When a home buyer signs up for a mortgage on his or her property, that means a termite inspection will soon occur on the property. In most contracts, you'll find an order for a termite inspection. It's negotiable who will order and pay for the inspection, but you'll have one regardless, especially if you have a mortgage.

The National Pest Management Association (NPMA) estimates that termites cause nearly $5 billion in damage per year in the United States. Many times homeowners don't find out about this damage until they receive a contract on the house and have to order the inspection. By then the damage is already done and many times it's pretty expensive.

There are some tell tale signs of damage, according to the NPMA web site:

  • Swarming of winged forms in the fall and spring. (This has already happened in most areas, where you'll see a cloud of insects, much like a group of gnats in the summer – but these will be much larger.)
  • Mud tunneling in, over and under wood structures
  • Wooden structures exhibit darkening or blistering
  • Damaged wood becomes extremely thin and can be easily punctured by a knife or a screwdriver

EPestSupply is a provider of products for the industry and has some very descriptive photos and graphs about how to identify termite and other subterranean creatures that might be attacking your house. You can visit their site on termite identification for some good photos and advice.

If you see some of these pests around your house -- don't panic -- they may not actually be termites. Closer inspection can help determine what you're really looking at in your yard. Pick up the bug (they don't bite) and look at them under a magnifying glass. If they are red and black or dark brown, you may have some carpenter ants. If it has a solid black body, you indeed have subterranean termite swarmers – which feed off of wood that has comes in contact with water. If the creature has a solid red body, it's more than likely a drywood swarmer, which is a termite that feeds off of -- you got it -- dry wood.

You may ask, "Why all the concern about termites when selling a house?" The primary reason is that it's hidden damage. Termites eat from within and while you can find signs of damage, such as the blistering and darkening listed above, by the time you discover it, it may be too late. Just killing the insects may not be enough to satisfy the contract. Repair could include major structural renovation, meaning ripping out walls, replacing studs and joists, resealing the wall, spackling, painting, etc.

Since termites hit primarily in the foundation area, this is where pest inspectors will look first.

The University of Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service in Lincoln says, "Places to inspect for termite activity are wooden constructions in basement and crawl space, wood sills, joists, support posts, basement window frames and wood under porches. Scrap wood on the ground or a woodpile next to the house should be removed as these potential feeding areas may allow termites easier access to your house. Termites may also be found in dead trees or wood stumps after a dead tree has been removed."

Damage can be minuscule and cost just a few hundred dollars to repair, however, since the damage is usually done unseen, it could run up to tens of thousands of dollars once a full scale inspection is completed.

A home purchaser in 1998 found out the hard way in New Orleans. She had purchased her "dream home" using a large amount of cash she had been saving for years. A week before she was to move in, she found out how badly the house was infested. The story was covered by a local paper, The Times-Picayune, and run on New Orleans Net, which documented the horrifying truth.

"Work crews opened every wall and ceiling, exposing beams, rafters and studs so badly eaten that they crumbled at a touch. The bottom 12 inches of the wooden chimney supports had been eaten away from the foundation. The termites had eaten through all but two of the house's bedrooms," the story reported. The home that looked perfect on the outside, ate through not only the purchaser's house, but also her bank account.

Don't put off what is going to be an inevitable test on your house. Order the pest inspection early and often. Watch for the local pest control service appearing at your neighbors' houses. Termites know no boundaries and can wind up at your doorstep (or in it) just as easily as at your neighbors'.

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