Illustration: Brent Bennett
When homeowner George Mabry and the This Old House team removed the outdoor wood siding during the renovation of his 1950s Cambridge, Massachusetts, home, they beheld an unpleasant sight: extensive termite and carpenter-ant damage within the structure of the house.

The encounter was especially disconcerting to Mabry, who had assumed that his contract for twice-annual pest inspections would prevent any such infestation.

But wood-eating insects often live undetected--even to exterminators--until a major renovation outs them. Though new, more thorough technologies are being tested one uses sound, another detects bugs' movement and moist bodies, inspectors today depend on visual signs of damage or use moisture meters to assess potential infestations.

Not encouraging news when trying to protect a monumental investment like a home.

But that doesn't mean you should hire a pest-control firm's report and just hope for the best.

Don't pay for one-time inspections with a firm. Sign a contract for multiple, period pest-control services, says Greg Bauman, technical director for the National Pest Management Association. Periodic inspections are more likely to detect problems early, allowing for a rapid response. Prompt detection is critical for successfully and permanently ending destruction.

And make sure you're getting the precise services you need. Too often, people buy general contracts, which usually cover ordinary ants, spiders, and roaches.

Bauman says homeowners might not realize that they're not covered for wood-destroying bugs. In fact, "a lot of companies don't do termites."

Historically, exterminators had crews who handled general pests and those that tackled the trickier wood-destroyers. Some companies have come to specialize in one or the other.

Before hiring a company, require it to list exactly which species of insects and rodents are covered. If possible, get an outfit that sells comprehensive coverage. Having one company for rodents and another for termites can be difficult for homeowners to manage. The pest-management association helps locate member exterminators for consumers.

Once you've signed the contract, regularly tour your home looking for red flags. Around the outside foundation and in the basement are great places to look for activity. Insulated areas between the ceiling and floors or in crawlspaces are attractive to carpenter ants, so check the interior as well.

Watch for telltale signs of termite activity --primarily tubes--or piles of sawdust , which indicate carpenter ants are present.

Know how these creatures get into your home. Excess moisture attracts wood-eating insects, so keep gutters clean and fix leaky hoses that are attached to the house. Keep wood that touches your home from also touching soil.

Termites are subterranean, and invade from below, but carpenter ants can travel on grass, tree branches, and phone lines. So, keep roofs and walls clear of branches, and regularly check phone or cable lines attached to the house for ants.

In most areas, beware of large ants walking around, especially from dusk and into the night during the summer. The insects are less likely to be spotted by predators and the temperature is moderate. The West Coast is home to apparently hardier, gutsier varieties that are active in daylight.

We've collected more advice on ridding your house of termites and other insects.

Finally, watch the skies. Or at least the air inside and immediately near your home. Carpenter ants and termites launch individuals charmingly known as "swirmers," or members of a colony that sprout wings to found new colonies. Catch one, bag it, and call the exterminator.

The thing to remember is that while these little buggers aren't clever, they are persistent and they outnumber we home-owning primates. Be watchful and wield a weapon the wood-eaters haven't mastered yet--a solid, annual contract for comprehensive pest-control services.
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