What is the single most damaging element in the home today? Here are some clues: It causes cracks in plaster and wallboard -- especially over windows and doors. It causes doors to catch and stick. It is the reason for mildew on windowsills and in showers and the reason basements and crawl spaces reek with the smell of thriving fungus and bacteria.

It is the primary reason for rust and corrosion both inside and outside your home and it is what puddles in your crawl space or basement during a heavy rain, or if you leave the garden hose running for too long.

Rust is the obvious result of exposure to water, and most folks are beginning to learn that mold and mildew can only thrive if there is plenty for the fungi to drink -- like in a damp shower, laundry or basement.

A sticking door, not to mention cracks in walls and ceilings, most often result when the soil beneath the home radically expands or contracts when water hydrates the soil and then evaporates. The ensuing house movement is a truly shifty problem. The maintenance of these conditions can be endless.

But there is something you may not realize about water that can cause an interesting kind of damage that you may never have thought about before. Did you know that when a termite looks at your home it sees dinner? But when a termite sees a wet home, it no longer sees dinner -- it sees a banquet. That's no joke.

In fact, New Orleans was not only beaten, battered and flooded, but it is now one of the most termite-infested areas in the country. Termites make a big deal out of carrying water back and forth to the workers so that they can survive in dry areas. That task is not necessary when their meal is generously accompanied by ponding water.

After the San Francisco earthquake in 1989, we learned that anchor bolts and earthquake hold-downs don't work as they are supposed to when wood had been attacked by either water or termites. And a house doesn't have a chance when both have been around for a while.

What can you do? Keep your house dry by following these simple steps:

· Clean gutters and downspouts at least once a year. If you don't have gutters, add them. All of the water that collects on a roof ends up around your foundation when gutters are clogged or when they don't exist. Also, a downspout that discharges water near the foundation is a no-no. We call it selective flooding and nothing will grow fungus, mold and termites faster.

· Check your roof after each storm and seasonally to make sure the highest point in your home remains dry. Although this can be best performed by a pro, you can help. Get a set of binoculars and look at the exterior from a distance. Look for split or missing shingles and piles of debris that can dam or hold back water that can cause flooding in even a light rain.

· Caulk the exterior of your home. Especially at windows and doors and where separations have occurred in the exterior stucco or siding.

· And remember, paint isn't just for pretty. Paint also protects wood siding from water attack.

If you don't feel comfortable doing the work yourself, hire someone. It will always be cheaper to hire prevention than it will be to make repairs later.

Here are a few tips you can look for that may help you to find termites:

· Darkened wood or wood with little holes.

· Mud tubes traveling between the earth and your wood floor.

· Sawdust anywhere in your home.

· Little tiny wings -- especially on windowsills.

· Bubbling paint.

· Spongy floors.

· Wood of any kind anywhere -- including furniture -- that easily gives way under the pressure of a flat screwdriver blade.