Taking A Bite

Q: When I went to closing, I got what they called the "termite letter." When I read it, the fine print basically said there might be termites in the house, and there might not. How can I know for sure?

A: My customers live in an undiluted screaming fear of termites. The thought that unseen, mud-dwelling albino bugs are working day and night to eat up critical house supports just freaks people out. I will now add to these fears.

Listen, termites are everywhere. Nobody's done a count, but I'm guessing there are more termites than there are roaches, ants, and spiders put together. There's more: Nobody can tell you that there aren't any termites eating your house right now. Furthermore, without tearing down your house and going over it board by board, nobody can tell you that termites haven't already eaten a big chunk of your house.

Feeling better now? See, what I'm trying to do is move you through your anger and denial into acceptance. (Hey, I passed my high school psychology course. Plus, I just love to help people.)

To be a good homeowner, you must know what swarmers look like. Swarming termites are black bugs that look a lot like ants, except that they have wings that fall off. Their antennae are straight, not crooked like ants. Also, their waists are not pinched in like ants. Termites are pretty much the same width all the way down. Swarmers generally fly in April, and they're a near-sure indication that you have termites eating your house.

My own personal termite story: Four years ago, in April, thousands of swarmers marched through my kitchen, leaving their little wings all over the place. I called a bug man. We teamed up and went termite-hunting. We probed wood; we tore off a few boards; we looked hard for termites. He even used his little listening device, which lets him hear termites eating. I used a methane detector, which can actually smell termites farting. Nothing. The bug man guessed where termites might be, and he squirted in some poison.

Next April, more swarmers. Same termite search. Same result. Finally, in my third swarming April, the bug man and I found the guilty bugs in the trim around a basement window. The bug man killed the termite colony. I think. I hope.

There's no guarantee, though. Get a bug man speaking freely, and he'll tell you that he doesn't know if the poison he squirted killed each and every termite. How could he know? Termites live in the ground, where you can't see 'em. A bug man doesn't know if a poison-squirted termite colony is dead, or if it's just damaged.

It gets worse. Get a bug man (or a home inspector, for that matter) on a rant, and he'll tell you that there can be a monster termite colony in the very foundation walls of your house. There's almost no way to get poison into every nook and cranny between the blocks or stones, so the colony could live indefinitely. I have personally seen the remains of colonies of fearsome proportions, all cozied up in the interstitial spaces of stone foundation walls-the kind of foundation walls that are holding up just about every pre-World War II house in this town.

I have seen termite tubes in attics, the bugs having worked their way up from the ground. I have seen houses that have been virtually consumed by termites. It happens.

Here's the good news, and it's not all that much: As a general rule, a homeowner has to ignore some serious warning signs to get big-time termite damage. If you see swarmers in April, you've got termites. Call an exterminator, and, most of the time, he'll be able to kill the evil bugs. Have an exterminator inspect your house at least once a year, and have him look for tubes and wings in your basement and crawl space. If he sees signs of termites, he'll know where to treat and where to look next time. So I good Americans-I included-have been known to go under my own house and look for tubes and wings. (I would not recommend this, though, because as long as there are lawyers, I will not recommend that anybody do anything that could hurt them or scare themselves.)

Finally, understand that bug-eaten wood can be replaced. Sometimes it's hard, sometimes it's easy. It's never impossible.