Purchasing a property, either as a first time homeowner or as a rental investment, is an exciting and complicated process. In the excitement, there are usually a few things that many first time buyers overlook that can come back and cause unexpected expenses. One of those forgotten and overlooked things is pest control.
Other examples of commonly overlooked issues include:
- Single pane or leaky windows that will cause excessive heating and cooling costs.
- Scorched or partially melted outlets indicating electrical upgrades might be needed.
- The age and condition of the HVAC
Most people don’t want to actively look for, or even think about, creepy crawling things that have invaded the property. However, not being proactive about pest control is a mistake that can easily cost you thousands of dollars.
Fortunately, pest control is not complicated. In general, there are two classes of pests:
- Annoying but Harmless
- Hidden and Destructive
In the Annoying but Harmless category, we have things like swarms of ladybugs that enter your house to find a place to hibernate for the winter. It also covers the parade of sugar ants that march through your kitchen in search of scraps of food. These pests are aggravating but do not cause any structural damage or pose a safety threat to residents.
How to Save Thousands on Pest Control
It is the Hidden and Destructive pests that you need to be concerned about. Let me show you a few things to look for!
Termites are powerfully destructive pests that feast on any cellulose-based material. That includes anything made of wood in your home. Estimates say that the average homeowner’s repair bill to fix structural damage caused by termite infestations is on the order of $2,500 to $3,000. Homeowner's insurance does not cover this cost.
What is particularly insidious is that termite damage is not apparent until the infestation is full-blown. Here are some things to look for that might indicate a structure has a termite problem:
- Darkened sections of wood floors that look similar to water damage.
- Blistering paint on the walls.
- Soft or crumbling wood in parts of the structure.
- Termite damage will often look like water damage.
- Raised mud tubes connecting to the foundation of the house.
In addition to checking the main structure, be sure to check any sheds, carports, or workshops on the property as well. At a minimum, make sure you get a termite inspection before making the purchase.
Protection After the Purchase
Here are some tips for protecting your property from termites after you make the purchase.
Do not make it easy for termites to invade. Most termites need a moist environment to thrive and access to a cellulosic food source. Keep the area around the foundation as dry as possible and make sure that no wooden part of the structure is in direct contact with the ground.
Perform an annual termite control chemical application. There are a couple of chemical products that are highly effective at repelling termites. If you are the “Do It Yourself” type of person, then you can get a product like Termidor and spray the foundation area in an hour or two. If you prefer to let the professionals come in, then they will either apply the Termidor for you or use the time tested Sentricon system.
Avoid dry wood termites! There are many types of termites. One that many homeowners accidentally introduce is the drywood termite. As the name implies, drywood termites can successfully thrive in wood that has a low moisture content. Many people like to do crafting projects with recycled barn lumber and will find a piece with a pretty trail pattern weaved throughout. Other folks love to visit junk shops and bring home furniture or picture frames that have vintage-looking “wormhole patterns.” Drywood termites often create those pretty patterns and wormholes. Always carefully inspect any old wood you intend to bring into your home.
Next up on the Hidden but Dangerous pest list is rats. Rats are an insidious problem whether you live in a metropolitan area or a rural setting. Rats are “hidden” pests as they are nocturnal, and you are unlikely to spot them during a casual inspection during the day.
A rat infestation is dangerous for many reasons.
Rats are rodents and must gnaw on hard materials to keep their continually growing incisors in check. Rats will chew on anything, including the electrical wires in your attic, as they try to keep their teeth filed down.
The constant gnawing, and usually eating, of materials, results in an equivalent amount of waste production. Rats produce a tremendous amount of droppings that they leave as scent markers for other rats. The stench of an attic that has been infested with rats for an extended time is unbearable. Rat droppings and urine can be hazardous as it contains many pathogens that can make people sick.
The total cost of a rat infestation can easily reach $1,000 if you have to hire professionals, and the damage is extensive. The cost breakdown is roughly $500 for the exterminator, $300 for cleaning the mess, and another $200 for structural repairs to prevent a new infestation. You can bring that price tag down if you are willing to do some of the dirty work yourself.
Things to Look for to See If The Structure Is Rat Infested
Greasy smudges along the baseboards. Rats have very poor eyesight and navigate both by smell and walking against stable structures like walls. Rats travel the same paths on most nights and eventually leave behind greasy smudges on baseboards.
Droppings in dark areas. Rats like to live in secluded, shady locations. Inspect the crawl space and attic of the structure and look for droppings. If there are rats present, then you will not have to look too hard to spot the droppings and damage.
Conditions that are conducive to rats.
If there are distinct sources of food, water, and shelter, then chances are there are going to be rats present. Open waste containers, piles of debris near the house, and standing water are all clues.
Protection After the Purchase
Here are some essential tips for protecting your property from rats after you make the purchase.
Eliminate food sources. Make sure your outside trash containers have tight-fitting lids, move bird feeders far away from the house and, if you have dogs, pick up their mess daily. The animal waste still has plenty of calories, and nutrients and rats are happy to have the feast.
Perform routine inspections and repairs. A rat can enter a structure through a hole that is only an inch wide. Actively look for any openings in the exterior of your home and perform the repairs needed to close them.
Trim any trees branches that overhang the roof. If you live in the Southeast, and especially on the Gulf Coast, then you will have tree rats living in your neighborhood. Tree rats, also known as black rats or palm rats, are expert climbers and will quickly jump from a tree branch onto your roof. Once the rats have hit your roof, getting into your attic is just a matter of wiggling through a vent.
The property consists of both the dwelling structure and the landscape. Your diligence to pest control needs to cover both. Any trees on the property, and especially any that are near the house, should be inspected to make sure they are healthy. Any large trees that are diseased or dying will need to be removed before they become a safety hazard.
Removal of a tree can be an expensive project. Costs run between $1,000 to $10,000. Costs depend upon the size of the tree, difficulty of access, and the heavy equipment used in the process. These costs are usually not covered by homeowner's insurance. It pays to take a few minutes and make sure you don’t have any unpleasant surprises coming your way.
The typical path of tree damage is that it comes under attack by small insects called tree borers or by fungal infections. Once the tree gets weakened, other insects such as carpenter ants invade and destroy the tree from the inside.
Things to Look for When Assessing the Health of a Tree
Discolorations of the bark on the trunk can be an indication of fungal disease.
Large abnormal growths are indications of infection by Black Knot or various other diseases.
The bark that feels “soft and spongy” when pressed with your hand. If you notice piles of sawdust at the base of the tree, it may indicate the tree is being excavated from the inside by carpenter ants.
If you have any concerns about any of the trees on the property, call a certified arborist to perform a detailed assessment. Depending upon the level of infection/infestation, you can use some insecticides and antifungals to treat the tree.
Protection After the Purchase
Maintain general awareness of the health of your trees and look for fungal growths and piles of sawdust at their base regularly.
Keep a sharp eye out for woodpeckers. Woodpeckers love to feast on carpenter ants. If you see a tree with lots of woodpecker activity, the chances are that it is ant-infested. If so, you'll need to treat the underlying stressor that allowed the ants to invade.
Carpenter ants, like termites, are classified as “Wood Destroying Insects” and will invade damaged not only trees but also your home. Unlike termites that eat wood for food, carpenter ants excavate wood to make nesting cavities. The ants will continue to excavate through the wood as the colony grows. If you deal with the ants during the early stages of an infestation, then the damage is minimal. If left unchecked, then the damage from carpenter ants can be catastrophic.
One indirect cost of carpenter ants is their effect on the perceived value of a property. Some states and loan originators require inspections for Wood Destroying Insects (more on that below). This is more commonly known as a Termite Inspection. What most people don’t realize is that a termite inspection also requires disclosure for ALL wood-destroying insects, including carpenter ants. The perceived value of a property that has disclosed it has an infestation of Wood Destroying Insects will be lower than a property with a clean report.
It can be hard to spot a carpenter ant infestation during a casual observation of a property. The ants prefer to make their nests in damp locations, so check around sinks, bathtubs, showers, or any other wet areas. Since the nests are inside the structure, you will not be able to see them. What you need to look for are the small piles of sawdust that remain after excavation. You can also push the walls or support beams to determine if they feel soft or hollow.
Protection After the Purchase
You will know you have a carpenter ant problem when you see them running around in the house. However, despite them being visible, it can be challenging to find the actual nest so you can get rid of them. This can lead to several call-outs from an extermination company, which will eventually get expensive.
You can try your hand at dealing with carpenter ants on your own by using a combination of ant repellents to keep them away and poison ant baits for them to take back to the colony.
Don’t Rely Upon Appraisers and General Home Inspectors
One reason that people overlook pest control problems is that they rely upon a Home Inspection before closing. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that hiring a Home Inspector is a great idea. A Home Inspector will check all of the little details that new buyers don’t even think about. They will take the time to test the heating system in the middle of the summer. They will turn on the appliances and see if the microwave oven works.
However, Home Inspectors are not always well trained to spot potential problems with pests, and when they do spot issues, they are often not clear about their findings. For example, they might make a note indicating they saw evidence of ants but not explicitly mention whether it was the wood destroying carpenter ants or the harmless sugar ants.
Even in cases where a home inspector suspects there might be an issue such as termites, they often don't have the training to identify the full scope of the problem and the scope of needed repairs.
The need for explicit inspection for wood-destroying insects has been addressed to a degree by the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and Veterans Affairs (VA). Under certain conditions qualifying for an FHA/VA loan will require a pest inspection. But these inspections are highly limited, and the requirements vary considerably.
You can find detailed FHA pest inspection requirements in the Housing and Urban Development Handbook 4000.1. The handbook, also known as the Single-Family Housing Handbook, specifies that a termite inspection is required if an active infestation is observed during the initial property appraisal. Having the property located in an area designated as a high-risk Termite Infestation Probability (TIP) zone may also trigger an inspection. The TIP zones are highly specific to the point that they highlight individual counties in some states. The VA has similar requirements as the FHA.
When the termite inspection is triggered, an inspector must evaluate the home and complete Form NPMA-33, “Wood Destroying Insect Inspection Report.” While this is a significant first step, you should realize that Form NPMA-33 does NOT require a complete inspection of the house! The inspector is only required to check “accessible areas” of the house. Issues that can cause parts of the house to be deemed inaccessible include the need to move furniture or appliance or even having to climb a ladder. If an inspector considers an area inaccessible, they need to note it on the form, and they can call the inspection completed.
Special Requirements for Pest Control
Different states also have requirements for termite inspection separate from the inspection requirements of loan originators. For example, South Carolina requires a Wood Infestation report for every real estate transaction while Maine does not.
The critical takeaway is that many states and loan originators do not always require a termite inspection to be performed. In the case of the FHA and VA, the inspection often only gets triggered if the home appraiser can spot damage. That kind of damage is usually invisible to the naked eye in the early stages of an infestation.
Here is another reason you should not rely entirely upon home appraisers and home inspectors. They rarely inspect the trees on a property despite this being a potentially high cost!
Utilize a Certified Pest Inspector
If you see anything that triggers an alarm or have any uncertainties about the health of a property, then hire a certified pest inspector to perform an inspection.
An inspection from a certified pest professional will cost between $100 to $200 if it is part of a real estate transaction. The inspection is often free for existing property owners as the inspectors work for pest control companies that would love to have your business.
Spending a few bucks on a certified pest inspection could be one of the best financial decisions that you ever make!