Faulty wiring and leaky plumbing aren’t the only things to be afraid of when purchasing a home. Dry rot, crumbling timbers and spongy floors are signs of pest infestations that can seriously affect the home’s structure. What’s even more frightening is that an infestation may not be readily apparent to a home inspector and, if undetected, can seriously undermine the home’s safety.
Finally, to add insult to injury, damage caused by wood-destroying pests is rarely covered by homeowners insurance policies.
If you live in a region that is notorious for this type of pest damage, a professional pest inspection is a must. Let’s take a look at some of the critters that may be sharing the home.
The termite is the mack daddy of wood-destroying pests. Although it is found just about all over the country, it is most common in the western and southern United States.
Termites live in colonies and near a food source. Since they dine on wood, they’ll most likely be found underground, near tree stumps, trees and woodpiles. The hierarchy of the colony includes a king and queen, soldiers and workers, and a colony may contain up to 2 million of the latter.
Firewood stacked against the house may hold termites.
If you notice swarms of what look like winged ants inside the home, or scattered wings, suspect a termite infestation. Barring actually seeing the pests, look for mud tubes — structures termites build from mud and other debris and use to travel from one area to another. You may find these on ceilings, floor joists and foundation walls.
If you suspect termites in other areas around the home, use a screwdriver to poke into walls or other surfaces. If it enters easily, there may be termite damage. Use the handle of the screwdriver to knock on walls and listen for a hollow sound.
When viewing a home to purchase, check the exterior carefully. If a woodpile actually touches the home, the home may have a termite problem.
Carpenter ants also live in colonies, typically containing 2,000 to 3,000 members overseen by a queen. They swarm in the spring and, although they don’t eat wood, they tunnel through it as they build the queen’s nest.
Indoors, you may find the nests in wall cracks, attics, insulation, hollow doors, cracks under sinks and window or door casings. They thrive in wood that has 15 percent moisture content.
Carpenter bees are those big, scary black bees that may dive-bomb people on sunny spring days. They tend to hang out under the eaves of a house or near the deck or porch. They resemble bumblebees, but they are larger and louder.
The bee takes its nickname from the fact that it chews through wood, creating tunnels. A half-inch diameter hole with sawdust beneath it is the typical sign of its entry. Like carpenter ants, these bees don’t consume the wood but create the tunnels to nest in.
Thankfully, it takes a huge infestation of carpenter bees, over a long period of time, to actually cause structural damage to a home. The holes, however, may attract fungal pathogens or carpenter ants.
Powderpost beetles is a term that describes several types of beetles that lay their eggs in cracks or other defects in wood. The larvae then burrow into the wood and consume it.
Powderpost beetles are difficult to detect, but look for a flour-like substance on the wood or tiny holes about 1/16 inch in diameter.
The larvae may take years to complete their life cycle, causing a great deal of damage in the meantime. There is no way to know if the structural damage is severe without an inspection by a contractor or structural engineer.
Several types of fungus are considered wood-destroying pests. Dry rot or brown rot is caused by Meruliporia incrassate, also known as the “house eating fungus.” Not particularly attractive, the fungus is amber to orange colored with mushroom-like structures. It consumes the cellulose in the wood, causing it to become dry and powdery, thus weakening the structure. It can cause significant damage to a home within two to three years.
Then, there is white-rot fungus, which is fibrous and spongy. Both types require moisture to survive, and chemical treatment to kill.
As you tour a house you may be interested in purchasing, look for the tell-tale signs of pest damage mentioned above. Also pay close attention to the following:
- The crawl space: It should be covered with a plastic vapor barrier and be adequately vented.
- Foundation: Vents shouldn’t be obstructed.
- Pipes: Leaking attracts both termites and fungi.
- Firewood: Stacks against the house can harbor termites.
- Trellises and wood planting boxes: If attached to the home, be sure to inspect the walls behind them for infestation.
Even if your state or your lender doesn’t mandate a pest inspection prior to the sale of a home, hire a professional if you have any suspicions that wood-destroying pests may be present.