Day 19 – Termites

Eastern Subterranean Termites are a little less than a cm long and an active colony can contain between 20,000 and 5 million insects.

Before we bought the house we had a structural inspection done.  We knew we were buying a rehab project.  We knew it didn’t have copper, the furnace had to be replaced, etc etc etc.  So we didn’t opt for a full on inspection because so much of it was just a gut job anyway.  No reason to pay some guy 200 bucks to tell me what I already knew.  On top of that, the CDC that runs this program has their inspector comprise a spec sheet anyways.  So far, I feel good about our choices.  Especially because a lot of systems in the house are in way better condition than initially assessed.  Sure there’s no copper, but the electrical has been crazy upgraded (I’ll post about that some other time) and the garage looks brand new.  What we were concerned about going into the project was the structural stability of the foundation and supports because there is a particular point in the back of the house that has noticeably sunk.  We would have avoided this property had the inspector told us the foundation was sinking or we had some serious problems that would require $10,000+ of specialty contractors before we could start anything upstairs.  What came back was a report that essentially said that all the stone was fine, the main support beams were fair, and the sinking was due to termite activity.

I’m familiar with termites in the south.  The big, nasty things that can decimate a house in under two years if you leave them be.  Frankly, I didn’t even know that termites existed in the north.  In the north eastern part of the US, subterranean termites are actually a fairly common problem but they’re different than southern termites.  They’re smaller and slower moving.  While they can do the same level of damage, it takes them much longer.  Termites are a small, colony-building insect that consumes wood cellulose.  Imagine an ant farm.  Now imagine that network of tunnels, instead of being built in sand, is built inside the wood of your house frame.  Bad news of your structural stability.  More over, often you don’t notice or catch termite activity until it’s substantial because from the outside, your wood appears fine.  Termites don’t like the light and need a moist environment to live.  If exposed to the elements, they’ll die in a matter of a few hours.  They do their work in secret.

2013-10-17 15.22.55

Termite damage and mud tubes above a 1st floor door jam.

The inspector found and photographed termite damaged wood and mud tubes.  These are tubes built up out of chewed wood particles that they will travel through to maintain their moist environment.  You’ll find them along substances that aren’t wood, like stone block where the termites will attempt to get from one point to another.  What he couldn’t find was any actual termites.  While there’s a plethora of testing methods, the only way you can truly confirm you have an active termite infestation is to find live termites.  We haven’t found any.  Additionally, the wood and basement are very dry.  Here’s another tricky thing about not knowing anything about the history of the house.  We have no way of knowing if there was ever any treatment done for termites.  It’s clear from the damage that they were active for a long time.  So far we’ve tracked the damage from the basement into the first floor in and around the area of sagging.  It might go into the second floor but we won’t know until we start demoing walls.  But we have yet to find any termites.  Its the mystery of the missing termites.

The good news is that they seem mostly confined to the addition and we haven’t discovered any damage to exterior walls.  The interior walls were going to be taken out anyways, and we budgeted both time and money to fix the sagging in the floors, replace damaged wood, and test for (and if necessary treat for) the existence of live termites.  You can have some crazy testing done searching for pests in the home including heat scans, acoustic scans, and bug-sniffing dogs, but the most common system involves putting traps around the perimeter of the property and checking them every few weeks until you either find something or you don’t.  All in all, I was much happier to hear that it’s maybe a $1500 problem than a $15000 problem and we ended up buying the house.  I’m actually excited to fix the structural supports.  It’ll involve jacking up the house and shoring up some floor joists.  It’s something I’ve never done before and might not get a chance to do in the future.  Plus, in a strange kind of way, it makes the job easier.  Because we have to tear out the damaged framing wood anyways, we were given the incentive to play around with the footprint of that section of the house.  As a result, we’re going to add a pantry, move around closets, and change room layouts.  Not to mention that demoing what’s essentially balsa wood is way easier than demoing fresh white wood.  Thanks for that Mr. Termite.

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About Nathan

Originally from central Florida (near Orlando), I've lived in the Cleveland area since 2008. When I'm not caught up in the life project de jure, I paint, sculpt, play games (mostly board games and video games), and run a small hobby import/export business.

One thought on “Day 19 – Termites

  1. Pingback: Routine Maintenance is Necessary for a Wood Frame House | How to Build a House

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