Termites Require Vigilance if Not Spray

After two inspections, homeowners aren't sure if they should treat for pests or not.

Q: We recently had a pest-control company check our home for termites, spiders, mice and so on. The inspector told us he found termites in the crawl space, but when my husband asked the inspector to show him, he said the carpenter ants had eaten the one he found.

We then paid another company to inspect for us, and its inspector couldn't find anything except traces of where termites had been in the home several years ago. That inspector suggested we have the home treated just in case. Treatment is expensive and I don't have extra money right now. What do you suggest we do?

A: In all trades, the vast majority of companies and employees are good, honest, hard-working people. However, there are always those few who are willing to take advantage of the unskilled or the disadvantaged homeowner. They think it's their duty to sell something on every call they make.

If the inspector did not find live termites or new termite tunnels, and if there is evidence or documentation that the home has been treated, then no, do not treat right now. Have the home inspected semiannually by a reputable pest control operator. Schedule the inspection so that your husband can join the inspector under the home to see what the inspector is doing and what is found. Termites can show up the day after an inspection, so you have to be vigilant.

There are new treatments available that will eliminate the termite colony rather than create chemical barriers, as previous treatment methods did. Those treatments simply kept the termites out of the home for a season or two.

Before these new chemicals were available, homes often would have to be retreated every 5 to 10 years. Even now, after the termite colony is eliminated with these new treatments, another colony could spring up in the future and find its way into the home. Always be vigilant for termites ... and for the unscrupulous contractor.

But vigilance need not be limited to the world of termites. Here are some other situations brought to my attention by either personal experiences or by readers through their letters and e-mails during recent years:

  • The roofing contractor who carried old, worn-out shingles under his coat so that when he came down from inspecting a roof he could show the homeowner what desperate condition of the roof was. And then there was the time I inspected the roof of an elderly widow's home on which a roofing company had replaced only the front portion of the roof. On the rear of the home, where the roof could not be seen from the ground, no shingles were replaced by the contractor even though the widow had a receipt that showed both sections were to be replaced.
  • A heating contractor who wanted to replace an expensive air conditioner's interior cooling coil simply because the drain for the condensate water was blocked and the furnace was leaking water. A simple cleaning and a service call would have fixed the problem. (Some coils need to be replaced when they leak, so get more than one opinion.)
  • A plumber in the Chicago area who billed a widow for more than $20,000 for replacing all the drains in her apartment-sized home.
  • The handyman who was allowed to bill materials to a homeowner's credit card. Specialized and expensive tools were purchased for the project and not returned to the homeowner after the work was done. Extra materials that were supposed to be returned for credit also disappeared.
  • Chimney cleaners who sell expensive flue reliners when the old liner remains in good, usable condition.
  • A mold inspector who always found "toxic" molds, then offered to have the home cleaned by a contractor with whom he always worked. All homes have molds in one form or another; most are not toxic.

So, no matter what the job, always get more than one estimate or opinion. Contact the Better Business Bureau for information about the companies with which you are working. Do not purchase expensive home products or sign a contract until you have had two to three days to think about your decision. If you're still uncomfortable dealing with a situation, have a friend or relative discuss the contract with you and be present when the contract is signed.

And where licensing of contractors is required, contact the local licensing authority to verify the license and check to make sure the contractor is currently insured.

(Dwight Barnett is a certified master inspector with the American Society of Home Inspectors.)

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