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Pests Series Part I: Termites

Being a homeowner is a worthy investment of money, time, and energy. Crafting a house into becoming a home can be such a rewarding task. This isn’t to say, however, that there are no bumps along the way. Among many challenges, pests like termites can be an issue. Knowing about what they are and the potential for harm they cause can be the first step in eliminating problems hopefully before they even begin.

What Is A Termite?

In the United States, the most commonly found termite is the native subterranean termite. Dry-wood termites and damp-wood termites are the most dominant types that occupy this region, but there are also a smaller contingency of Formosan termites.

Although each type of termite will have a slightly different appearance, all of them are small insects with a characteristically soft body feeding primarily on wood. Living in large colonies, termites utilize a caste system that is highly organized and capable of doing extensive damage to wooden structures, lumber, and trees. Even more troubling is the fact that termites can be destroying our homes for years before detection.

Are Termites A Common Problem?

A problem in every state except Alaska, termites are estimated to do as much as 5 billion dollars in damage each year, and the number is growing. While that number seems astronomical, it becomes easier to fathom when homeowners discover that a single colony can have a million termites and colonies can ultimately affect entire neighborhoods, as the termite colony moves underground from home to home.

What Are The Signs Of A Termite Infestation?

In some cases, the actual termites may be visible near the foundations of homes especially in areas where mulch, firewood, or other materials provide proper habitat for them. Most termites, however, are found in one of these four ways:

  • Noticing a termite swarm, which usually occurs in the spring time, and appears as some termites leave the colony to start a new one.

  • Discovering the existences of pencil-like mud tubes on foundations, or walls, near the ground. These tubes are called shelter tubes and are a very strong sign of termite activity.

  • Discovering soft wood and areas where the wood seems fragile or sounds hollow is a probable sign of termite activity.

  • The discovery of dirt particles in and near wood in the home where dirt should not collect. Termites bring this dirt up as they travel from the colony to their food source.

Termites thrive in warm, moist climates; they exist in all states of the country, except maybe Alaska!  Worldwide, termites live in a geographic belt from 50 degrees north latitude to 50 degrees south, and there are thousands of types of termites. You will probably never see the pesky creatures, however, and detection and treatment are usually not DIY projects.

How Do You Eliminate Termites?

Because detection is difficult and abatement requires handling poisons as well as precise application of topical treatment, it is wise to call a professional if you suspect a problem. Some homeowners even have periodic termite testing done at their homes in order to prevent future problems or infestations. There are essentially only two ways to treat an infestation: bait or liquid poison. Since colonies live underground, it is necessary to inject the poison into the soil with specialized equipment. Pest control companies drill test holes and insert tubes through foundations, patios, and hard surfaces; specialized equipment is necessary. Generally, no powder or dust is left on surfaces. Treatment should be safe for all humans, pets, and wildlife.

What Should I Expect?

Check references, compare prices, verify state licensing, and ask about safety and possible health effects when you consult with control companies. Reputable firms will answer all your questions, and give you a written estimate with descriptions of the chemicals to be used. You should also receive a written, transferable warranty. Companies may also offer periodic re-inspection services, sometimes for a small fee.  Even though all chemicals have been deemed safe by governmental authorities, check with your physician if you have specific health concerns.

Is Treatment Effective?

Treating an infestation is vital to maintain the integrity of your building. While professional termite treatment lasts for about 5 years, you may have to replace damaged timbers or even portions of wall, plastic tubing, or pipe in case of severe termite damage.  The best course of action is preventive, of course, and newer buildings are constructed with treated lumber and termite-resistant materials. Existing building codes specify some sort of termite barrier or shield for new construction. Often the soil is treated before a concrete slab foundation is poured.

Buying or Selling Property

All licensed termite treatment companies provide a dated certificate of treatment specifying type of treatment, chemicals used, and warranty information. Preserve such documents with your home's valuable papers.

When you are looking at property to buy, you should ask your home inspector if they think it's necessary to require a termite inspection or proof of prior treatment prior to entering into a binding contract on the property in question. Consult with your buyer's agent for more information. 

Grassi B., Sandias A. (1893). Costituzione e sviluppo della società dei termitidi. Atti della Accademia gioenia di scienze naturali in Catania Series 46: XIII. Reprint in the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
Baranski, Chris. (May 3, 2011). Termite Damage [image]. Retrieved from
John Lynch with Dwell360 is a REALTOR® who services the cities and suburbs of metro Boston. He is focused on his customers and his experience in the residential real estate market is extensive. Search for homes in Massachusetts and then give John a call.