how much of the house have the termites eaten?
February 26, 2012 4:17 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know to evaluate a termite problem, and how do I find it out? What else should I look for when inspecting a early 1800s wood frame house?

I am looking at houses to buy in Philadelphia (Fishtown), and by chance two of the leading contenders are both very old wood frame buildings. I think they were built between 1800 and 1840, so they pre-date balloon framing, but are closer to it than to heavy timber barn construction. Not surprisingly for wood this old, both have some amount of termite damage.

The one I otherwise like the best has the most damage I can see. In the basement it's clear that the original floor joists have been substantially eaten, and at some point in the last few decades were all sistered with new wood. Our initial walk through was with flashlights, so I wasn't able to see if they damage extended up into the wall at all, and may not be able to even with better light. The other house has a damp smell to the basement. I'm assuming it has at least some termite damage but don't remember seeing any.

Both buildings felt very solid, with minimal floor movement when you stomped/jumped. The apparently worse house has very diy-looking T11 painted siding and an old roof, but no visible signs of water problems. It otherwise seems well cared for, a bit like it was partway through a slow renovation (new bathroom, carpets, some mechanicals).

Is there a good way to tell how far up the walls the termites have gotten? Is there anything I should check beyond a standard house and termite inspection?

To answer the inevitable question of why on earth I'd want a termite-eaten old wood house, they have very large yards for the location and especially for the price. I'd prefer brick, but haven't found much else in the neighborhood that I can afford with a yard this big. At least, not with a kitchen that's still fully attached to the house.
posted by sepviva to Home & Garden (7 answers total)
Is a termite bond an option in your area? You might be able to work out a deal with the seller to put it under one. The way the worked in GA, the bond was to essentially guarantee against infestation, an in case of an infestation, it generally covered repairs. Banks in GA won't even grant a mortgage without at least a clean inspection report from a licensed company.

For a new bond, the cost of the initial inspection and treatment was a little high. There was also an annual inspection - they'd come out and look for signs of new tunnels or activity in the bait stations, or advise on things I needed to do to in the way of maintenance (like clearing away mulch to keep a sunlight gap around the foundation).

In TN, however, no such mortgage requirement exists and getting our new house on a bond and treatment plan was pretty inexpensive. The same might be the case in PA, so I'd ask a termite company to have a look and inquire about a bond. If the initial fee is large, you might be able to negotiate with the seller a bit.

You get an annual inspection out of it, which is useful, and if the buggers get in, they have to treat and fix (assuming you kept up with their maintenance advice). The termite guys should be able to spot the signs of old vs. new activity, or point out any risk factors in the area (like a propensity for builders to bury construction waste, which feeds the little bastards for years until they decide to make a move for your house).
posted by jquinby at 5:26 PM on February 26, 2012

This is the kind of thing you hire an expert for.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:13 PM on February 26, 2012

Most loans I looked at in California required a termite inspection.
posted by slidell at 8:42 PM on February 26, 2012

Response by poster: I am definitely planning on having both a standard home inspection, ideally with an inspector experienced in houses of this age, and a termite inspection.

Virtually every other house in the city is brick, though, so all that needs to be checked is the floor joists, which can easily be seen in the basement. Here the termites could have gone up farther - how do we check how far?
posted by sepviva at 8:55 PM on February 26, 2012

You could perhaps ask the seller if they'd let you cut small sample holes in the drywall / lathe & plaster near the more important posts. It could be in unnoticeable places: closets, behind the fridge. If all potential buyers would likely have the same question, you could make a good case.

Have you been to the city to check the sistered-joist-house's permit history? Can you tell if the same owner who did that sistering also had the walls open? Perhaps you could assume that whatever was weak in the walls already got reinforced.
posted by slidell at 9:12 PM on February 26, 2012

Rely on qualified experts. You need a good building inspector, for sure. After finding one, tell the inspector about your termite worries and what should you do - chances are they will recommend a good pest person.

The home inspectors that we've used were pretty awesome, especially because they were totally willing to work with n00bs and had no problem with me following them around with a notebook asking questions.
posted by plinth at 3:20 AM on February 27, 2012

Response by poster: If anyone finds this question, I did discover that you can use infrared cameras to potentially detect termites in the walls.
posted by sepviva at 5:03 PM on March 31, 2012

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