Three years ago I had a termite company work on my house. Each year it charges me $38 to check it. Do you think this is necessary? The technician is here for less than a half hour each year.
The experts tell me that the Washington area is termite country. Thus, I recommend continuing the contract with the local termite company on a yearly basis.
There are two reasons for keeping this coverage. First, there is always the possibility of finding termite damage. More important, however, if and when you go to sell your house, you will probably avoid incurring large expenses to provide your buyer with the termite certificate that is always required in a sales contract. Once you have your continuing coverage, the termite company should be willing to give you the necessary termite certificate at little or no cost.
The whole issue of the termite certificate should be clarified. When you sign a contract to buy a piece of real estate, it is, in my opinion, important to include a requirement that the seller provide the buyer with a statement indicating that the property is free and clear of active infestation of termites. Lenders usually require a valid termite certificate before making the loan proceeds available. This is especially true when the loan is insured by the Veterans Administration or the Federal Housing Administration.
Termites (also known as white ants) feed on the cellulose in wood. In the Washington metropolitan area, we often find subterranean termites. These little devils hide below ground to maintain adequate moisture, but come to the surface to eat. The surface is wood touching the damp ground. Termites create corridors in this wood and then move freely through these passages seeking additional food, moisture and shelter.
It is generally accepted procedure for home sellers to provide -- at their expense -- a certificate of termite guarantee at settlement. In fact, most standard real estate contracts contain the following: "termite inspection: At the time of settlement, seller shall pay the cost of termite inspection and provide to purchaser a written certification from a licensed exterminator that, based on a careful visual inspection of accessible areas of the house, there is no evidence of active infestation of termite or wood-boring insects. If such infestation exists, seller is to exterminate. Seller at his own expense and prior to settlement shall repair any prior or current visible damage caused by termites or wood-boring insects."
Whether you are a seller or a buyer, be careful with this language. While it appears to provide adequate protection and coverage, in reality there are a number of problem areas. Let's look at them first from the seller's point of view.
Usually, when there is a real estate agent involved, the agent makes the necessary arrangements to obtain the termite certificate. Beware, however. The language obligates a seller to repair visible damages -- whether or not they are needed, and regardless of the cost.
I strongly recommend that sellers who use this language instruct the termite company doing the inspection (or the agent making the arrangements) to submit an estimate of repair costs before any work has begun. I have seen too many sellers pay sizable termite repair bills without having any opportunity to obtain other reports and estimates.
There are many termite companies in this area and, unfortunately, not all have the same reputation.
Finally, the seller may want to eliminate the last sentence from the termite clause of the contract. Why should a seller fix prior termite damage when it may not be necessary?
From the buyer's point of view, the contract language quoted above also needs some modification. First, change the word "house" to read "property." There have been situations in which significant termite infestation was found in a detached garage, but if you read the language of the termite clause literally, the garage is not part of the "house" and no protection may be provided under the contract.
Second, watch out for such language as "based on a careful visual inspection." This often will not include basement crawl spaces or other inaccessible areas that, unfortunately, carry the greatest risk of termite infestation.
Third, insist that the termite company provide you with a warranty of at least one year. Some companies will offer such a warranty, others will not.
Thus, as you can see, the problem of termites is a real and continuing one. For this reason alone, I recommend that you continue the annual home inspection by your termite company.
Benny L. Kass is a Washington attorney. For a free copy of the booklet "A Guide to Settlement on Your New Home," send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Benny L. Kass, Suite 1100, 1050 17th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Readers may also send questions to him at that address