Should termite damage be a deal-breaker?

Plenty of buyers have visited a home that seems to meet all of their requirements, only to find some factor that immediately causes them to cross it off their list. Perhaps a trip to the basement reveals a cracked foundation, or a series of low-flying planes during the visit reveal just how close the property is to the airport.

The presence of termites can also prove to be a major deterrent to buyers. Even those who aren't put off by a fixer-upper may be daunted to encounter door frames, baseboards, and other components that have been dined on by the wood-devouring insects.

Termite damage sometimes doesn't make itself apparent until a colony is well-established. The pest control company Orkin says some signs of damage include water damage, buckling walls or ceilings, or maze-like tunnels in wood surfaces. You may also spot the mud tubes of a termite colony on the home's foundation or even see the insects on the premises.

In the most severe cases of untreated termite infestation, a colony can cause irreparable damage to a home. In most instances, however, the damage can be fixed and steps can also be taken to eradicate the termites and keep them from returning.

If termite damage is discovered at a home you are considering buying, you should first assess the extent of the damage. The Formosan termite, common in the South and coastal areas, can quickly cause extensive damage, but most termite species have smaller colonies and are not as destructive. Damage to wooden surfaces is unsightly, but may not compromise the home's structure. Terri Williams, writing for Realtor.com, says it is more concerning if termites have damaged any structural supports such as joists.

You can also try to find out if the previous owners took any steps to keep termites at bay. Marcie Geffner, writing for the financial site Bankrate, says damage is likely to be costlier and more serious if it shows up at multiple places around the home, or if termite damage is visible and the home has not been treated for some time.

A home inspection may be able to warn you about termite damage, but inspectors are frequently limited in this regard. A separate inspection for pests will look out for termites as well as other insects that can destroy wood or cause damage. Kathyrn Peterson, writing for the New Jersey company Cowleys Pest Services, says the inspection will also be able to identify whether a termite colony is still active and whether previous homeowners took any steps to treat the property for termites.

Termites are more likely to attack a home if food or water sources are readily available there. Some warning signs include wood surfaces in direct contact with the soil, pooling water near the foundation, or the presence of firewood, mulch, or other wooden materials alongside the home.

Termites can affect a home even if it is made of brick or stone. Orkin says wooden surfaces such as window frames can create a pathway into the home, where termites can do further damage to materials such as hardwood floors.

If the damage is not severe, the presence of termites can actually present a significant advantage to the buyer. Williams says the damage may allow you to request that the seller lower his or her asking price considerably. Pink Pest Services, an Australian company, says the seller may also agree to absorb the costs of repairing termite damage and treating the home.

In most cases, termite damage can be repaired. Orkin says the remedies typically involve the replacement of damaged wood or shoring up a damaged area with a new support. This repair is combined with a treatment which is designed to establish a protective barrier around the home, eradicate any existing termite colonies, and address problem areas that make the home more attractive to the insects.

The costs of the repair and treatment may be enough to deter some buyers. Williams says those who will have little money to spend on repairs after a purchase may want to pass over a home with termite damage. You may also have to budget for ongoing costs in the future, such as annual inspections or treatments to make sure a termite infestation does not reappear.

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