Savvy Consumer: Termites Can Eat Up Your Home

"Eating you out of house and home." It's a phrase you can use quite literally if you're talking about termites -- and it can be even worse when you factor in the scams that termite inspectors often run.

Every year termites do $2 billion dollars worth of damage. The problem is so bad that homeowner's insurance doesn't even cover it. Some termite inspectors play upon this homeowner's horror and bug you with bogus estimates. I once did a hidden camera investigation at a home we knew did not have termites. We went undercover and invited termite companies to inspect and give us estimates.

One inspector wanted to charge us a couple hundred dollars to spray the soil around the house. He said it would "burn up" the termites. A university entomologist said that was ridiculous, because termites live beneath the soil so surface sprays are useless. The other company never even inspected inside our house, even though an interior inspection was required by state code. Nevertheless, the inspector proclaimed that we definitely had termites. He wanted $500 for a subterranean treatment.

If you're buying a brand-new home, you could face termite troubles, too. Your contractor will hire a termite subcontractor to treat the soil before building your home. Chemicals are injected into the soil to form a barrier so termites do not emerge from the soil and crawl up inside the walls of your home. Problem is, the chemicals used for these new home treatments are very expensive. Some unscrupulous subcontractors charge the contractor less than the chemicals actually cost. How can they afford it? They spray water on the soil instead of chemicals, leaving your home totally unprotected.

Scams like this are why you need to check out termite companies before you hire them. Contact your county and state consumer protection offices plus the Better Business Bureau to see if other consumers have complained. Then go a step further, because consumers may not realize they were cheated. Contact the National Pest Management Association to see if the company is a member. NPMA may also be willing to tattle on unsavory companies in your area. Finally, get estimates from three or four firms before plunking down any money.

Know the Treatment Techniques

There are three methods for treating for termites. The most common technique is to inject chemicals into the soil. Pest control experts also treat infested wood to prevent termites and try to kill any that are already there. The newest and most promising method involves baiting the termites with poison. Pest control experts install bait stations in the ground. Termites eat the bait and spread the poison throughout the colony. Sentricon is one brand name for this bait method.

Technically, you cannot buy insurance to cover you if you get termites. But pest control companies do offer warranties that accomplish the same thing. They don't call it insurance because they don't want to be subject to insurance laws and regulations. Most companies treat your home, then sell you a warranty. If you are interested in an anti-termite warranty, shop around. Some of these warranties just cover retreatment. Others cover repairs. Think about it -- if you got termites despite the company's treatment, do you really want the company to just treat your home again? No. You want the company to pay for repairs and retreatment.

There are some things you can do yourself to prevent a termite infestation in the first place. Termites like moisture, so don't let water accumulate near your foundation. Make sure downspouts and hoses drain away from your house. Keep shrubs and vines away from the base of your house. Termites like shade and plants provide it. Don't pile mulch or wood chips against your foundation. The wood will attract termites, which will then move on to the wood in your home.

Make sure contractors don't bury scrap wood in your yard, especially near the house where it could lure termites. Establish a gap of at least 18 inches between the soil and any wood on your house. Look for mud tubes on your foundation. Termites construct these to travel back and forth between the soil and your house.

To Be a Savvy Consumer

Do Your Homework:

Check out termite contractors before you use them. Check with your county and state consumer protection offices, the Better Business Bureau and the National Pest Management Association.

If you're buying a home, keep in mind that homes built before 1988 may be more termite-proof. That's because the government banned a strong but environmentally unfriendly chemical called chlordane in 1988.

If you're having a home built, insist on choosing your own termite subcontractor. Pay extra if necessary and plan to be present for the treatment.

Find out which treatment method your pest control company plans to use. Ask the pros and cons of the other methods or suggest a combination of all three.

If you are skeptical of the advice you're given, contact your local agricultural extension service for recommendations. The extension is usually run through your county or local university.

Consider a termite warranty, but only buy the kind that pays for repairs as well as retreatment.

If you don't purchase a warranty (which usually includes annual inspections), pay for a pest control expert to inspect your house once a year.

Follow do-it-yourself steps to protect your house from these wood-eating monsters.