- The Washington Times - Friday, December 11, 2009

Although some species are so small that they are barely discernible to the naked eye, termites can wreak havoc on homes. Local experts say that they have witnessed the destruction caused by these small wood-destroying creatures when they eat away at a home’s foundation and that a simple termite inspection is key to catching and treating damage.

Just like cleaning the gutters or having appliances checked out, an annual termite inspection should be considered part of a regular home maintenance plan.

Realtors say prospective buyers should always obtain termite inspections for properties they are considering. For a minimal investment of about $125 (or less), buyers will get peace of mind. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guidelines no longer mandate termite inspections, leaving it up to the appraiser or lender to require one. Realtor Dan Melman with W.C. & A.N. Miller Realtors in the District says that he always makes a termite inspection part of the contract and that he requires the buyers to pay for it.

Mr. Melman recently had issues with two local homes he sold where termite damage was evident. At the first property in Woodley Park, the inspector found termite trails when he poked at the beams in a crawl space between the home theater and an exterior wall. A structural engineer was called to verify that the structure of the home was not compromised. The sellers ended up paying $1,200 for a structural analysis and termite treatment. The $75 inspection fee incurred by the buyers paid off in this case.

“It was fortunate for everyone involved that it was caught when it was still on the seller’s dime,” Mr. Melman says.

At another residence for sale in Mount Pleasant, the property looked “solid” but the termite inspector discovered bugs that were feeding on the area under the porch. It cost about $300 to treat the area. Mr. Melman says it is critical to get an inspection from a trustworthy, reputable inspector.

“To me, it’s like many other contingencies in the contract - you do it to protect yourself,” he says.

Koki Adasi-Efuya, a Realtor with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in Silver Spring, says he always recommends that buyers require a termite inspection. Yet, he knows that pest professionals sometimes miss the signs of these silent invaders. He had the unfortunate experience of working with an inspector who overlooked an active infestation in a property his buyers were considering. The initial report noted no current damage. Yet the buyers questioned why a section of wood was missing from the mantel over the fireplace once they’d spent some time in the house.

Pest professionals say that although there are basic signs the average homeowner can see, laymen often don’t have the knowledge and expertise required to analyze a property for termites.

“We see major damage in the home a lot,” says Ray Mitchell, owner and founder of Barrier Termite & Pest Technologies in Sterling. “We hear people say, ‘I saw this for years but thought it was ants.’ ”

Because termites detest light, inspectors have to scrutinize the areas that average homeowners do not usually visit - such as the attic, basement and crawl spaces, as well as pulling back the insulation and probing all of the wood.

Mr. Mitchell explains that inspectors look for “conducive conditions,” which are areas where termites are likely to stay (such as wood piles, mulch beds, siding or trees touching the house and overflowing gutters). Termites need moisture to break down the wood they are consuming, so leaky gutters, faucets or any areas with moisture issues in a property will entice them.

The only time termites come out is in the spring, when they shed their wings and try to form a new colony. Steve Jeffery, general manager of Brussell Exterminating Service in Silver Spring, says that during this “swarming” period is the only time the homeowner may notice termites’ presence because they may see piles of small lacy wings.

Specialists also look for small mud tubes that termites build in inconspicuous places, along with frass, a sticky saliva mixture. Although homeowners often think termites are ants, Mr. Jeffery says that a swarmer’s antennae are straight and that ant antennae are not. In addition, the ant has a slim waist while a termite has a thicker middle.

Mr. Jeffery has also seen the devastating results of undetected termites. He says he inspected a home in Maryland that had a concrete slab basement with an addition built onto the back. Termites crawled between the walls of the basement foundation and the new portion of the home. He detected their presence as he checked each door post and wooden area, and tapped a section with his screwdriver where there was paint but no wood behind it. As a result of the deterioration, all of the wood in the basement had to be replaced.

“Part of the house could have caved in,” says Mr. Jeffery.

He says there are definite steps homeowners can take to keep termites away from their properties.

Keep firewood away from the house and on a stand.

Ensure that gutters are draining away from the home and that pipes or faucets are not leaking, which would provide the moisture that is essential for termites.

Shrubs and bushes should be located away from the home to prevent swarmers from using the obscure area as cover.

Bob Dixon, president and co-owner of Dixon Pest Control in the District, says termites are very resourceful and often work around the clock. The mud tubes they create allow them to cross any material (including concrete, brick and cinder block). He says that many homes in the District were built with sheet-metal “termite shields,” yet he has seen termites compromise those safeguards.

Mr. Dixon explains there are two types of treatment for these pests: chemical injections around the exterior of the home and baiting systems. Baiting treatments - often used if there is concern about chemicals contaminating a nearby water source - involve installing baiting brackets around the home. Although bait treatment is more environmentally friendly, it can cost more and take longer to produce results. In addition, the baiting pods have to be inspected at least four times a year. Chemical treatments, on the other hand, do not require extensive follow-up appointments.

Pest professionals recommend pretreating homes, and many will provide a free inspection or estimate of the cost required to address existing damage.

“There are a number of things you can do to protect your investment,” Mr. Dixon says. “You don’t want to be shocked and all of a sudden have termites compromise the selling of your house.”

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