What falls through pests, termites

Author: Evergreen Home Inspection |

Blog by Evergreen Home Inspection

From my book “The Ultimate Homebuyer’s Handbook”

Chapter 13 What Falls through the cracks …

  • This chapter will cover many important systems, components and concerns that are not covered by the home inspection) – but that you may need to follow up on…

If you’ve read the previous chapters you’ve learned how to get a quality inspection and how to follow up on concerns that may be raised by the inspection. Unfortunately, your journey hasn’t ended. The fact is: the home inspection does not deal with many important systems and concerns that could be a source of aggravation or expense. You need to be aware of these and follow up, where appropriate.

Please note that, out of the below list typically only one to as much as seven of these concerns may be relevant to the property you are buying. They are the outliers, the problems or systems not typically found in most homes. Some of these items are included because everyone thinks are part of the home inspection – but they aren’t. Some are excluded as they may require specialized knowledge while other are excluded for the opposite reason: they require no special knowledge and any buyer can recognize their condition. Other excluded items, I should note, require invasive procedures. But all of the concerns in this chapter are potentially important and you neglect them at your peril.

[Note: Some of these concerns may be covered by your home inspector, usually for extra fees.]

#2 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.

#3 Other bugs

The home may be filled with cockroaches, Palmetto bugs (these are just giant cockroaches given an exotic name in southern states) and other noxious bugs. Stink bugs are the new problem. While a nuisance, these are not wood destroying insects that will affect the structure. The principal concern is cases where you can't control the infestations due to adjacent living units that have a problem. There are strategies for eliminating or minimizing cockroach activity. (Proper food storage comes to mind). Having the home treated with an effective, non-toxic pesticide may be necessary. (In some cities, you may have to tolerate some pests if you are going to live in older, multi-unit buildings). Spiders are ignored. I suggest you do a bit of research on what brown recluse spiders look like, however, as these can disable you for months if you get bitten. (One homeowner I talked with stated he almost lost his leg after he was bitten.

#4 Pests

While termite control outfits are often called pest control companies, pests are a different thing. Many of the below creatures warrant removal by ‘pest control’ companies. As with many of the concerns noted in this chapter, home inspectors may report on noxious pests or those that pose a health or safety hazard – assuming they are visible or leave clear evidence of their presence; mice infestations can be an exception as they are not always apparent. A few pests include:

  • Mice. Literally every home (excluding newer and/or tightly built homes) will have mice infestations, unless controlled. They usually come in during the fall when it starts to get colder. Mice do a lot of damage to finished materials and stored items and their infestations are both unhealthy and bad for the home. They should not be allowed to proliferate so control mechanisms in the fall months are critical. Insulation that has housed mice will often be urine soaked and will need professional removal.
  • Shrews are small rodents that often come with mice infestations – simply because they like to feed on mice. Shrews are not, however, a viable way to control mice infestations! They leave behind partially eaten dead mouse bodies and foul defecation odors. Usually controlling or getting rid of mice will get rid of the shrews.
  • Bats. Bats are misunderstood. They are ugly and have all that Dracula thing about them – but they are harmless except for the (very) occasional rabid bat. But you don’t want them in your home (and especially not in the living space). Bat guano (or any pest guano), sometimes found in an attic, is not something you want to be exposed to and breathe in. It is best that any significant amount of bat guano be professionally removed. Antique homes have been torn down due to 100 years of bat guano deposits found in their attics. To get rid of bats pest control companies must find the likely entrance points and put ‘one way’ exits so the bats can get out but not back in. Bats are a ‘protected species’ so you can’t just kill them.
  • Squirrels. They can do a lot of damage if they get into a home. Usually, they are in attics. They need to be removed with one-way exit screens installed by a pest control company. Open holes in the fascia or siding may need to be sealed and tree branches allowing access to the roof cut back.
  • Raccoons. These need to be removed by a pest control specialist. If already nesting in the chimney you sometimes have to wait until they leave with their young.
  • Rats. May be found in both urban and rural (farming) locations. These would need removal by a pest control specialist and blockage of access points. Food sources in the home (such as poorly sealed foodstuffs) would need to be securely stored.

#6 Pools, pool equipment, pool piping, and spas

  • The inspection of pools is not part of the home inspection. A pool inspection requires a pool specialist. [Note: I don’t know about other inspectors, but I will occasionally look at pools as very often I can clearly see that the pool has serious ‘issues’ – or may not even be viable. But I make no pretense about being a pool inspector.]
  • One of the problems with inspecting pools is that, in northern areas, they will be winterized and covered over for much of the year. Sometimes the pools have not been in recent use and are shut down. Above-ground pools are often antiquated and are prone to collapse if not properly winterized.
  • The underground piping to the pool can often be a problem – and leaks can be difficult to detect. Concrete pools (often gunite) can be lovely – but if the tiles or ‘plaster’ are loosening repairs would be a major expense. Pools have numerous safety issues. This includes, as a partial list: unblocked access from a deck, gates that are not self-closing, faulty or homeowner wiring to pool equipment, poor fitting covers that will not keep out a determined child, and diving boards (no longer allowed by many insurance companies). I recommend reviewing these concerns with a pool specialist and doing your own research on pool safety. If you have young children (or grandchildren) or are anticipating having kids you will need to be especially aware of pool issues. Pools should be made safe for wandering or visiting children – and even wildlife and household pets. Dogs cannot get out of most pools.