- The Washington Times - Friday, August 2, 2002

Wood-boring insects have the power to wreak havoc on your home, eating away at the wood and causing major structural damage, but they can escape detection until repair costs vastly exceed what it might have cost to prevent or fight a termite invasion.

Recent market research shows that the District ranks among the country's top cities for termite trouble, according to the pest-control industry. Termites cause more damage to homes each year than fires and storms combined, pest-control experts say.

What steps can you take, what signs can you look for, to determine if you're literally being eaten out of house and home?

Area pest-management professionals and Realtors encourage buyers to ask questions about possible termite damage, request a termite inspection and know the subtle signs associated with termite presence.

Don't rely on your Realtor to gather this information for you. Termite infestation is often difficult to detect, so your agent might not notice any damage.

The property seller is obligated to disclose any known material defects or disclaim knowledge of defects. Still, if he is aware of any termite troubles and tries to conceal them, he could be held liable. A cover-up "would be on the threshold of fraud and might be latent fraud, depending on the evidence you have," says Gary Peterson, attorney with Peterson & Basha in Vienna.

Area Realtors say they encourage their buyers to request an expert termite assessment.

Keith Blackburn, president of Keith Blackburn Real Estate Inc. in the District, says the regional sales contract used by Realtors in Virginia, Maryland and the District includes a paragraph detailing requirements for a termite inspection.

This section of the contract includes boxes to be checked that indicate whether the inspection will be completed 30 or 60 days before closing and whether the buyer or seller will pay for the inspection, he says.

Although buyers could opt to strike this language from the contract and ignore the termite issue, Mr. Blackburn says this would not be wise.

"It's always a good idea to get an inspection," he says. "Almost every old home in D.C. has some damage."

Mr. Blackburn advises shopping for a well-established company to complete the evaluation.

"You need to be careful and use a company that is reputable especially if you have a report and they say you need to get treatment," Mr. Blackburn advises. "In that case, get a second opinion."

Mr. Blackburn says he has shown homes that have had to have repairs because of termite damage, but "generally, if you catch it in time, the damage is minimal."

Traditionally, the seller selects the inspection company and pays for the report, but Realtors point out that buyers can better ensure that their interests are being met if they choose the inspection company and pay for the service.

Allis Radosh of Long & Foster Realtors in Bethesda says buyers should pay for the report because it "gives them more control." Ms. Radosh says the minimal amount it costs for a report is money well spent, as a home "is the most significant investment they are going to make."

Pest experts agree that buyers need to be more involved in preventing termite problems by inquiring about the history of the home, looking for indications of termite damage and then calling in a specialist.

Jim Fredericks of Home Paramount Pest Control, based in Maryland, says home buyers need to ask whether a house has ever had termites or if it has been treated for the pests.

"If they don't ask, it can be hidden," he says. "[Termites] can eat a home year 'round and go unnoticed."

Mr. Fredericks says buyers can look for simple evidence of termite damage as they tour a home. After they swarm, termites shed their wings, so buyers may notice piles of papery wings on the windowsills.

He says other signs to look for include:

• Small piles of wood residue or shavings.

• Mud shelter tubes from the basement floor to the wall.

• Marks where people have scraped off a tube.

• Bubbled wallpaper or paint, or pinholes.

Karl Kisner, product manager for Termidor, a termiticide/insecticide manufactured by Bayer Environmental Science based in New Jersey, points out that excessive sawdust and worker termites indicate that any uncovered damage is recent.

"Termites are cellulose eaters," Mr. Kisner says. "Carpenter ants also feed on wood, but you won't see the amount of damage" that termites can cause.

If an inspection exposes existing damage, the seller must pay for extermination and structural repairs, according to the regional sales contract used by area Realtors.

Pest experts strongly advise homeowners not to attempt to fix any damage on their own, as it could exacerbate the problem.

Mr. Fredericks says homeowners should consult a professional to treat any infested areas and should continue to have an annual inspection.

"It's not something you want to play around with," he says.

Woodbridge, Va., homeowner Robert Brooke says he learned that lesson the hard way.

When Mr. Brooke bought his house six years ago, he got the basic termite inspection, verified that his property was termite-free, then promptly forgot about following up.

"The fact that termites haven't had your house for lunch yet doesn't mean it's not on the menu," he says.

Mr. Brooke became anxious when he found some strange-looking bugs in his driveway.

"They didn't look like termites to me," he says. "I thought maybe they were just carpenter ants." He took them to the county insect zoo, where experts verified that the bugs were termites.

After calling for another inspection, Mr. Brooke learned that he had termites in his garage and that he would have to have the trim and soffit replaced.

"It got my attention," Mr. Brooke says. "They move fast they make a highway through your house. I am doing my penance now. I am going to inspect every year."

Once you have moved in and have had a basic termite examination, what steps can you take to ensure that the termites won't be back?

Mr. Kisner advises homeowners to limit the supply of moisture to the foundation of the home and remove all scrap wood from around the yard. "Don't provide a food source to them," he says.

Don Wiggins of RE/MAX Choice in Fairfax advises home buyers to contract with a pest-management company providing an annual termite inspection.

"That way they are a step ahead of the game, just like with any maintenance agreement," he says.

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