"Palos Verdes Resident since 1947"

Termites (and other exciting stuff)

There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about termites as it relates to real estate sales, so here’s the straight scoop:

First of all, there is no law that says that a seller must provide a termite clearance at close of escrow, so let’s get that out of the way now.  There is, however, a strong custom that the seller do that.

In the real estate context, a “Termite Report” deals not only with termites but with dry rot, fungus, etc, which is actually a living organism, as are termites.  There are 2 parts to the customary termite inspection report:  Section 1 deals with actual termites, actual dry rot, etc, and it is normally the seller’s responsibility to remedy that prior to close of escrow.  Section 2 deals with conditions likely to lead to termites, dryrot, etc, but there is no current infestation.  Normally the buyer (at his option, since he’s the one who will live there) is responsible for that.  An example of Section 2 would be “earth-to-wood contact” where, for example, the wood siding of a house is in contact with the soil, providing easy access for subterranean termites (see below).

Types of Termites

In Southern California, there are basically two types that you need to be aware of:

Drywood Termites:  the most common, these are the ones that leave the tiny droppings around that generally look like

Drywood termites after mating. Sometimes they have a tiny cigarette at this point.

light brown dirt, or occasionally tiny wings, which they have shed after “swarming”.  While very common, drywood termites rarely do structural damage as they don’t like to be in load-bearing wood.  You generally find them in the fascia, window trim, baseboards, window or door frames, etc.  They tend to like newer, fresher wood, and often arrive with a new addition as pre-existing residents.  Conversely, I see a lot of older homes where any termites that once lived there have moved on to more tasty cuisine.  Drywood termites also work very slowly (they’re pretty small, after all), and it’s difficult to see where they are (unless you’re a termite inspector — they have magic ways of finding them) because they eat right out to the back of the paint on the surface of the wood but not beyond; so the paint’s still there, without anything behind it.  Sneaky, huh.  This is what the termite inspector is looking for when he goes around with his poker — if the paint is all there is, it will immediately give way and leave a hole. 

Subterranean Termite. How they fly underground is still a mystery to me.


Subterranean Termites:  these are less common in Southern California but are far more destructive.  As the name implies, they come up out of the dirt (H G Wells would have loved them) and into the wood of your house.  They are much larger than drywood termites and, given enough dining time, I suppose they could destroy a house.  Termite inspectors also look for them.




Dryrot and fungus:

These microorganisms can be very destructive relatively quickly.  Often you can spot dryrot when it causes an un-evenness in the surface of painted wood.  Poke it with a screwdriver and it will easily yield if it’s rotten.  If you open up that area, it will look like what you probably think fungus should look.  It’s really lovely.  Left untreated, it can work its way thru the wood and destroy it as a structural element.


Fumigation:  This is part of the process of getting rid of drywood termites, which generally results a tent being put on the house, and the termites becoming past tents (bah-da-bump.  I’ve got hundreds of ’em.  I’ll be here all week).  Everyone sees the tent, which leads to the impression that fumigation is much more common than it is.  Fumigation is called for only when the infestation of drywood termites goes into “inaccessible areas”, meaning the inspector can’t see the extent of the infestation.  The dirty little secret is that termites are not as dumb as they look:  when they see the fumigation truck pull up, they tend to go on vacation to the house next door.  I’m not kidding — if the house next door to you has been tented recently, there is a good chance that some of the former residents are now chowing down on your house.

Local Treatment:   If the inspector can see the entire colony, local treatment is called for which, generally, is much less expensive than a tent.  Termite guy goes in your attic or wherever the termites are and sprays Secret Sauce on them.  Another little secret:  WD-40 is a very effective local treatment for drywood termites, but the EPA will not allow the termite guys to use it.

Subterranean Termite Treatment:  Since subterranean termites (“subs” in the biz) come out of the dirt, tents don’t do a lot.  The indicated treatment is chemicals injected into the soil around the house.  When you see a row of holes near the edge of  the garage concrete slab, that is evidence of “drilling and treating” for subs.

Fungus and Dryrot:  This generally must be cut out and replaced — there is nothing that can be just sprayed to fix it, especially since structural damage may be involved.

When called-for repairs involve structural elements, it is important that a qualified craftsman make them.  Too often, I see old termite repairs to, for example, the rafter tails, where they have just been cut off at the house and a new piece spliced on.  Problem with that, obviously, is that that new piece isn’t going to support the eave like the original rafter tail did.  Often it won’t show up for a couple of years, but I’m sure you’ve seen houses with sagging eaves.  This is often the result of a sub-standard termite repair.

Hokus-Pokus:  The big fad right now is Orange (aka:  Snake) Oil.  The purveyors of it sell it as an alternative to fumigation, avoiding all them nasty chemicals.  Problem is that it doesn’t work like fumigation.  It is really another form of local treatment, and the Orange Oil must come into direct contact with the termites.  If your termites look as if they have scurvy (their teeth are falling out, their toes turning black), Orange Oil will probably cure it.  Otherwise, stick with the stuff that works.

Give me a call if this subject interests you.  I’m sure there’s therapy for it, but we can talk — 310 613-1076.


  1. danagraham

    Glad you found it worthwhile. This is all stuff I’ve picked up during nearly 30 years in the business.