Avoid Termite Damage
University of Florida entomology professor Nan-Yao Su says that by the time termites infest a house, their underground nest is already approximately 300 feet in diameter! Su is also the inventor of Sentricon, a baiting method for treating termites.
My friend Doug Patrick is currently helping his dad repair termite damage that was left unchecked. As you can see in his photo, above, the nasty little buggers can attack floor joists, roof trusses, and studs behind walls. By the time they're noticed, the damage can cost thousands of dollars to fix!
Many homeowners assume their insurance will cover termite damage. This can prove to be a very expensive assumption! Few policies provide this kind of protection, but there's a very high chance that termites could affect you at some point in your home ownership.
As a Realtor and property investor, I've had a fair number of run-ins with termites. In fact, of the seven properties I have owned, termite infestations struck three. Another two that I built required the soil to be treated before I built them.
Along the way, I've learned how to recognize termites, how exterminators can cheat unsuspecting homeowners, and a few tricks to protect my properties that I'll share with you.
1. Recognizing termites
2. Obvious and subtle signs of infestation
3. Shady exterminators and how to get what you pay for
4. Self help & prevention
Have you ever experienced a termite infestation?
Types of Termites
My first encounter with termites took place many years ago when I was renting half a duplex. I'd come home from work one evening and discovered that half of my kitchen had dropped by about an eighth of an inch!
A couple days later, before the property manager sent anyone to look at the problem, I noticed something else - a black spot the size of a quarter on the carpet. A closer inspection revealed... ants? But they all had wings! I thought ant colonies only had one queen?
And my education began with the discovery that termites are winged insects that resemble ants, and that they are not all white, as I'd previously believed.
In the United States, four types of termites give homeowners reason to stay alert. Within each type of colony, the insects themselves may have different appearances. Alates, the swarmers who create new nests, have wings. Soldiers and queen do not. Juveniles may look slightly different, too. Here's a brief look at each species:
Flying ants have a head, upper body, narrow waist, and lower body. Termite bodies don't have three segments connected by a narrow waist.
Dr. Su's comment about the size of a colony described the formosa subterranean termite species. The queen of one of these colonies can lay up to a thousand eggs per day. Each year, as many as 70,000 alates (winged termites) may leave the nest in search of a new home.
After a short flight, they shed their wings, pair up, and begin anew. The good news is most of them don't survive. The bad news is that those that do create new nests that are just as capable of aggressive growth as the one they left behind.
Like other subterranean termite species, the formosa typically builds its nests in the soil, but when the winged aletes venture forth, they may begin colonies in other areas where food and moisture are found, such as some rooftops.
This species arrived in the U.S. in the 1940s from southeastern Asia. They prefer warm climates. In the states, they're most common from Texas to Florida and northward to about 35° latitude - which includes roughly all of Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina. Isolated colonies have been found in distant or colder locations, including as far north as Canada or westward, in California, but these are rare.
Other Termite Species
Three other species of termites also build nests in the soil: Reticulitermes, also known as the Eastern subterranean termite, is responsible for around 80 percent of structural termite damage in the U.S.
Although other species don't reproduce as quickly as the formasa, the queens still lay thousands of eggs each year.
There are two types of termites that don't require soil for their colonies:
- Dampwood termites
- Drywood termites
One of the reasons so many species of termites build in soil is because they can obtain moisture there. Moisture and cellulose-based food are required for any of these species to survive. Dampwood termites seek damp, decaying wood for their nests, such as rotting logs lying on the ground. They tend to have small colonies and are not normally a concern to homeowners as long as they're not having significant water problems with their property.
Drywood termites are able to conserve moisture better and can live in wood without contact with the ground. Though less common than subterraneans, they are capable of significant damage to property, but the signs for identifying their presence are slightly different.
Obvious Signs: Mud Tubes
Subtle Signs - Tiny Holes
Very Subtle Signs
Signs of Termite Infestation
Although knowing what termites look like can be important, other signs of infestation are more critical. My second contact with termites also involved alates - the winged swarmers. I'd just bought a house in Georgia in December, and a termite inspector noted that he'd seen signs of a previous infestation but certified that the house was free of the pests.
As soon as the weather turned warm, I spotted a few at the base of my back door. Since I was living in a brick home, I was surprised, but I called the exterminator just to be safe. "Don't worry about it," he told me. "This is the time of year when they swarm, but I assure you that your house isn't infested."
I had that niggling feeling that something wasn't right. After all, if they were swarming from some tree a hundred yards away, how did they all happen to be landing at my doorstep? I called a second company and ordered another inspection. "No, ma'am, there are no termites here."
Ok, they're the pros, I thought. You can imagine how I felt when, a year or so later, I started noticing tiny holes appearing in our walls and had to get yet another inspection and this time, was told that we had termites after all.
Now I knew two signs to look for. I learned of others only after I became a real estate agent by attending dozens of pest inspections.
- Clusters of alates shouldn't appear in clusters in or around a house. They disperse when swarming, not cluster. If many appear together, they're likely leaving the location rather than coming to it. Shed wings can also be a sign.
- Tiny holes in drywall, about the size of a pin head, are an early sign of termites building tunnels in walls.
- Subterranean termites use mud made of soil and feces to help retain moisture. Where their tunnels penetrate wood or drywall, they use this mud to prevent air exposure from drying the moisture they need to survive.
- Drywood termites don't create mud tubes, but instead push their fecal matter through their tunnels. The presence of tiny octagonal pellets, about the size of grains of sand, are signs that termites may be present.
- A bubbled appearance in wood or paint should be gently probed with a screwdriver. If termites are present, the bubbled area will cave in or reveal tunnels. Small bubbles in paint, especially along baseboards, can be flicked clean with a fingernail to check for tunnels. (Note: "Dry rot" in water damaged wood can have a similar appearance and is a likely place for termites but doesn't automatically mean termites are present.)
- Bubbling paint or wallpaper that is scraped may reveal grain-like "sand" on the wall between the drywall and its covering that can indicate the presence of termites.
- Ant infestations can signal termites, too. Carpenter ants are destructive and can also harm the structure even if no termites are present. However, both carpenter ants and other ant species prey on termites. The presence of carpenter ants, black ants, fire ants, and others can hint at termite problems.
- Infested trees, stacks of firewood, or decks near a home are may offer warning signs that termites are close by, and could become problematic if they aren't already. (When I purchased another of my houses, the inspector noted termites in a tree by the garage, but none indoors. When I started renovating a few weeks later, I discovered active termites in the walls along one entire side of the house.)
I told you about my first two exposures to termites. When they were found in my house, I spent several hundred dollars for spot treatment as recommended by the exterminator. He also recommended that I purchase Sentricon, a baiting system that was new to the market at the time. (Incidentally, Sentricon was developed by the entomologist I quoted in the introduction to this article.)
I shelled out another $2,400 for the Sentricon system contract, which essentially consisted of a bunch of tubes containing wooden sticks. They were placed in the ground around the perimeter of my house.
"We'll monitor the bait stations each month, and when the termites start feeding on the wood, we'll replace the wood with a poison they'll take back to their colony," he explained. I was a little skeptical because it seemed like they were drawing the pests to my house instead of away from it, but I decided it was worth the cost because it came with a guarantee: If termites were found while I was under contract, the well-known exterminating company would not only pay for treatment, they'd pay for any damage caused by the pests.
For a few months, all went well. I didn't really notice when their monthly notices saying they'd found no activity stopped being left in the mailbox. In fact, I didn't think about it even when I moved out of state and rented the house out. My tenants never noticed the bubbling wood and peeling paint around the windows, but when they moved away and I put my house up for sale, my Realtor told me I had a serious infestation. Fortunately, I'd kept the contract paid up and although the company tried to balk their responsibility, they did pay several thousand dollars to repair the sawdust-like window frames and the damage hidden behind drywall.
SNEAKY EXTERMINATOR LESSON 1: Bait stations are only as good as their monitoring. I recommend not using this kind of system unless it comes with both a guarantee to treat and a written guarantee to repair damages from re-infestations. Shady operators are happy to take a few thousand bucks for a day's work and then disappear partway into the contract. I think that bait stations can be useful for monitoring a home yourself, but plan on taking responsibility for it - don't take a company's word for it. (The company I used is a nationally recognized one with an otherwise good reputation!)
SNEAKY EXTERMINATOR LESSON 2: Many states have agencies that carefully monitor the chemicals used by exterminators. These agencies are designed both to protect consumers and the environment. However, enforcement can be lax or absent, leading to some exterminators using cheaper, less effective products than they claim to be using. Plus, there are different products that consumers aren't trained to evaluate. Check your state's standards and do your homework before paying for treatment. Call several exterminators and ask what chemicals they use, and why they chose that one over other alternatives. Be suspicious about deeply discounted whole house treatments.
SNEAKY EXTERMINATOR LESSON 3: You get what you pay for. When I built two houses, building codes required me to have the soil pre-treated for termites. It was going to cost around $1,000 per site. I already knew that I would be hiring the exterminator I'd come to rely on for inspections and treatments for my real estate customers, but his competitor heard I was building and offered me signed certificates saying they'd treated for $100 each. "It doesn't really matter because pre-treatment doesn't always work anyway," he said. Soil pre-treatment is only effective for a couple of years, but if not done properly, consequences can be devastating. A newly constructed house in Hawaii had been built directly over a formosa subterranean termite colony. It was demolished within 9 months!
As with any business, there are reputable providers and there are crooks. Although I strongly recommend hiring a pro to treat an active infestation, I also advise caution in choosing who to pay for the job!
There are only a few real treatment options:
1. Spray the soil
2. Spray actual sites of infestations
3. Use a bait station
I am not terribly familiar with the many varieties of chemicals used, and I'm not qualified to describe them in any case. Exterminators I've known rely upon Termidor or Premise usually. Premise is touted as the lower-cost alternative, but both work in similar ways - instead of acting as a repellent, the chemicals get onto termite workers' bodies and are carried back to the colony, eliminating the entire colony within weeks.
Exterminators typically offer a warranty with either of these products, though they must be applied at a specific concentration. Termidor treatments in my area typically cost about $700-800, while Premise costs just half that amount. I'd probably opt for the Premise treatment (it's made by the Bayer Corporation) and elect an annual warranty, which would be an additional $35 per year in my area.
I encourage homeowners to investigate the concentration and effectiveness of a variety of products, especially if they or their family members could have health concerns.
Although there are do-it-yourself sprays, I discourage their use unless the area infested is 100% accessible. This is very rare, and as a result, there's a high chance of not being able to treat effectively. The sprays are good for trees in the yard, perhaps, but not for inside your home! There's too much risk of continued damage that may not be discovered for months or even years.
Beyond the chemicals, though, each method has distinct advantages and drawbacks as shown in this table:
Provides a barrier between soil and structure
Kills all termites in house
Kills all termite eggs in house
Requires drilling through foundation
Requires leaving house
YES - 3 days
$ / $$
$ / $$ / $$$
against reinfestation only
against reinfestation only
reinfestation & repair possible
Termite Prevention Tips
1. CONTROL MOISTURE
- Keep plumbing in good repair. No leaks!
- Avoid low spots in the ground around your home. Ensure the ground slopes away to draw water away from your structure.
- Verify that entry pipes for plumbing and sewer are sealed with foam insulation like the product shown here, available from Amazon.
- Use a vapor barrier in crawl spaces. A vapor barrier is a plastic lining on the ground that prevents groundwater and humidity from penetrating floor joists and sill plates. I cannot overstate how important a vapor barrier is for homes with crawlspaces, especially if you're the one climbing in to periodically check for termites or fix plumbing leaks.
- Ensure there is no water pooling on a flat roof.
- Keep crawlspace vents open to circulate air constantly and maintain dry conditions.
2. MINIMIZE FOOD SOURCES
- Stack firewood as far as possible from your home.
- Use only pre-treated lumber for building decks, fences, or outdoor railings.
- Do not allow roots or vines to penetrate basement or siding.
- Avoid having mulch, shrubs, or trees right next to your home whenever possible.
- Do not allow deck timbers to be in contact with soil.
- If you already have wood in contact with soil, such as a deck that is not on concrete footings, monitor it weekly for signs of infestation.
A Final Word...
When I show homes, I point out signs of possible termite infestations. I tell clients that the signs might be very old, but could also be current. Nearly everyone immediately says, "Forget it. I don't want this house!"
Their reaction is understandable. The amount of hidden damage can be extreme. I've been in homes where I've felt afraid of walking on the main floor after discovering severely damaged floor joists in the basement, where foundations were collapsing inward, and where most interior walls had to be demolished and rebuilt in order for the house to be livable.
However, in my experience, the best defense against structural damage is education and high awareness. Spotting termites early helps keep costs manageable and repairs minimal. Most houses, including new constructions, have no more than a two-year warranty against termites because they are such a common problem.
If you aren't likely to notice subtle indicators or check your crawl space or basement, consider hiring an exterminator to inspect once every couple years so you'll never have to face a repair job like this one!