Column: Termite-free home needs maintenance to stay that way
I heard a termite inspector tell a homebuyer "the good news is the termites are all holding hands." And once I heard a termite inspector tell a seller the firewood stacked against the home was full of termites. The seller replied, "No problem; when they get done with that I'll buy them another cord of firewood." Which brings us to this week's question:
"Randy, you are doing a home inspection next week for us. We appreciate the information you have provided so far (and your sense of humor). We forgot to ask: Does your inspection include a termite inspection? We have heard that termites are not really a problem in our new subdivision, so we're not too concerned about it."
Answer: When purchasing a home, the buyer has a time limit, or "inspection period," to complete all inspections. Any home inspector will recommend a termite inspection if they see signs of insect activity or damage to the home or structure, or if they see "conducive conditions," such as wood/soil contact at the exterior walls. But by this time, a client in the process of buying a house may not have time in their inspection period to complete further inspections. So I always recommend that the buyer order a termite inspection immediately.
There are good reasons to order a termite inspection. We are calling it a "termite inspection," while the state calls it a "WDO inspection." WDO stands for Wood Destroying Organism, which means "termite inspectors" are not checking just for termites. They also are checking for carpenter ants, bark beetles and, I suppose, woodpeckers and beavers (would these not be "wood destroying organisms")? I've never heard of beavers in a termite report, but then I've never encountered a beaver during a home inspection.
Termites, beetles, ants and other Wood Destroying Organisms can do incredible amounts of damage to a home, and it can be extremely expensive to exterminate them and/or repair the damage. A home inspector should report on damage that looks like termite damage. But when he/she is inspecting your home, a home inspector also is looking at structural components, plumbing, wiring, insulation, etc. Wouldn't you want a specialist checking for WDOs - someone trained for and looking for only wood destroying organisms? I know I would. I bought a house last year that was built in 2000. I knew there was no wood soil contact around the structure, and I did not see any signs of insect or moisture damage. But I paid the $68 for a termite inspection, just to be sure.
For me it's cheap insurance. Home inspectors often find signs of WDO activity. But they are not required to (or specifically trained to) identify the source or extent of the damage. If you find termites in your house a month after you move in and call your home inspector, he/she will probably say, "That's too bad, but why are you calling me? Call that termite guy."
There is something I call the "homeowner inspection syndrome." All termite and home inspectors are aware of this. Some homeowners feel that they had an inspection, so they will not have to do any maintenance or repairs as long as they own the home. Actually, this is much less true now than when I started doing home inspections more than 20 years ago. But many home inspectors still refrain from using the words "homeowner" and "maintenance" in the same sentence. The point is, just having a termite inspection does not mean you don't need to worry about termites. Termites can invade a home at any time.
I personally know of a house that did not have any visible termite damage or activity when I (and a termite inspector) inspected it. The buyer bought two cords of firewood and had it stacked next to the home, touching the wood siding. Fortunately, a month later someone told him it was a bad idea to have firewood touching the wood siding and the soil. He moved the firewood and found a termite infestation and considerable damage inside the wall. In just one month.
It is very important to check your home occasionally for WDO presence or damage. Now, I hear you asking: If a licensed and trained home inspector can't do this, how can a homeowner? You can look for "conducive conditions." Any wood on the exterior of your home (siding, trim, etc.) should be at least 6 inches above the soil. Any wood touching the soil and the house is a potential entry point for termites, even firewood, fence or deck posts, etc.
If your home has stucco siding on a wood-frame wall, there is likely a weep screed. This is a horizontal drain in the wall that also is required to be 6 inches above the soil. If the weep screed is below the soil, WDOs could be entering your exterior wall with no visible signs. The weep screed is at the bottom of the wood framing, so having the weep screed below soil is not just an "entry point" - it's a six-lane interstate for termites.
All plants should be kept trimmed six inches away from exterior walls. Termites don't usually walk around on plants, but other wood destroying insects do, such as certain types of ants and beetles. If you find wood soil contact or plants touching the home, you can check these areas carefully for any signs of damage (or actual insects). If a home inspector sees wood soil contact, a buried weep screed or plants touching a home they will definitely be recommending a professional WDO inspection, even if they don't see any insects or damage.
Randy West owns Professional Building Consultants in Prescott. He is state-certified and has performed more than 7,000 home inspections in the Prescott area. West serves on the Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee for the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://inspectprescott.com.