Termites and wood boring insects.
A termite/wood boring insect inspection may or may not be offered by your home inspection company. If not, I recommend that you have this done by a termite/pest control company. (This assumes that you are in area where termites may be present – which is most of the country, excluding the far northern states and dry/desert areas). This will not typically be a required inspection unless you are getting a VA mortgage or your mortgage lender requires this. Ask your inspection company ahead of time whether they offer this.
Note: if you are getting a VA mortgage they will require a termite/wood boring insect inspection and report. What is unusual is that they do not allow you (the buyer) to pay for this. In most cases, the seller ends up paying for the termite inspection, although sometimes the fee is simply waived by the inspection company.
Several points: first, termites are the most important wood-boring insect. Carpenter ants will do damage, but they usually are far less destructive. They are also harder to find, so even the few termite control companies that provide warranties for termites won’t provide them for ants. Ants like to nest in moist or decaying wood, so very often the home with ant infestations really has a moisture problem that needs correction. Ants will also forage, so ants seen in the home may have their actual nest may in the tree stump next to the home. Lastly, ant treatments do not last long. In my opinion most ant treatments, at least on an ongoing basis, are a waste of money. I’ve found that various borate containing products (such as Terro®) will effectively control carpenter (and other) ants. If the home has a bad infestation, however, an initial ‘knock down’ treatment could be warranted.
The wood destroying insect/pest inspector may be looking for insect damage but more specifically they look for an infestation, the evidence of termite activity. When termite damage is found and there is no history of a recent treatment or warranty, they may recommend that the home is treated even when active termites were not found. In my opinion, this may be warranted as no one can tell if and when the termites may have left and whether they will return. Sellers hate this as they feel that are treating their home (at significant expense) even when no live termites are present. Unfortunately, termites are not active in northern areas during the colder months so you can't tell if active termites are present until sometime in April (or later). As no one does escrows anymore (where money is set aside that would pay for a treatment if termites are found in the late spring or summer), you are accepting the risk of paying for a treatment if this has not been done already.
Who pays for termite treatments? This is not written in stone, but when serious and/or active termite infestations are found the treatment is most often covered by the seller. They can’t sell the home without disclosing that termites have been or are present. The difficulty is that lots of homes show evidence of past termite activity but no evidence of current infestations. For real estate owned property, the banks usually state everything is ‘as is’, but I’ve had inspections where the bank paid for a treatment when active termites were found. This was usually done at the prodding of the listing agent, as they simply would not sell the home unless this was done.
Another type of wood boring insect is powder post beetles. These are commonly found in the basements of antique homes in northern areas and can encompass several types. They can do a lot of damage – but only over a long time frame. They proliferated in the damp basements of antique homes before the floors were covered with concrete and heating systems were installed. Many antique homes show damage but no current infestations. If significant active infestations are present they should be treated. Minimal infestations could be subject to localized controls. Also, if you dry out the basement they will often disappear.
Important: home inspectors are not required to look for wood-boring insect infestations but they should be looking for visible structural damage: these are two separate things. The problem with termites, however, is that very often the damage is concealed from view. Every home inspector out there has probed a piece of wood that looks perfect – until they plunge all of the way through. Termites can be present behind finished walls and insulation and are simply not visible in all cases. Termites are insidious that way. Also, even when you find activity you very often can’t tell how far the damage extends. This is especially true in finished basements and with slab-on-grade homes. Termite damage and activity may be largely to completely concealed from view.
What can you do? If the home inspector or termite inspector finds evidence of past termite activity and there are suspicions about the extent of the damage, you could request that wall or ceiling sheathings be removed (or holes cut) to determine if the damage is severe. I’ve seen this done – but it’s not easy. Removing sheathings or cutting holes in the finished ceilings or walls in the basement to look at the framing will damage the seller’s property and most will not go along with this. You may need to decide where the evidence points to a high risk of significant damage before requesting this.