A termite saga: from sandy brown tubes to ‘good riddance’

#135 in a series of true experiences in real estate
March 1996, Hills Newspapers

It looks like maybe they’re gone – dead!

I’ve just been looking at the spot in my living room next to the fireplace where I first saw the sandy-looking brown stuff that turned out to be termite tubes, and I can’t see any new ones! I do hope they’re gone.

When I first noticed the tubes, I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t think, “Oh no, termites.” As long as I’ve been in this business, as many termite reports as I’ve seen over the years referring to “termite tubes,” I’d never seen any with my own eyes.

I figured something was coming in, probably something alive, so I caulked the outside wall and vacuumed up the sandy stuff, hoping that was the end of it. But the next time I looked, it was back.

That’s when I called John McDonald of Mitts Termite to arrange for an inspection. John arrived early one morning, looked at the spot next to the fireplace and said, “Termites. You’ve got subterranean termites.”

John told me subterranean termites live underground. They come up for food but must often return, Dracula-like, to the earth for water. He began to look for the route from the earth to my wall.

There is a recreation room below the living room. The termites might be coming from under that room. There is also a concrete patio outside the living room which is built partly over the downstairs room and partly poured on adjacent dirt, and this was another possible path.

Wherever they were traveling, it was under or behind finished surfaces which would have to be opened up.

John looked things over and suggested likely spots. He was particularly suspicious of the wall behind the furnace because, he said, “they seem to like the warmth” and because “they seem to get into the hardest places to get to.”

The wall was hard to get to. There is only a narrow space between the big furnace and the wall, and the hot water heater is in the way. It was finally opened and was clean. Holes were made in other walls and they were searched with flashlights. The process gave me the creeps. I both wanted the quarry to be found and I didn’t.

John thought that the termites were coming through the patio, walking from the dirt onto the framing and into the living room. He said we’d need to get chemicals into the dirt. That would stop them.
Ben Wald does spraying and such for Mitts. He arrived one morning, looked around and brought in his equipment. He drilled holes about a foot apart into the concrete patio and into the floors downstairs and put in his chemicals. Then he patched the holes and swept up super clean. A most satisfying experience.

But were they dead? I watched the fireplace wall like a hawk. Termites were still building new tubes. After two weeks, I called John McDonald again. “What does this mean, John? Why are they still there? What should we do?” I asked. John said we should wait another week or so. Maybe these are escapees, the last vestiges, or maybe we’ll have to look at the possible entry points again.

Maybe they heard us talking because right after that they stopped. It’s been five weeks now and they aren’t building any more.

Not that this was really a life threatening matter. John says that there weren’t that many termites in my house and besides, generally speaking, termites eat fairly slowly. My house wasn’t going to fall down, at least not for quite sometime. But I hated having them in my house.

There are other things that John might have found in my house, things we frequently see on termite reports, that wouldn’t have upset me nearly as much as live termites in my living room. For example, fungus on wooden decks.

As I understand the rules, if a wooden deck is attached to a house, a termite inspector must inspect it. If the wood is rotted, or is sitting on dirt, or has suffered damage from insects or fungus, then the inspector recommends that the damaged parts be repaired or replaced.

Whether I would follow the recommendations at my own house would depend on further assessment. How damaged is the wood? Is someone likely to put a foot through the deck? Is it hanging over a 30-foot drop or is it a few inches off the ground? How much money do I have to fix the deck? Do I plan to put something else where the deck is now? When?

Many people seem to believe that termite reports are required when there is a sale and that the work has to be done. This is not true. There is no law that says that anyone has to get a termite report, nor does anyone have to do the work.

However, most sellers have an inspection done when they sell their houses because buyers want to know what is wrong with any house they might be interested in buying. And it is almost always true that the bid for items covered on the termite report affects the selling price. But whether the work is actually done will depend on buyer and seller preference and, sometimes, on lender requirements.

I called Mitts because I had a specific problem I wanted to ask about, but I would have called them periodically anyway just as I have my gutters, roof, exterior paint, and so forth, checked.

Everyone who owns a house, or is thinking of buying one, needs to understand what termite reports cover and what they do not. It is distressing to us when we hear people say, “it’s a beautiful house but I don’t want to buy it because it has dry rot.” Or “the foundation must be solid because it’s not mentioned on the termite report.”

The truth is that the dry rot might be extensive and worrisome, but it might not. The foundation might be fine, or not, but we are unlikely to know this from the termite report.

If, like most people, you know little about termite inspections but have a need to know, you can find out. The place to start is with the inspector. Schedule an inspection and be there when the inspector comes. If the inspection has already been done, call the inspector who made the report, and talk to him (or her). You might want to arrange to meet in person, ask questions, get some perspective on what the inspector saw, what he thinks, as well as what is not covered by the inspection.

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