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I'm buying a house in an area where termites are a serious problem. I know most people are honest but most is not all. When I'm with a Realtor, at a showing of a house that I'm thinking of putting an offer on, how can I tell if there is a serious, obvious termite problem? I realize I can't tell for sure without a professional but strong signs or ways to "estimate" would be helpful.

I know there are other posts about checking for termites but they all assume that you already own the house. I will not have so much time or freedom to look around.

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    Termites are only one serious problem that a house can have. If you are serious about putting an offer on a house, arrange with the realtor to schedule a home inspection (that you hire, not the realtor).
    – Comintern
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 14:48
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    In most locations (at least in the US) offers are routinely followed by inspections (which include at least a cursory check for termites or other wood boring insects) prior to a contract. If evidence is found, a full termite inspection usually follows, again prior to a contract.
    – bib
    Commented Apr 12, 2014 at 15:30
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    Thank you for all the advice, but they do not answer my question at all. Obviously I'm going to get a professional inspection down the line. I was looking for a way to quickly eliminate obviously problematic houses before reaching the contract negotiation stage of the process. To make an extreme analogy, if half of a house had fallen into a giant sinkhole, I wouldn't bother checking the rooms on the still-standing side to see if the paint was nice and the kitchen counters were smooth and still hire an inspector; I'd just move on immediately. Commented Apr 14, 2014 at 14:15

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Other than learning how to look for exterior telltale signs of termite damage, such as spent casings and holes in the wood or in the ground, you need to write in a contingency on your offer to purchase for a complete home inspection and/or an additional pest inspection.

As mentioned above in the comments, hire your own home inspector and/or pest control specialist. DO NOT succumb to the pressure of Realtors to use their favorite inspectors. Find inspectors that truly work for the person that hires them, you! If you are not trained in building construction, inspection, or pest control, do not attempt to evaluate the condition of a home on your own.

Some Home Inspectors, such as myself, offer screening inspections. This is a simple walk through (apx 1 hour) and initial evaluation of a house before one even makes an offer. This type of inspection is not as comprehensive as a full inspection that can take 2 to 4 hours in home and documents all the aspects of the house, rather it is an hour spent looking for obvious major flaws or situations that will help you determine if you actually want to consider placing an offer. Once you have found a house you are serious about, this screening inspection is usually much cheaper than a full inspection, but since the inspector should be acting as your advocate, can advise you if there are any major issues that would influence your decision to make an offer or not. For the hundred bucks or so, it can be a huge time saver, allow you to make a more realistic offer, and give you a better feeling of confidence about the home you are making an offer on. Good Luck.

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Having bought at least 10 houses with termite issues I can offer the following advice:

  • Have an independent inspector examine the house...
  • After you have a specific termite inspection. For about $100 in my area you can have a reputable termite company come out and do a full inspection. They need to point out if they feel there are any nests outside - usually on the ground and possibly deck or tree. I put markers everywhere they spot. Then they will point out any odd or troubled spots in the house. Make them hit the attic if there is one. You can't see termites through walls so often you will see most issues in the basement or attic.
  • Then when the inspector is going through the house the can specifically hit the trouble spots. You need to make sure that your inspector understands your expectations. First most home with termites have little to no damage that can't be easily repaired. Not sure about your specific area but most "termite" houses in my area are "fixed" within a day or two and usually a few thousand dollars if that. They are just chewing wood. Most of the time a board can be taken out and replaced with new board. If you don't want ANY termite damage that is fine too but know this may cause the inspector to be really cautious in his analysis. And then (in my cases) you can just do a monetary analysis of the situation. Basically we took the repairs we saw that were needed and multiplied them by 3 to take off from asking price. You have to know once you have a termite inspector and home inspector give a report then the seller must disclose those things to future buyers. Also know that houses with an infestation will hardly ever be remediated by the current owner. There is a reason for infestation - huge neglect. These owners will more often than not sell the house at 60% rather than fix the issue.
  • When you are going through the house you need to know that generally the most expensive things to repair are exterior walls, subfloors that have bathrooms/kitchens over them, and architectural features. Most joists can be sistered to infested joist, other subfloors are relatively easy (and never saw good flooring on termite infested subfloor).
  • Chances are you won't be seeing a ton of wood siding. This makes it very hard to figure out exterior walls coupled with the fact that termites generally don't take to drywall/plaster.
  • That means a lot of the inspection is taking what the termite report gives you and guesstimating where they are coming in the house. If the nests are right next to the house - they are in the house for sure. Who knows how much? You need to look for wall movement and softspots. Take your palm and push on the exterior walls. When something doesn't feel right it usually isn't. Bring a magnetic stud finder - the nails will still be there. If you can push on a stud, you have an issue. Pay close attention to floor trim and the first 6 inches on ground level. Ethical or not, I have poked a few holes intermite infested houses. My inspector has too.

As far as the decision making process, you should have the termite inspection first if you feel there is even a small chance of an issue given you are in an area known for the issue. I would do my own inspection on a house and then decide if I needed a termite inspection. After the termite inspection you should have a decent idea of what is going on. If the termite inspector finds 10 nests and they are spread out... Well expect them everywhere. I generally leave the tear downs alone even when in the market for termite houses. I did one and it sucks, because you always think parts are salvageable and then it is slowly revealed that they are not.

So you have a couple nests outside the house but no apparent termite damage or just a concise small nest in the house. That is up to you then. This is where you need to be on the same page as inspector. Both you and inspector should be walking around with a flat-head looking for soft areas. He needs to tell you what repairs you need to make right away.

Bottom line is that unless there is a termite invasion, it should be bought with calculated reasoning. Termites are very very slow to pass a lot of damage. The infestation would generally have to be 5-10+ years to cause a great amount of work. You generally should view insect issues as you would an outdated kitchen or bathroom. Unlike outdated areas of the house, this has to be taken care of before you move in. So headache at first but also one of the easiest ways to gain money/equity on a house. Even my termite house from hell I turned a few thousand dollar profit.

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Since no one has answered this question with the qualification

I will not have so much time or freedom to look around.

There are three ways to find out about termite problems.

First, ask the agent. In my area in the USA, sellers are required to disclose such problems to potential buyers and it is freely available. Your agent probably knows the answer off the top of their head.

Second, walk around the outside of the house and look along the foundation. Do the same on the inside if there is a basement. Look for mud trails, lines of dirt tunnels, rising up from the lawn or the bottom of the basement up to the rest of the house. Those are tunnels for termites.

Third, take a screwdriver, or your finger, and poke at the wood running along the top of the foundation and in the basement. Termite problems, and water damage, will be evident if the wood is soft or your screwdriver/finger easily pokes a hole in the wood and it feels soft and mushy.

Be careful not to take sawdust as evidence of termites because it might just be construction dust, even if the home was built 10 years ago.

These suggestions are quick, cheap, and easy and can help you make a quick yes/no decision or, if you are still interested in the house, let's you focus on that one, obvious, potential problem.

Remember, though. These simple tests are not proof positive one way or the other and minor damage does not make a house a hole.

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Not sure where you're located but as a Realtor in California I can tell you that it is a mandatory contingency that the seller must obtain a termite inspection report from a licensed Termite company (usually seller's choice). The seller generally pays for all 'section I' repairs which often includes tenting the property. After the repairs are complete, the seller must obtain a certificate of completion from the Termite company that shows all repairs have been completed and that all active termite activity has been eliminated. This certificate must be submitted to escrow to remove the termite inspection contingency. The buyer is well protected in this case.

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This is a very valid and concern and very good information has been offered. However, inspections don't find 100% of infestations and if an owner is crooked, irresponsible or ignorant, they may have termite and 'fixed' the warning signs. The only almost perfect answer is Beagles. Before you slough this off spend a moment and Google "Termites Inspection by Beagles" or perhaps "termite detection dogs." Good Luck and good hunting.

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