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Termite nest in wood.

Termite Damage: How To Identify And Repair It

Andrew Dehan9-Minute Read
June 18, 2020

There are many household health hazards to look out for when buying or owning a home. Pests can create an unsafe living environment. Termites aren’t just any pest; they eat away at your home, destroying its structural integrity and its value. Not only are they unsightly, but they can put the health of you and your family at risk.

What Causes Termite Infestations?

Termites are widespread throughout most of the world. They’re adaptable critters that can infest not only a home, but other wooden structures like fences and sheds. There are few major reasons why they may choose to set up shop on the property.

Moisture

Ample moisture is essential for termites. Subterranean termites do everything they can to avoid dry conditions. Most termites forage wood in wet areas because the moisture insulates and protects them. Leaky pipes, clogged gutters and standing water are termite magnets. Any water buildup around the outside of your house is cause for concern. Maintenance to prevent clogs and leaks and promote proper drainage will keep the termites away.

Cracks Or Openings In Your Home’s Structure

It’s one thing to have termites breaking down the mulch outside. It’s another thing entirely to have them inside eating your walls. Cracks caused by foundation issues or other structural flaws can be the entry point for a full-blown termite infestation. Look out for cracks and outside entry points when inspecting your home or a home you’re looking to buy. This will help you avoid termite issues down the road.

Termite damage to structures outside your home is easier to handle than termite damage inside your home. Take care to repair any holes in your home to the outside world

Any Wood Making Contact With Your Home

Wood that touches or leans against your home can be the hotspot for a termite colony, especially if that wood is also in contact with the ground. Fence posts, tree branches, and wood piles are all common starting points for termites. Combine a rotting woodpile with a crack in your structure and your chances for termite damage increase.

Common Types Of Termites

Termites are widespread. They live all over the globe in a variety of climates. If there’s wood and moisture, chances are termites are there too. They’re close cousins with another prolific pest: the cockroach. However, unlike cockroaches, termites work together as a brood, like ants or bees.

Termites can be broken down into two major castes: reproductive and nonreproductive. Members of the reproductive caste include queens, kings and alates (also called “swarmers”). Queens are the largest of the three and most fertile of the termites. Their smaller counterparts are the kings, who mate with queens to grow the colony. The other reproductive member, the alates, are the only termites with wings. Once the colony is established, the alates leave the colony to establish a new one.

The group responsible for the termite damage is the nonreproductive group. This is broken down to workers and soldiers. Both have saw-like mandibles that wreak havoc on wood structures. The soldiers are the bigger of the two, with a larger and darker head. The workers’ No. 1 goal is supplying the colony with food and tunneling to find more food sources.

Subterranean Termites

Subterranean termites are some of the most destructive pests in North America and are found in every U.S. state except Alaska. As their name implies, they live strictly underground, but that doesn’t limit their mobility. They construct mud tubes to tunnel above ground.

Mud tubes are clear sign property is infested with subterranean termites. These squiggly lines extend up flat surfaces like concrete and wood, leading out from the colony to the food source.

Termite-infested wood.

The alates are the only types of subterranean termites that venture above ground. They’re easily seen, due to their contrasting dark bodies and long, translucent white wings. To see the other subterranean termites, you’re going to have to dig. Workers are the smallest, but most plentiful, and are off-white in color. Soldiers have bigger mandibles and a wider, amber-colored head. The kings are darker and bigger than the soldiers and the queens are the biggest of all, especially the primary queens.

Drywood Termites

Unlike subterranean termites, drywood termites live above ground, surviving with the moisture in the air and wood they eat. They do not build mud tubes like their subterranean counterparts. Instead they live in and thrive on dried wood. Unfortunately for property owners, this especially means wood used for construction and furniture. Wall studs, wooden antiques, wood siding, ceiling joists, and floorboards are all prime targets for drywood termites.

Drywood termites inhabit much of the southern U.S. Their territory spans from central California, through southern Texas, and up the Atlantic Coast to Virginia. While they spread by swarming, drywood termites travel far in furniture.

Like subterranean termites, you likely won’t see the workers eating up your home. What you will see are the winged alates when they swarm in late spring. You can tell them apart from their subterranean counterparts by the several dark lines on their wings.

Dampwood Termites

Dampwood termites are an order of termites that thrive only in high-moisture environments They’re found largely in the Northwest U.S., but some species also exist in southwestern states like Georgia and Florida. They like climates with plentiful rainfall and high humidity.

They take residence in and feed on water damaged wood. Rotten wood due to clogged gutters, leaking pipes or flooding is susceptible to dampwood termites, and should be a top concern for homeowners.

Dampwood termites are much larger than their subterranean and drywood cousins. Dampwood soldiers grow up to ¾ inch in length. They range from shades of amber to dark brown.

What Does Termite Damage Look Like?

It’s crucial to identify potential termite damage in order to take steps to eradicate the termites and repair the damage. Termite damage is often mistaken for water damage, but there are several differences between the two. Water damage causes cube-shaped scaling in wood, whereas termite damage can be spotted through long tunnels along the grain.

Learn how to spot termites and signs of termite damage by keeping an eye out for these indicators.

Swarming

Swarming alates are your best chance for spotting termites. Subterranean and dampwood termites typically swarm on warm spring and summer days. Drywood termites swarm in late summer and into fall. Visible swarms of termites around your home are a clear indicator of a termite infestation. Residual evidence of swarms, like termite wings and droppings that look like coffee grounds, are a telltale sign of termite presence.

Buckling Wood

Wood buckles when it’s exposed to excessive moisture, but it also buckles when it’s infested with termites. Wood buckling or blistering can occur anywhere from floorboards and structural beams to crown molding and wood furniture. If you see buckling wood, you may have a termite problem and should investigate further.

Swollen Floors And Ceilings

Like buckling wood, swelling floors and ceilings are an indicator of water damage or a termite colony. Termites burrowing into the wood causes it to swell and bulge. This swelling is more than an eyesore. It’s a sign of dangerous structural damage. With enough damage, unsteady floors and ceiling will cave in.

‘Mazes’ In Walls Or Furniture

One of the most obvious signs of termite damage is visible tunnels in wood around your home. These “mazes” are created by the termites chewing a path through your walls or furniture.

Termite tracks in wood.

Smell Of Mold Or Mildew

Severe termite infestations stink of mold and mildew. If you have cleaned an area of mold and mildew and the smell persists, you may have a termite issue. Consult a professional to do an inspection as soon as possible.

How To Repair Termite Damage

Termites aren’t just one of those things that go away. They’ll keep eating away at your home until they’re out of food and you’re out of a home. As soon as you suspect termite presence, take action. The sooner you act, the less time termites will have to cause damage. If termites are there, you’re going to have to repair.

Make Sure All Termites Are Eradicated

The most vital part of the process of repairing termite damage is eradicating the termites. If you don’t get rid of the termites first, any wood you replace is just fresh food for them to feed on. Hire professional pest control to inspect and eliminate the termites from your home. Once the termites are gone, then you can start repairing.

Remove Or Replace Damaged Wood

Whether it’s damaged wall studs, floorboards or dresser drawers, the damaged wood needs to be removed and replaced. Severe damage to wooden furniture may mean you should replace the piece altogether. Wood responsible for maintaining the structure of your house needs to be replaced with urgency. It’s wise to hire a contractor to ensure safe removal and replacement. With replacing decorative pieces of wood, such as trim and molding, there’s less risk to your safety, but you may want to hire a carpenter anyway, depending on your skill.

Reinforce Damaged Wood With New Wood

If the termite-damaged wood is not integral to the structure of the house, you can reinforce it with new wood. Wood that isn’t severely damaged can also be repaired with a synthetic wood filler. Patching or reinforcing wood that’s decorative and not badly damaged is a simple job completed with a couple tools and a little know-how.

How Much Does Repairing Termite Damage Cost?

It’s estimated termites do tens of billions of dollars’ worth of damage every year in the USA. For your home, the cost could range depending on the amount of damage and complexity of the repair. Orkin estimates homeowners spend an average of $3,000 to repair termite damage. Most homeowners insurance does not cover termite damage, as termite prevention is seen as important, regular home maintenance.

How To Prevent Future Infestations

Being proactive can go a long way to prevent a termite infestation. Know where your home may be vulnerable to termites. Take the proper steps to inspect for damage and maintain your property. With a little work, you can make sure your home doesn’t become a termite hotbed.

Prioritize Home Inspections

If you’re house hunting and looking to buy a home, you need to place a high priority on a professional home inspection. Having a home inspection performed to check for termite damage will help avoid infestations in the future should you choose to purchase the property. A professional home inspector has the experience and the eye to spot problems most people would not see. With a quality home inspection, you can be aware of termite damage before it becomes your problem.

Conduct Regular Checks For Damage

Part of being a homeowner is doing regular examinations of your house for damage. Walk around the outside of your property and check for damage to wooden fences, decks and porches. Get on a ladder and check to make sure your gutters are draining properly and the wood behind them isn’t rotting.

With a critical eye, look around the inside of your home for damaged wood. If you have a basement or crawl space, investigate the beams and floorboards with a flashlight. Do these inspections this as part of your spring cleaning or fall cleaning to ensure you aren’t missing any potential new infestations. This way, if something unusual pops up, you’ll recognize it and be able to address it before it becomes a bigger problem.

Hire A Professional

If you find what you suspect to be a termite problem, hire a professional. Don’t try to DIY this. Once termites show signs of being in your home, it’s likely they’ve already been there for years and have spread to large numbers. A pest control professional will remove the termites and take the steps to ensure future infestations don’t set up shop in your home.  

The Bottom Line

Now you know the different types of termites, how they spread and how to spot them. Termites are attracted to moisture and can invade your home through openings in your home’s structure. You can lookout for common signs of termite damage like buckling wood, termite swarms and “mazes” or “tunnels” in the wood around your house. Termites cause ceilings and floors to swell and can often leave behind the smell of mold or mildew.

Spotting termites is the first step to removing them. Hire a qualified inspector when you’re looking to buy a home to make sure the house is termite-free. When you own the home, check the interior and exterior semi-yearly for termites. Chances are if you spot them, they’ve already been there for a while. Move with urgency before they spread and do more damage. Call a professional exterminator to commit to eradicating the colony, repairing damage and preventing further infestations.

Termites cause billions of dollars in damage every year. A little precaution and inspection can make sure you’re not their next victim.

Check the Rocket HomesSM blog for more homeowner tips and home buying articles.

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Andrew Dehan

Andrew Dehan is a professional writer who writes about real estate and homeownership. He is also a published poet, musician and nature-lover. He lives in metro Detroit with his wife, daughter and dogs.