relatively quickly. For instance, a flood from a second-floor bathroom can ruin the ceiling below, but if the wood dries out speedily, damage will be limited to replacing the ceiling and dealing with wet carpeting or floor finishes.

(Of course if this just happened to you, we're sure it didn't feel like a minor occurrence.)

In this case, unfortunately, the wood stayed wet for a long time.

Even after a relative took over ownership of the house, it still took a while to figure out what had happened. And by then the wet-wood problem had been compounded by an invasion of the most dreaded type: termites.

They love wet wood and had eagerly built tunnels up the masonry walls of the basement and followed the water into the wall framing above.

They weren't interested in any other part of the house, but they really loved this one.

By the time Randy started tearing the bathroom apart, the sink was falling off the wall (the termites had eaten the 2-by-6 in the wall behind it), and the joists and subfloor were destroyed.

The brick of the veneer was not touched, but the termites ate the studs behind it almost all the way to the ceiling -- including those in the wall that supports the ceiling in the adjoining room.

Then they ate the sheathing nailed over the stud walls behind the brick veneer.

The joists support all the walls, so the walls of the bathroom had to be torn out.

The wall between the bathroom and the bedroom at first looked as if it could be retained, but it turned out to be sitting on a badly damaged double joist -- the bottom plate was almost completely rotted and/or eaten away.

This wall supports the adjoining bedroom ceiling, which might be saved -- but the joists under it will have to be replaced and new subfloor installed over them.

After the subfloor is in place, a temporary wall will support the ceiling, so the other framing can be removed, the rest of the joists replaced, the floor installed and the walls reframed.

Once the framing is complete, the temporary wall can be removed.

The ceramic-tile shower enclosure wasn't affected by termites, but it is sitting on some ruined joists.

Because of its weight, the enclosure can't be supported while the floor and joists under it are removed, so it too will have to be replaced.

The owners of this house are lucky, in a way, because the termites didn't eat their way into roof rafters or into framing beyond the bathroom.

The house has now been treated for termite infestation and will be inspected yearly by the termite company to make sure the pests don't return.

Termites are often relatively easy to spot, especially in the early stages. They don't like open air, so they build tunnels up masonry walls in the basement to get to the wood above.

Once they start eating on a piece of wood, however, they can get a little more difficult to spot.

Because they eat from the inside out, the outside of the wood

Stabbing it with a knife or a sharp tool is often the only way to tell if they have gotten into a piece of wood.

Here are some tips for avoiding termites:

* Check basement walls a couple of times a year to make sure that termites are not building tunnels.

* Avoid making termites happy: Fix all leaks so they don't get their favorite meal (wet wood).

* Your house purchase or refinancing might include a built-in yearly termite inspection. Take advantage of it. You might even want to attend and ask some questions.

* Storing firewood close to the house -- for instance on the front porch -- or having wood chips in a garden right next to your foundation may provide a haven for termites.

The termite inspector can point out some problem areas.

Termite companies are supposed to try to avoid having to spray chemicals into your soil if possible, so they will try to help you avoid things that can attract termites.

Randy Johnson is a Baltimore home-improvement contractor. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail us at homeworlark.net, or write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

Pub Date: 8/24/97

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