How to find termites before you buy a house.
One of the things you have to be familiar with, as a real estate investor is termites. They get into places that you wouldn’t think anything could get into, but they do, and they bring thousands of their cousins with them. They get into your fence, they get into dead trees, they get into wood or cellulose products lying against the side of the house, and then, of course, they get into the house itself.
Termites will cost you money.
Now here’s where it becomes really clear why you should know a little something about termites. It’s about money. It’s all about money. If you read something here and you don’t readily understand why you will benefit from this information, think about the money.
Everything you find before you buy the house is money out of pocket. Everything that you weren’t aware of and find after you buy the house comes out of your pocket. If you know that you will have to repair or replace wood on the house and you figure that into your scope of work and budget for the project, then you negotiate with the seller about him paying for this before you close. If you don’t find the damaged wood until you begin the project and you haven’t provided for the expense in your scope and budget, then it can only come from one place, your pocket. That’s where knowing a little about termites can come in handy.
Termites don’t like light.
Termites don’t like light, so they build little tunnels up into the house and most often get into the framing of the house between the sheetrock and the siding. This means that you can’t see most of their handiwork. They like softer woods like pine, but will eat anything with cellulose in it; wood, paper, wall paper, paper on the face of the sheetrock between the gypsum and the paint coatings, well, I think you get the idea.
This is one area where you can lose money easily, by not identifying damage that exists in the house. That damage will have to be repaired to bring the house to a good and marketable condition, whether it is a rental or a rehab for re-sale.
You should not buy a house without having a Wood Destroying Insect (WDI) inspection.
It is inappropriate to buy a house without having a WDI (Wood Destroying Insect) inspection. The inspection looks for all of the insects that can damage a house, not just termites. They inspect and inform, and they offer treatment when it is needed.
If you are going to buy more than one or two houses, it would serve you well to have a good termite inspector on your team. If the WDI inspection turns up active infestations, then the inspector will offer you a treatment plan. There are a lot of lenders who are not inclined to fund loans on property that doesn’t have a “recent” WDI inspection report by a licensed technician. “Recent” usually means within the last 60 days before closing.
A great deal of the termites we see are called sub-terranean, because they live under the ground. These are the ones I see causing the most frequent damage. There are several kinds of termites, as well as other types of wood destroying insects, that can give a house problems. The best way to learn about them is to ask your WDI inspector questions. They are usually glad to give you the whole run down on bugs and real estate.
Over the years, I have learned a great deal by asking questions of anyone that I had to pay to come onto one of my rehabs. Either I didn’t know how to do it, didn’t like doing it, or didn’t have time to actually do it myself, so I’d hire someone. I would be sure to be there when they came to work, and between the time that I scheduled them until the time that they showed up, I would be furiously thinking up questions about whatever it was that they did. So, what you get is what the licensed pest control inspectors I have worked with have taught me about termites, and what I have seen as a structural and mechanical inspector. Here we go.
How to identify wood that’s been destroyed by termites.
If you look at a piece of wood that’s been eaten by termites you’ll see what are called galleries. This is where the insects have had your house for lunch …And dinner …And breakfast, too. They prefer the lighter colored portion of the wood because it is the summer growth, the softer portion of the wooden framing members (2 X 4’s, roof framing etc). In our area, this is mostly pine. The darker portion of the wood is the winter growth, when the tree is in a state of greatly reduced activity and growth. This yields a denser, harder material which the termites don’t have that much interest in. However, they love the soft summer growth, and I have seen many instances where I can gently push my finger completely through a 2 X 4 inside of what was once a wall.
The difference between wood that has been damaged by termites and wood that has been damaged by water is this; termites leave those galleries, and water destroys the entire piece of wood. Wood damaged by water is crumbly and punky and dissolves into powder when you rub a piece of it between your fingers. With termite damage, the wood still retains some structural integrity. Because of the hard winter growth that is normally left behind, termite damaged wood will not easily crumble to nothing in your hands. Sometime you see both. First the termites got into the wood, and then the water penetrated it and that’s when the fun began.
Termites need to get back to water every 24 hours.
Termites need to get back into the ground every 24 hours so they can get water. Otherwise they cannot live. In real life, the termites will seek out sources of water such as a plumbing leak, or water from air conditioner condensation in the attic or on the equipment, and places like water heater stands where the water heater has leaked. Under wood floors in bathrooms and kitchens is also another place where we find water where it’s not supposed to be. If they find that source of water inside the house, then they can just go over to the water source and get a quick drink and get back to eating your house.
Termites are clever and your house is chocolate pudding.
They are clever, they are relentless, and there are a whole lot of them. Your house looks like chocolate pudding to them and they are always hungry. Expansion joints, around plumbing penetrations or leaks, foundation cracks and penetrations of the exterior walls for plumbing, electrical or air conditioning supply lines are all points of entry. They can squeeze through a crack that is barely thicker than a sheet of copier paper. They like sheltered areas to make entry, though they will build their little mud tunnels in the daylight as well.
Prevent termites by keeping proper space between your house and the dirt.
Whenever you have firewood or lumber stacked against the house or the garage or an outbuilding, creating a sheltered area… If you have anything leaning against the house which shelters and covers the foundation…You have a condition that is conducive to termite infestation. If you have improper drainage and the water is flowing back towards the house or garage, that is a condition that is conducive to termite infestation. If the mulch in the garden has been added to and added to until it comes up to the bottom of the brick or the siding, that’s a condition conducive to termite infestation.
The standard rule of thumb for exposure on concrete slab on grade foundations is 4 inches. That means that all around the house and the garage, I should be able to see 4 inches of the slab. A lot of times you will see mud tunnels running up the side of the foundation on a slab house. If the house is pier and beam, then there are a lot more protected areas for the termites to get started in. They go up the side of the piers under the house, or they get in the sills (4 X 6 beams under the flooring), the floor joists, and subflooring, all of it. I have seen tunnels that go straight up into the air under houses before. I knew they were termites because the termite inspector was wallowing around under the house at the same time that I was, and he said; “Look at them termites!”
Get informed advice.
Get the informed advice you need when you buy a house. Get professional help when it is appropriate. Educate yourself.
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By Kevin Smith, with final editing and contributions by J Berg