Monday, May 12, 2008

The truth about termites, with an assist from the Pink Panther

Most homeowners don't know much about termites, except that they eat wood and can cause a lot of damage. Some of you might remember getting a termite inspection report when you bought your house, and maybe you have a termite contract, or bond, on your home. But what do you really know about termites? Is your house safe from termites? That's a difficult question to answer, but an important one to consider.

Maybe you saw the old Pink Panther cartoon (Pink Pest Control) in which he battles a very determined little termite trying to eat his cherished log cabin? All the PP wants to do is build a fire and enjoy the serenity of his peaceful cabin in the woods. The termite has other ideas, of course, after hitching a ride into the cabin on a stick of firewood. This super termite eats chairs and tables and walls and anything made of wood in seconds, emitting a buzzing sound that drives the Panther completely nuts. It's funny, but then again, it's not my log cabin.

I once represented a family whose log cabin - their only home, not a vacation place - was infested with termites for years even though it had been "treated" and "protected" by one of the national termite companies back in 1988 - nearly ten years before my clients bought the house. The company had discovered an active infestation in 1991, and retreated and even made some repairs to the home. Despite this history of infestation and failed treatments, when my clients bought the house just before Christmas in 1997, the company issued a clean inspection report showing none of the prior infestations or damage, and never told my clients that the initial termite treatment had failed. Just like the Pink Panther, their peaceful enjoyment of their dream home was rudely interrupted four months later when they discovered live termites in a closet. Over the next several years, the termite company kept spot treating the home and making cosmetic repairs, all the while failing to control the termites while promising everything would be fine. By the time my clients sought out a lawyer, the cost to repair the damage to their log home nearly matched its purchase price.

That case had a happy ending. We sued, and ultimately settled, and my clients were able to pay for the extensive repairs they needed and enjoy their home for many years. Unfortunately, their story, like the Pink Panther's, is not that unusual. It often takes a lawsuit to get a termite company to do the right thing.

Funny as it is, the cartoon got a few things wrong. Subterranean termites - the most common and dangerous termites threatening homes in the Southeastern U.S - live in colonies of hundreds of thousands. A single termite like the one in Pink Pest Control poses no real threat to your home, although one termite certainly means there are others - many others - nearby. Termites do their eating relatively slowly and out of sight, too, so your dining table is not going to vanish before your eyes. As tough as the termite in the cartoon seemed, termites are actually pretty fragile creatures that are not that hard to kill. The skin of a termite is porous, so they can live only in a very controlled, moist environment, which they create for themselves by building mud tunnels and staying inside wood or voids in the walls of your home, or returning to the ground where the colony is typically located. There, they can maintain the constant level of humidity they need to thrive. It can take years for them to eat enough of the underlying structure of your home for it to become obvious to you. Of course, a well trained inspector should be able to detect the termites long before they do much damage. And that may be the most important point of all.

What did the Pink Panther get right? Well, although termites might be easy to kill, it is not easy to keep them out of your home. It has been said by one major termite company that it is not a matter of if your home will be infested by termites, but when. Like the Pink Panther's super termite, these determined critters can get to the wood in your home in a wide range of ways, from hitching a ride on firewood to tunneling under your dirt-filled front porch to easing their way right through the synthetic stucco covering your house. Worse, they can squeeze through the tiniest of cracks in your foundation sight unseen and set up a regular termite condo right inside the walls of your home.

What can you do to protect your home? First, have an annual inspection by a reliable termite company, and follow the inspector everywhere. Make sure he inspects inside and outside, even if your home has a crawl space, and make sure he checks the attic as well. He should tap on the baseboards all around your home, and probe wood that is closest to the ground. If he says that's not necessary, or claims a "visual" inspection involving no contact with wood surfaces is sufficient, find another company. A proper inspection of even a modest home should take a minimum of one hour; most will take longer.

Second, have your home treated to create a chemical barrier against termite infestation. This is the most effective way to prevent an infestation. Don't rely on so-called bait stations alone. Those systems are promoted heavily by termite companies, but that does not mean they are the best protection for your home. Sometimes, those systems mean less work for the termite company, and less protection for you. The truth is that "bait" stations don't attract termites. They operate on little more than the hope that termites, which forage for food randomly, will stumble into one of the bait stations before they stumble into your house. Not a gamble worth betting your house on.

Third, be persistent about the kind of service you demand from your termite inspector. A full chemical treatment will prevent many infestations. But comprehensive, careful annual inspections should identify any infestations before they destroy your home.

Fourth, find out if your state investigates complaints against termite companies, and if so, make use of the complaint procedure. In Alabama, for example, the Department of Agriculture and Industry regulates termite operators, and homeowners who have complaints about the service they are getting from their termite company can file a complaint and have a state inspector check out their home for problems. This is an invaluable service.

No doubt, a good termite inspector - whether named Clouseau or not - would have made the Pink Panther's stay at his log cabin a lot more restful.


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