A Bug’s Life: the Creepy-Crawly Side of Buying Your Next Home.

When you’re in the process of buying your next home, and when you make an offer on a property and it’s accepted by the seller, two things normally happen right away. First, you have to put your deposit in escrow, and second you (or, hopefully, your agent) need to order the inspections. In a typical transaction, we recommend our clients order three kinds of inspections: property, termite and roof. Of all three, the termite inspection is the most important; let’s talk a little about the details so you know what to expect.

First off, a termite inspection is about much more than termites; you can think of it as a “damaged wood” inspection. The inspector will be looking for termites (both dry wood and subterranean) and other wood-destroying pests (like beetles). He or she will also be looking for any kind of fungus-damaged (or “rotten”) wood and indications of excess moisture conditions. It’s important to remember that termite inspectors are not licensed mold experts. They may notice “black stuff” in the home but if you want someone to make a call on whether or not it’s mold or, more importantly, a hazardous mold you’ll need to hire a licensed mold inspector. Typically, though, the termite inspector will make a recommendation in their report on whether or not they think a situation calls for a report by a mold inspector so you can take that recommendation as you see fit.

For the most part, here in the East Bay, we have two common types of termites. They are…

Drywood termites

Drywood termites have wings and fly through the air. They eat into wood members and burrow a series of tunnels in which they then live. If they are isolated to one area, they can normally be killed with a spot treatment and the damaged wood is replaced. When you see a structure with a bunch of tarps over it, that normally means dry wood termites have spread through the structure and then had to be killed as a group.

Subterranean termites

Subterraneans live in the ground and build tubes up to the structure (check out photos of their tubes here — they’re pretty gross…). They are more common in homes with crawl spaces underneath (they have a hard time coming up through a cement slab foundation, but I’ve heard of instances where they found a crack and ate an entire bathroom wall before they were discovered!). An easy way to slow them down is by breaking the tube they built. Subterranean termites need water every day, and their water is found in the soil. They have to travel in their tube back down to the ground to drink each day, so breaking the tube will kill all the termites above it. That’s only a temporary solution though, because they can easily build a new tube back in just a few days. The permanent way to treat subterranean termites is to have the soil below your home treated with a product that kills them.

After your termite inspection, you’ll receive a report. You’ll note the report delineates issues with three “Sections;” Sections One, Two and Three. I tell clients to think of the three sections as “levels” of concern that you should have about acquiring the home with Section One representing the highest level of concern.

Section One

Section One is an active infestation of wood destroying pests or organisms. Basically, the house has termites that need to be treated or there’s rotten wood that needs to be replaced. Typically, the inspector will provide in the report an estimated cost to fix the issues. That way, when your agent goes to the listing agent and says, “We found $10,000 in Section One.” you’ll have a better chance of negotiating a price reduction before you remove your inspection contingency.

Section Two

Section Two is something that is not yet an active infestation, but it could lead to one if it the issue goes unresolved. Some common Section Two items are plants touching the structure, loose tiles in a shower, a faucet handle that leaks into the sink, a loose toilet that needs a new wax ring, a plumbing leak under the house, and pieces of wood under the house that were left over from construction that could attract subterranean termites. Section Two items in your report may have a bid associated with them, but they also may not. Normally, when negotiating repairs, agents focus a lot more on Section One items; I’ve also been in situations where a severe Section Two item (like a plumbing leak under the house) was incorporated into the Request for Repair.

Section Three

Section Three represents “further inspection” items. In other words, the inspector couldn’t determine if there was a problem, so they call it a Section Three and offer to come back when access can be provided. The MOST common Section Three item is a garage that’s so packed full of personal items that the inspector can’t clearly see the inside of the perimeter walls and therefore can’t say with certainty that the walls are okay. Another common one is if the crawlspace under the house is wet and they can’t get under there to safely inspect the underside of the house.

Termite inspectors are pretty common in our industry, but the good ones are few and far between. I really dislike using a termite inspector I don’t know because I’ve had some bad experiences where the inspector was in a hurry and things got missed. Going into the inspection, if there’s reason to think the house has deferred maintenance and there might be a lot to catch, tell the inspection company you may need two time slots in their schedule for the day. They should be happy to oblige; if not, move on to another company.

We have a few good inspectors that we know and trust, so feel free to call us (even if *gasp!* you’re not our client) and we’re happy to provide a referral in the San Francisco East Bay. A quality inspection by a qualified inspector is key to knowing the condition of what you’re purchasing; be sure not to fall into the trap of getting a cheap inspection in the effort to save a few bucks.

Happy hunting!