Free termite inspection scams?

Things like brake jobs have been discussed to death on this board and the consensus has generally been that if a shop has a sign that says “Free brake inspection” that most every car that drives in for that inspection will be told they need new brakes, need rotors resurfaced, brake fluid flushed, etc.

In our neighborhood, I have seen a handful of houses get the ‘circus tent’ over them with signs from the termite companies doing the job posted out front saying they will do ‘free inspections’ since they are in the area. There also seem to be several providers that use techniqes ranging from electrical, to freezing, to orange oil to get rid of them.

What surprises me is that I don’t think our houses are that old, relatively speaking (all built in 1995), yet I have seen three homes undergo this treatment in the last few months. My concern is that IF there are termites in the area, they could easily move from the treated houses to our house nearby. Likewise, I assume if you catch them early, it’s much better. I know one of the classic signs you have termites is that you find small piles of sawdust. I have not seen any, but who knows what I’d find if I was willing to get dirty crawling around the attic or looking in crawl spaces?

What I really want to know is, if you take these guys up on their ‘free inspection’, do they just bring a pile of sawdust with them, sprinkle it around, and then say “good thing we caught this early, it will only cost you $X thousand dollars”. The questions I specifically have are:

  1. Have any Dopers worked in termite treatment companies and want to fess up to scams where homeowners were told they had termites when they really didn’t?

  2. You hear about brake shops and other auto repair places getting busted all the time by inspectors who bring in cars that have nothing wrong with them. Is there a similar law enforcement/ inspection of termite treatment places?

  3. If the nearest house to mine that got tented was five houses down the street, what is the danger the termites have spread to my house? Is there any correlation between proximity to the tented home and your risk, or do termites spread somewhat randomly?

  4. Finally, if one really does have termites, and the evidence is convincing, is there a treatment technique that has been shown to work substantially better than others?

I don’t know if I can answer your specific questions, but I recently had my house treated for a termite infestation. I think your answers to this are going varying depending on your location, species of termite, type of home construction, etc., but I did some research on the subject before seeking treatment, and here’s my limited breadth of knowledge:

1.) Free inspections… most companies will make at least a cursory inspection while they give you a free quote. In my case, the outward signs of infestation were obvious. I have a stucco on frame, on slab, constructed home. After frequent summer rains, I started noticing termite tubes going up the visible foundation portion and disappearing into the wall where the wood framing starts. They look like a slightly squiggly line of dirt running up the foundation wall, about the width of a pencil eraser. I also had them coming up through the expansion joints in the garage. They are unmistakable. I was told if you see them appearing inside your house, you have a serious infestation (I didn’t). I don’t think it is sawdust that is a sign of termites as much as it is the finely grained dirt that makes up the tube construction.

2.) In my state (AZ), inspectors can be certified, but I don’t think it is a requirement. In my experience, regulatory oversight of contractors varies greatly from state to state. If you live in a business climate friendly state, gov’t oversight is probably lax to non-existent. As with all endeavors, “buyer beware” is the best practice.

3.) I have heard before, and my inspector confirmed, that termites will migrate to the next closest food source if I am presenting a formidable barrier at my residence. So yes, if your neighbors are getting treated, you’re possibly next. However, I remember reading that termite behaviors varying greatly by species, with some being wide-ranging, aggressive, territorial, and other being very small, localized colonies, so who knows if they’ve figured out where you live yet. My house is only 5 years old, so structure age obviously doesn’t matter. Personally, I’m hoping my termite problem migrates over to my jerkass neighbor’s house.

Treatment: I think if your house is getting tented, that means you either have a particularly nasty infestation in the walls or you got scammed for an expensive treatment (based on what I’ve read). Most termite companies these days are pushing baiting or barrier systems as effective and less costly solutions. I had the barrier system installed around my house. Basically, they made a shallow trench around the entire foundation and backfilled it with termiticide solution. In areas where there is a concrete slab next to your foundation, such as porch/patio, and garage –they drill through the slab every 18” or so and pump the solution directly under it so that there is a continuous barrier around your house. The termiticide doesn’t kill termites on contact or prevent them from accessing your yummy walls, but rather acts on them sort of like a cancer. They carry it back to the colony and spread it by sharing food, grooming each other, etc. and eventually the entire colony dies out from it. This was the most effective solution presented to me, and everything I’ve read backs this method up as an effective treatment. It wasn’t as costly as I expected either, and it came with a 5 yr. warranty, so it is fairly long-lasting. I haven’t seen any new tubes since the treatment so I’m hoping that is a sign it is working. If you spot signs, don’t fall for cheap spot treatments -they’ll be back. I saw a few signs about a year ago when my house was still under a builder’s termite warranty. They came out and spot treated and assured me my termite problem was gone. Yeah right.

That’s about all I can offer you. If you have active termites in your neighborhood, why not take advantage of the “free inspection” offers. Get several and compare the results, ask for referrals, then do some homework on looking for potential signs yourself. I check every contracting company I do business with by checking my local better business bureau, registrar of contractors, and even customer reviews sites like Kudzu and Service Magic.

I can’t answer your question either, but it is good of you to be wary. Our house is heated with natural gas, as are 99 percent of Dutch homes. But we still get chimney sweepers offering their services, suggesting that if we don’t sweep “regularly”, we increase the risk of chimney fires.

Yet natural gas doesn’t give off soot that dirties chimneys, so it needs sweeping as much as a fish needs a bicycle.

These people are simply preying on the memories of older folks who remember the need for chimney sweeps when they heated their homes with wood or oil furnaces.:mad:

Note that a properly adjusted oil burner should not foul its chimney. Because this can’t be assumed, occasional inspection is sensible - but routine cleaning shouldn’t be. (I heated with oil for 10 years, and the chimney was still pretty much like new.)

Can’t comment on the scams so this is only indirectly related to the OP, but - if your area is one where termite activity is common, it’s well worth it to have an annual inspection. We were told this by the realtor who handled our first house purchase (19 years ago, a townhouse) and subsequent research has borne this out. A friend who lives near us, but was not told this, found out after termites had infested their house.

IIRC, they did not require tenting, but the place did have to be treated.

Also - I wonder about inspections in general. When we sold that townhouse, 6 years ago, a termite inspection was paid for by the buyer - standard procedure around here. They found nothing. We contacted our inspection service to switch our contract over to the new house, and they scheduled an inspection. Their paperwork got mixed up, and they went to the old house by mistake. For whatever reason, the new owner let them in.

And they found evidence of termites. I think it was outside the house, and easily treated… but I have to question the inspector (from a different company) who missed the evidence 2 months before.

If someone showed up offering a “free” termites inspection I’d be more concerned that they would just be using this as a ruse for casing my house for a break-in later on.

Thanks for the advice, particularly about the two consumer service rating websites I had never heard of. Those are great. I think what I’m going to do is go talk to the neighbor and find out exactly what ‘evidence’ there was that they had infestations and check for it in my own home, and against what I find online. I thought termites could fly, and if so, how does a ground based barrier system stop them? Again, not to pull the scam card, but to quote Lisa Simpson, this sounds a lot like “I’ve got a rock that keeps away Tigers”.