Comparing methods for exterminating termites


Q. A friend told me a termite inspection is required by law when you sell a home. Now that I'm preparing to put my house on the market, I need to know if this is true. Also, I've heard termite companies use different methods of extermination and am wondering which technique is safest and most effective. What do you suggest?

A. Inspection for termites and other wood-destroying organisms is a common practice in nearly all real estate transactions, not because of laws or ordinances, but because banks and mortgage companies routinely demand termite disclosure as a prerequisite to issuing a loan.

Lenders have a vested interest in the general integrity of the dwellings that secure their mortgages, because the value of a building ensures them against loss in the event of foreclosure. The influence of these lenders, rather than government regulation, has made termite inspection a common practice in most real estate sales.

As for which extermination method to choose, this can depend on the type of termites in question, and some methods are matters of debate within the termite industry, particularly with regard to a common species known as dry wood termites.

For decades, the standard technique for eliminating dry wood termites has been fumigation. With this method, a building is thoroughly enshrouded in a tightly sealed tent and then filled with toxic gas. This is generally regarded as the most reliable way to ensure the demise of unwanted pests. However, environmental concerns and the inconveniences of fumigation have prompted the advent of imaginative new ways to dispatch termites. These techniques include tenting with hot air, freezing of localized areas with liquid nitrogen, and the use of high voltage electricity in specified places.

The hot air method has enjoyed very little popularity because of potential damage to building components and to personal property within the building. The problem with the freezing and electricity is that these methods address only localized areas, rather than the entire building. Thus, there is no way to guarantee the eradication of all termites within the structure. Instead, termites are only eliminated in those specific areas that are treated.

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Companies that use localized methods generally guarantee the thoroughness of their work, but homeowners can only take advantage of such guarantees if they discover additional termites at a later date. Since termites within walls and attics generally go unnoticed for years, homeowners will usually remain unaware of termites that continue to reside in the building. How then can the property owner take advantage of the guarantee?

With every method, there are obvious pros and cons. If you choose fumigation, there remains the question of possible low-level exposure to poison gas after the building has been ventilated and declared safe for habitation. The termite industry gives every assurance that building occupancy is totally safe after completion of the fumigation process, but it seems reasonable to question the likelihood that all vestiges of residual gas have been removed after only 24 hours of passive venting. My advice is to insist on the use of ventilation fans, rather than simply opening the windows for a day and night.

• To write to Barry Stone, visit him on the web at, or write AMG, 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, CA 94301.

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