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Steve McLinden, the Bankrate.com Real Estate AdviserTermites alone should not undermine purchase

Dear Real Estate Adviser,
I recently had an inspection done on a home I want to buy. During the inspection, it was found that termites had damaged about four feet of the main support beam. Is this a good enough reason to back out of the deal?
-- Susana

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Dear Susana,
It depends on how badly you want the house, how thoroughly the repair work is done and what your sales contract states.

For starters, opinions vary on the termite issue. Some home professionals say you should run, not walk away from such a house, if possible, because there might be other termite damage or infestation that's not yet apparent and that it may take expensive invasive testing (opening walls, ceilings, etc.) to know for sure.

Others say such damage is quite common and that full replacement of the main beam -- which may run upward of $2,000 -- along with other preventive termite treatment should suffice.

But, there are too many unknown facts that make it difficult for me to make a definitive call on whether you should bail out. For example, was the damage divulged to you in the seller disclosure statement? If not, then you have an out. What type of language addressed structural issues or damage repairs in the contract? This could also dictate your course of action.

In the vast majority of cases, sellers are obligated to fix such damage or at least provide a liberal cash credit at closing to cover the necessary work. In the latter case, you would at least control the quality of the repair work. The owners, after all, might not necessarily hire the best contractor if they gravitate to the lowest bid. (Lenders, by the way, will require an acceptable termite letter before they can release funds.)

If the current owner does the work, then it needs to be reinspected by someone representing you. In the case of a main beam, you may be best served by bringing in a structural engineer to look at the work -- and the balance of the house. A rotting main beam can compromise a home's structural integrity and cause sagging or damage to other stress-bearing points in a house.

In most parts of the country, termites are a fact of life and their presence is felt, to some degree, by a high percentage of homeowners. Species vary from region to region and some are more aggressive and harder to eradicate than others, which could be an important factor in your decision. Find out which kind you're dealing with.

But regardless of what you do, termites may return to the house. Treatment companies can't guarantee the little buggers won't work their way through the ground again and enter a different vulnerable area. And remember that you will have to disclose all termite treatments when it comes time for you to resell the place, which might narrow your buying universe a little. If all this doesn't scare you, you really want that house and your contractor or engineer says it's structurally sound, then, hey, go for it.

Good luck.

To ask a question of the Real Estate Adviser, go to the "Ask the Experts" page and select "buying, selling a home" as the topic.

Bankrate.com's corrections policy -- Posted: Nov. 25, 2006
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