What Do Home Inspectors Need to Know About Termites?

September 24, 2020 | 
termite inspection
As a home inspector, you pride yourself on giving homeowners — or potential homeowners — a complete picture of the condition of a house at the time of your inspection. Your attention to detail protects them from costly surprises and lets them know exactly what aspects of their property need attention to protect their investment.

You may need to become a certified Wood-Destroying Organism (WDO) inspector depending on the laws in your state. Recognizing the most common signs of a termite infestation will definitely help your clients decide if they need further information — including a complete termite inspection. Since termites cause about $5 billion of damage each year to some 600,000 households, it’s a problem that you’re almost certain to come across at some point in your home inspections.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common signs of termite damage so you can do your best to alert your clients to a potential infestation and help them take the appropriate next steps. 

Common signs of termites every home inspector should know

As a home inspector, no one expects you to be an expert on termite damage — that’s what a WDO inspection (commonly called a termite inspection) is for. You are only responsible for those aspects of the home that are visible and accessible during the inspection. Since some termite damage can be hidden from view deep inside structural portions of a home, you’re not expected to catch everything.

Still, a large termite infestation is likely to leave visible signs that you can see during a standard home inspection. Here’s what to keep an eye out for:

Top 10 signs of termites

  • Swarmers: In a house with a major termite infestation, you might see the insects themselves. This is especially true in the springtime, when swarmers emerge to find a new location to colonize. Termite swarmers have large wings that allow them to fly to a new location, but some swarmers are trapped inside. Even dead swarmers are evidence of a big problem, because the colony that produced them is still teeming with termites that you can’t see.
  • Discarded wings: When swarmers find a new home, they lose their wings — they won’t be flying anymore once they find a new house full of wood to munch on. It’s common in houses with termite infestations to see a pile of long, teardrop-shaped termite wings near doors and windows, since these are common landing areas.
  • Mud tubes: Subterranean termites live underground, where it’s cool and moist. To protect themselves from drying out while traveling to a food source, they create mud tunnels to crawl through. Known as mud tubes, these small tubes made of soil and sawdust can be seen on foundations, interior and exterior walls, and especially on trim and fascia boards. 
  • Mud spots: Mud spots are made of the same material as mud tubes, but they cover pinholes instead of a termite highway. As termites eat through wood, they sometimes break through to the surface. They repair these accidental breaches by patching them with mud spots. These are most often found on paneling or drywall coverings, indicating termite activity in the walls.
  • Tunnels in spray foam: If you’re able to inspect an area with exposed spray foam, you may see mud tube-sized tunnels that discolor the surface of the spray foam — or perhaps mud tubes on the surface of the spray foam. These indicate that termites are searching for wood to eat and may be a sign of an infestation.
  • Sunken areas in drywall or wallpaper: A long, sunken trail or an area of sunken spots can occur on walls, indicating that termites have eaten the paper covering of the sheetrock beneath the paint or wallpaper. 
  • Blistered flooring: If termites are eating away at the subfloor or flooring, you may notice swelling or blistering of the floor covering. This often looks like water damage, which you would of course note on your inspection report anyway. But if you can’t find any obvious reason for water damage in a particular location, termites could be to blame.
  • Frass: Frass is the technical term for termite droppings. A pile of frass looks a lot like a pile of sawdust, as termite droppings are basically tiny pellets of the indigestible portions of their wood diet. Termites push the waste out of the walls, so any unexplained pile of sawdust on the floor inside or ground outside is a good sign that wood-destroying insects are active.  
  • Crumbling or damaged wood: You would note any structural damage on your inspection report as a matter of course, but some termite damage is obvious. If framing timbers or floorboards have gaps that are filled with what looks like sawdust or dried dirt, this is likely to be termite damage. If damage is severe, it may be visible on the surface, though drywood termites consume wood from the inside out, making it hard to spot this type of damage during a standard home inspection.
  • Headbanging: It’s also possible to hear termites, particularly if you disturb them. Termites will make clicking or light rattling sounds to alert each other to danger — a process called headbanging, since they make the sounds by hitting their heads on the walls of their tunnels. Termites also make a papery rustling sound as they eat, which is occasionally audible just beneath the surface of walls. It’s possible (though unlikely) to hear these sounds as you work. 

Where to look for signs of termite damage

Now that you know what to look for when it comes to termites, you need to know where to look. Wood damage from a termite infestation can occur anywhere there’s wood in the home, but certain areas are more likely to show the effects.

Stay alert for termite damage in these locations:

  • Foundations: Mud tubes are especially common on the exterior of foundations as subterranean termites travel from the ground up to the framing of the house. In particular, be on the lookout for signs of termites in moist, shady areas of the foundation, perhaps near planting or a leaky gutter.
  • Trim, fascia, and soffits: These are also areas where mud tubes are common. Since these areas are often painted white or another light color, mud tubes may be easier to spot here as well.
  • Unfinished basements: Because of the proximity of framing timbers to the ground and foundation, an unfinished basement is an easy place to spot termite damage — it’s often their first stop for a meal as they begin to invade a house. You may see frass on the floor or near the sill, or you may see obvious damage to exposed timbers.
  • Attics: Attics are another good area to get a look at lots of exposed wood, so keep an eye out for frass, mud tubes, and obviously damaged wood here as well. You may also find tubes in spray foam insulation here. 
  • Interior walls: Remember that mud spots, bubbling, and depressions are all common signs of termite damage. These irregularities will pop into your field of vision because the walls aren’t perfectly smooth — you’ll be able to see these signs more easily at an angle than by looking at a wall straight-on. 

What to do if you find termite damage during a home inspection

If, during the course of your complete home inspection, you find one or more of the common signs of termite damage, it’s important to alert your client to this potentially major problem. Like any other issue from foundation to rooftop, you will note the telltale signs of termites in your inspection report.

To do this appropriately, you should be careful never to overstate your expertise about termites and other wood-destroying organisms. If you see signs of damage, note that there may be signs of WDO, with details about what you see and where. 

It is possible to earn your own license for WDO inspections, and many home inspectors do so to add services for their clients. If you have a WDO inspector’s license in addition to your general home inspection license, you can be more specific about the type of insect — and even the specific species of termite — because you are trained to identify them. You can also recommend treatment in the report if you hold this license.  

How to find a qualified termite inspector to work with

Once you conclude your home inspection report and have alerted your clients to any potential termite damage, you could shake hands and call the job done. But you can also polish your reputation as a trustworthy home inspector by helping steer your clients in the right direction for next steps.

Signs of termite damage require a more specific termite inspection to reveal the extent of the problem. You can help your client — and the real estate agent they’re working with — by suggesting a reputable, licensed wood-destroying organism (WDO) inspector. A full wood-destroying pest inspection is done by someone specially trained to seek out all the signs of an infestation, including being able to tell the difference between various species of subterranean termites, drywood termites, and more.

You can seek out a qualified termite inspector through the National Pest Management Association. And if you’re interested in adding termite inspection to the list of services you offer, InterNACHI offers a WDO Inspection Course that may prepare you for licensure, depending on your state’s regulations.

Want more great tips designed just for home inspectors? From managing your schedule to building a better website, the HomeGauge Learning Center is packed with advice, tutorials, and more. 

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