The threat of a termite infestation is nothing foreign to Lowcountry homeowners. The mere mention of one can make the hairs on the back of a homeowner's neck stand up.

The pesky insects cause an estimated $5 billion in property damage in the United States each year, according to the National Pest Management Association and more than 600,000 homes are damaged. 

Experts say that homeowners spend between $1 billion and $2 billion on prevention every year.

The most common termite species in South Carolina come from the ground and feed off the cellulose found in wood and other building materials. They look similar to ants, about 1/4th to 1/2 an inch in size, but their wings are roughly equal in length. 

A home can experience tremendous damage before the owner notices the infestation, says Eric Benson, a professor and entomologist at Clemson University. 

Rarely does an infestation result in tearing down a home, but homeowners are better off trying to prevent a problem than dealing with the aftermath.

Many homeowners buy termite bonds through pest control companies. Depending on the type of bond and the property's location, the insurance-like agreement either covers the cost of future treatment for the term of the bond or pays for any damage up to a certain amount. Most bonds involve an initial treatment and regular inspections after that.

A recent infestation in a Berkeley County home led to a civil lawsuit over a dispute between the owners and a termite control company over who should pay the extensive cost of repairs. 

Brandon Ahrens, owner of Lowcountry Termite and Pest Control, says the biggest mistake bond purchasers make is not clarifying the coverage.

He says he and his technicians are careful to go over contracts with customers so they know what they're getting into. Ahrens says his company typically covers damage up to $300,000 with a damage warranty but it varies by firm. The average claims he deals with are usually less than $25,000, he says.

"Make sure you read the contracts. Make sure you know what’s being talked about and signed," he says, "and if you have questions, always ask."

Lowcountry termites

The four most common species in South Carolina are all subterranean termites, Benson says. Three species, including the Eastern and Southeastern varieties, are native to the area and were here before recorded history.

The fourth, the Formosan subterranean termite, is an invasive species inadvertently introduced from East Asia after World War II. While it's often seen as a more ravenous termite, in reality one Formosan worker inflicts as much damage as it's native counterpart.  

"Formosans typically have a significantly larger colony than Easterns, and where the fear comes from is not the fact that they eat more wood than Easterns," Ahrens says. "It’s the fact that their colonies are so big that they can cause damage a lot quicker."

Unlike the native varieties, Formosan colonies mainly exist on the southern coast of the state — especially in Charleston County. Benson says researchers have observed them as far north as Orangeburg but most infestations have been reported in Beaufort, Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties. 

Formosans can build aerial nests, infesting through the use of swarmers, but Benson says these are less common than some may think. Like other subterranean species, most Formosans permeate a structure from the ground up.

"It’s like, you know, having a beach house or, you know, a cabin in the woods kind of thing," Benson says. "But their main home is the ground, so the main treatment is into the ground."

Prevention, treatment

Risk factors like moisture and wood piles on the side of the house can make it harder to fend off termites. Benson says most infestations involve moisture problems but not all untreated moisture problems will result in one.

Termite bonds are a good way to protect a home as long as the purchaser knows what they're paying for. Some home buyers mistake a South Carolina Wood Infestation Report, also known as a CL-100 or "clear letter," as documentation that their home will remain termite-free.

It doesn't.

The state requires an inspection company to examine the property and note any possible infestation or risk on the CL-100 form, but it's only good for 30 days and in no way guarantees against any future infestation. Mortgage lenders often require the clear letter before approving a loan.

Andy Barber of Generation Homes says a good question for home buyers to ask is how much prevention was considered when a home was built.

Barber works in real estate and construction. He says measures taken before the home is finished can save the future owner time and money. Many homes he works on are built with treated wood resistant to termites, and he's started to see an increase in exterminators' use of traps that use bait to lure the insects to their demise.

"In a lot of cases, once a bond is expired, it’s very expensive to get it renewed," Barber says.

Ahrens says he never wants to see customers void their bond by failing to pay or not reading the contract, especially when the most tedious and expensive work is done at the time the bond is purchased.

Benson says termite control is something best left to experts.

"Termite control is specialized," Benson says. "If you’re putting a liquid treatment, for typical homes, it might be hundreds of gallons of diluted material. That is beyond the scope of most people. They don’t have the equipment or the know-how to do that."

Benson suggests homeowners who suspect they have an infestation take their time to contact multiple pest control companies and get multiple quotes. Ahrens says he tells potential clients to do the same. 

"It’s an important industry in South Carolina, and most companies are going to do a good job because that’s their livelihood," Benson says.

The state Department of Pesticide Regulation maintains a directory of licensed pest control operators and a history of how well they have followed the law. Prospective customers can check their contractors history at this website: http://regfocus.clemson.edu/dpr/greenbook.htm.

"We always tell people, ‘You know, price is important,'" Benson says.

"'But be careful of the ones, especially, that seem almost too good to be true, that really low price, because what are you getting for that price?"

Reach Jesse Naranjo at 843-937-5764. Follow him on Twitter @jesselnaranjo.