Landscaping with tanbark or mulch? Use caution!

Some Silicon Valley homeowners spruce up their yards and gardens in spring and summer with tanbark or mulch. While this is a very common practice, and often encouraged as a drought-friendly gardening option, it can be a bad idea if it is too close to the structure, especially the home’s foundation.

Tanbark is simply small bits of wood, and most common mulch is often no more than shredded wood. Why is that bad? Wood is food for termites and piles of tanbark or mulch can invite and hide them as well!

 

Tanbark or Mulch?

Beware Tanbark or Mulch by the foundation!Mulch is the more widely used term and it can cover a broad scope of materials, but the most common type you will find in stores (and in Bay Area gardens) is the woodchip mulch. If you ask for mulch at a hardware store, this is most likely what they will show you. In the local vernacular, we often refer to mulch as the fine, thin, or decomposed stuff – we have a different name for the larger bark and wood chips.

I learned only recently that tanbark is something of a local term that people from other parts of the state or country may not be familiar with. Here in the Bay Area we call the stuff you commonly see underfoot at playgrounds or piled thick on the planted berms around a shopping mall parking lot by the name of tanbark. Some people may reserve the name for the large chunky bark chips while others will call just about any wood chip substrate by that name. So tanbark is, in fact, a mulch.

Homeowners and sellers wanting their home to make a good first impression are often tempted to apply mulch or tanbark in otherwise bare patches around their yard, but you can wind up with far bigger (and more costly) problems if it’s too close to the foundation!

What Was That About Termites & tanbark or mulch?

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How Often Should You Get A Termite Inspection?

Dampwood termite seen at the Almden Winery neighborhoodIf you live in Santa Clara County, once known as The Valley of Hearts Delight, you no doubt appreciate our mild, sub-tropical climate. Unfortunately, so do the termites. With that in mind, the question often arises about how often to get a termite inspection.

Types of termites in Silicon Valley and nearby

We have two main types of termites here (and other wood-destroying pests too), drywood termites and subterranean termites.

The subterranean termites, or subs as they are called, can be identified by the mud tubes they build from the ground or floor up the side of a wall. As their name implies, they live underground, and build the tubes as they go. Pest Control operators will remove the tubes and treat the area, injecting chemicals underground at spaced intervals, to exterminate them. See my post on identifying subs here.

Drywood termites, or drywoods, may live anywhere in the the home where there’s wood to eat. If they are found only in one or two areas, a licensed pest control company may do a local treatment. The difficulty with local treatments is that drywood termites may also be lurking in places that cannot be seen, such as between the walls. For that reason, the standard recommendation is to fumigate (also called to tent or to fume) the structure.

If you live in the Santa Cruz Mountains, or close to them, you may also have dampwood termites to contend with. I have seen them in Los Gatos, Cambrian, and Almaden.
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How is that wood siding working out?

Damaged wood sidingWood siding is extremely common in the San Jose area and Silicon Valley as a whole, both on condominiums & townhouses and also on houses.  (We do not see a lot of vinyl siding here, as we might in other parts of the country.) Water is the #1 enemy of houses – even more than termites!  It is necessary to control water intruding into the wood, because if it gets in, fungus and rot can get a start on your home.

How do you prevent  water damage, fungus, and dry rot on wood siding?

Exterior wood needs to be painted about every five years or it can crack, peel, and otherwise allow moisture intrusion. If the wood is kept sealed, it can do very well against water. Another big cause of expensive wood repairs outdoors is earth to wood contact.  If you have ever built a fence, or had one made for you, you’ve probably seen that the best practice is to put the wooden posts into concrete rather than directly into the dirt.  The reason is simple: soil gets damp and the wood will wick up the moisture, whether it’s fence boards, posts, part of a wooden deck, or the siding on your home.  If the siding or other wood comes near the soil, the recommendation is to separate them one way or the other. In the photo I’ve included with this article, the siding of this townhome complex was allowed to touch the earth.  You can see the results: expensive repairs needed! The old saying goes that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of curse”.  It’s especially true with caring for wood siding and other times of wood on the outside of your home or in your yard.   If you can remember to do a walk-around every few months, at least twice a year, you are more likely to find the beginnings of issues before they become thousands of dollars.  Keep a schedule for painting and make sure you do it before it looks like it’s needed.  If you wait until there’s chipping and cracking, you may already have trouble!  Watch for earth to wood contact, and rake away the soil or take other measures to protect your siding. This is true for owners of townhomes too.  It seems like decades ago, home owner associations were often responsible for siding, but in the last few years I’ve been finding more and more HOAs make that the owner’s responsibility, even if the HOA is in charge of the painting schedule.    Make sure that you have a look at your siding regularly so that you can stop fungus and dry rot in their tracks and prevent a small headache from becoming extremely costly. Finally, it’s a good idea to have a pest inspection (termite inspection) every 3 to 5 years to nip any issues in the bud. Related reading: What Is Cellulose Debris (in a pest or termite report)?

 

 

 

What is fumigation prep work?

What is fume prep?If a house or other building is going to be fumigated for drywood termites (not subterranean termites), certain things must be done for the tent to go on and to effectively seal the structure.  We call that “fume prep” work or “fumigation prep” work. It is sometimes included in the cost of the fumigation, and sometimes not – so if this work is being done at your property, be sure to ask if it’s part of the bid!  If it’s not included, there are companies that can be hired to do these jobs if you do not want to or cannot do them yourself. (If you need one in Silicon Valley, please email me and I can give you a name or two.)

Anything which obstructs being able to enclose the home or building must be cut back, disconnected or removed.  For instance:

  • fences or gates which touch the building must have a few slats or sections removed so the tent can be placed next to the house
  • bushes, hedges, trees and other plants which are adjacent to the house must be trimmed back or pulled away as much as possible – at least 12″ from the structure (if trees are touching it, they must be trimmed)
  • any other structure such as a trellis or deck must either be included with the fumigation or separated from the house so that a tent can go between it and the house
  • downspouts connected to French drains must be disconnected at the ground
  • loose gravel, tanbark or mulch needs to be raked back or removed at least 12″
  • any stored items up against the building must be removed (more…)

Fumigation needed? Be aware of burglary risk!

This morning I read an Action Line column in the San Jose Mercury News which got my attention: a house was burglarized during a fumigation and many valuable items were lost. “The burglar tore through the tent and took some very valuable and deeply sentimental items, important documents, and our Social Security cards as well as a lot of credit cards.”  This surprised me as the structure was full of poison.  Apparently with gas masks donned, the thieves had no fear and helped themselves to the unguarded goodies within.

I wondered if this was a fluke or if it was a growing trend.  After all, the economy has been rough for years. Perhaps criminals all over California and the U.S. as a whole have had to get creative and take more risks.  So I went to Google to see what kind of response I’d get with a search for “burglary during fumigation“.  Indeed, it’s a nationwide problem of theft during tenting for termites and this incident in Silicon Valley does not appear to be an oddity, but rather part of a growing trend.

Until a few years ago, perhaps 10 or 15 years ago, security guards were required to be on hand when a property was fumigated.  I don’t recall when or why this changed, but today guards are not routinely on site for fumigations in the San Jose area – at least not to my knowledge.

What to do?  It is a real pain to live in a townhouse, house or other home and have it tented.  You not only need to move out for a few days, but also you must generally move out all food (some exceptions).  Many people also want to clear out bedding and other goods, including valuables.  But most folks won’t completely empty a house and then move right back in again. That’s costly in terms of time and money.  Even in a vacant house, some items could still be stolen such as thermostats, potted plants in the back yard, and light fixtures.  (That happened to one of my clients in Cambrian a number of years ago.)

The presence of a security guard is likely your best bet for improving the odds that your property won’t be targeted by thieves.  Your fumigator or pest control company can probably suggest a reliable firm with trustworthy employees who have all the necessary requirements (licensed, bonded, insured?).  If your property is vacant (between owners or tenants), you may not feel that this cost is warranted and be willing to take your chances.  But if you fumigate your home and it’s got valuables within, I would suggest investigating some security.  It’s not a secret when a building is fumigated, and apparently too many bad guys consider it “open season” on your possessions.

Related reading on termites and pest control issues:

Would You Recognize Signs of Subterranean Termites If You Saw Them?

How often should you get a termite inspection?

“The house was ‘termited’ four years ago. Do we need to do it again?” – Question of the Day!

 

 

 

Watch for Dampwood Termites in Silicon Valley!

Miguel Torres and dampwood termite at Almaden Winery neighborhood of San JoseI’ve been selling real estate since 1993, full time, in Silicon Valley. Until recently I had never seen dampwood termites in this area, but a few months ago I caught sight of  a dead one at the Almaden Winery neighborhood (on the Cambrian and Almaden border) when our pest inspector, Miguel Torres from Thrasher Termite, noticed it and gave me an education on them.  Luckily there were no live dampwood termites to be found! I thought it was a weird fluke.

Fast forward a few months, and  again this week I saw first the much smaller,  immature dampwood termites (so I didn’t recognize them, but suspected that they were termites of some kind as they were coming out of rotting wood) and a few days later saw the large and now mature dampwood termites swarming in the same location in Belgatos Park, Los Gatos, close to where my family and I live. Initially I thought they were strange moths as there was a lot of flapping motion, but on closer look I could see that they were indeed termites and they were big!!! (more…)

“The house was ‘termited’ four years ago. Do we need to do it again?” – Question of the Day!

This afternoon I was driving along Blossom Hill Road in Los Gatos, with my destination being the salad bar at Whole Foods, when my cell phone rang.  A woman who did not identify herself or her location said to me, after noting that she called the number from the blog/site, “a house was termited four years ago. Do we really need to do it again?”  She needed professional, unbiased real estate advice, and figured that since I had nothing to gain either way, I’d tell her the truth.

I asked her what she meant by “termiting”.  Was it an inspection, a fumigation, or some other treatment that was done 4 years ago?  She elaborated that the house was tented for (drywood) termites four years ago.  She didn’t want to waste her money “termiting” again (to use her words).

“Are you buying a house?” I asked her.  “Yes” she confirmed.  I continued, “then you probably should get a termite inspection from a licensed and reputable company because drywood termites can come right back after the treatment.  Not only that, but the inspector will look for other things, like subterranean termites, dry rot, fungus, boring beatles, and more.” (I did explain that you don’t just tent for drywoods – they may or may not be a problem. What you want is an inspection to see if there’s anything that does need treating. The inspector might find cellulose debris, for instance, and will note whether it’s infected or not.) (more…)

Would You Recognize Signs of Subterranean Termites If You Saw Them?

Recently I was showing a buyer of mine a San Jose house which was vacant.  Often a home is occupied and the garage, in particular, is full of stuff so it’s hard to see the walls very well.  In this case, though, we could easily view where the walls in the garage meet the floor.  And this is what we saw:

 

A Signal There May Be Subterranean Termites

Mud tubes traveling from the ground on the foundation are one sign that subterranean termites may be present.

Are those subterranean termites?

Only a qualified, licensed Pest Control Operator can diagnose termites and pests, but this looks a lot like subterranean termite tubes to me.  When you see “mud tubes” such as this, it is time to call a good termite and pest control company for diagnosis and treatment.

Why do termite & pest companies insist that the garage be largely free of personal possessions when they inspect? It is so that they don’t miss things exactly like this.

When buying or selling a home, understand that the inspectors aren’t being difficult if they won’t warranty a garage as free of pests when they cannot view the walls or floor.  Bookshelves and personal storage can obstruct the view of things like this.  If you’re selling, be ready for the inspectors – have all your items away from the walls or even better, entirely out of the garage. If they have to call a packed garage as an “unknown further inspection”, it’s likely to cause you problems later, when there’s a time pressure.  Best to know upfront, for everyone’s sake, what the score is.

And if you’re concerned about repairs

Don’t worry, they wont rip your foundation up… Not entirely. Here’s what the foundation looks like after treatment – just a few quarter sized holes are drilled out and later refilled so that chemical injections can be made into the soil below the affected area.

Subterranean termite treatment

Post-treatment floor. Visible are a few quarter-cent size spots on the foundation.

Interested in reading more about local termites, pests, and inspections? Check these out:

How Often Should You Get A Termite Inspection?

What Is Cellulose Debris (in a pest or termite report)?

What Kinds of Inspections and Reports Are Needed For Buying and Selling Homes in Silicon Valley?

Watch for Dampwood Termites in Silicon Valley!

Choosing a Termite and Pest Company…