Hidden Termite Damage: Who Is Responsible?
Who is responsible when you buy a home with termite damage?
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By Dwight Barnett
Scripps Howard News Service
Q: When I bought my home in winter 2001 I had it inspected for termites. The inspector knocked on wood under the house but did not find signs of termites. This summer, I was having work done on a window and the contractor said termites had caused damage that needed to be repaired before he could do his work. How is it possible that the inspector missed the termites, and who's responsible for the costs of the repairs?
A: Termites are often hidden from view. Dry-wood termites can live in wood as long as there is a supply of moisture; subterranean termites have to return to the soil for moisture. Both eat wood and cellulose, and both leave damage. An inspector is to look for signs such as insect parts, small mud tunnels or damaged property. When the inspector probed the wood, he was checking for hidden damage. Termites eat at the wood from inside out, and probing sometimes reveals damage.
While the inspector should inspect all accessible areas of the home, it is impossible for him to see through walls. Homes with hollow concrete block foundation walls provide easy access for subterranean termites that travel up the hollow blocks to the wood sill plate. If the plate is treated wood, the termites work around the treated wood to get to the softer wood of the floor joists. In older homes, a piece of metal was placed on top of the last block as a termite shield. The termites simply go over and around the shield to get to the wood.
The question is, do they travel on the inside of the sill plate that is in the inspector's line of sight or on the outside of the plate, which is covered by siding or veneer? If termites go unnoticed, they will travel up through the walls, eating away at the wood structure all the way to the roof. The inspector cannot tell you what is inside the walls of the home unless the walls are opened to replace items such as windows or doors.
It has been estimated that there are so many hidden, inaccessible areas of a home that the inspector sees only about 30 percent of areas that could harbor termites. You need to find out if the termites were visible during the original inspection. Depending on food sources and moisture conditions, a colony of termites can travel anywhere from two inches to two feet in a week. It is possible the termites started tunneling the day after the inspector left.
So, you can see it would be hard to prove that the inspector missed termites inside a wall. However, if the damage were in view, the inspector failed in his duty to properly warn you, and he may have some liability. If your home is under contract with a pest-control company, there may be some help available in making repairs. Your homeowners insurance also may cover hidden damage caused by wood-destroying insects. For more information, go to my web site http://onecallinspections.com/archive.html.
(Dwight Barnett is a master inspector certified by the American Society of Home Inspectors. Questions may be addressed to him at
PO Box 14091
Evansville, IN 47728
Or by e-mail at email@example.com)
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