10 Things Your Exterminator Won't Tell You

He's supposed to help you get rid of all the creepy crawly things around your house. But watch out: You might wind up with more problems than you started out with — and not all of them will have six legs.

1. "Your bugs will come back — but we might not."
Imagine waking up one morning...with ants crawling through your sheets. You rush to the bathroom, and they're zipping around the tiles. Now, in the kitchen, you find them crawling in and around your cereal boxes. Bug-out!

Too bad Anju Garg wasn't imagining things. "It was disgusting," she says of that May 2000 morning when ants attacked her Cerritos, Calif., home. Garg quickly called a local Terminix franchise, whose technicians came and sprayed her home. They subsequently returned for two more regular monthly treatments — but the ants never went away. While Garg's $45-a-month service contract guaranteed "unlimited free re-service...between regular visits," Garg says calls for extra treatments went ignored. Terminix claims "technicians did return several times...but the homeowner was not at home." Garg has since switched to a new exterminator, but says of Terminix, "They claim, 'no bugs, no hassles.' But there were thousands of bugs and tons of hassles."

Fact is, exterminators rarely guarantee they'll eliminate your pests. Evin Dugas, a Houston lawyer who often handles pest control cases, warns that unless your contract with an exterminator explicitly calls for complete elimination, "then he doesn't have any obligation to get rid of your bug problem."

2. "If your new home has termites, we won't find them."
With home sales booming, so is the business of inspecting real estate for wood-destroying organisms (WDO). In most cases, before a bank approves a mortgage, a buyer must provide documentation from a licensed exterminator that the house is free of such pests as termites, powder post beetles or carpenter bees. According to Mike Casey, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, one in five homes on the market today has evidence of a WDO.

Kevin Brown thought the house he was buying in Cocoa, Fla., was termite-free. Before closing on the home in 1998, he received a report from the inspector, Massey Services, that noted a prior termite treatment in the home but no current infestation. But shortly after moving in, while preparing to re-carpet a bedroom, Brown discovered damage to the finished floor, which led him to find more damage and live termites elsewhere. Adam Jones, vice president of quality assurance at Massey, says the "real estate inspection is based on a visual inspection only, and we didn't see any live activity or damage on that day, but that's not to say that there wasn't any." (Brown sued Massey and the home's previous owners in Brevard County court, but the case eventually was ruled a mistrial because of a court error.)

To avoid a fate similar to Brown's, do two things: Get pest control records regarding the house, going back several years, from either the sellers or their exterminator, and make sure the inspector you hire checks for conditions conducive to wood-destroying organisms, such as areas with high amounts of moisture (for instance, basements or around chimneys) or where wood is in direct contact with soil. And to be on the safe side, consider getting a second inspector's opinion. (An inspection generally will cost between $40 and $150.)

3. "We don't pay for damages we should have prevented."
The protection guarantees offered by most pest control companies, such as Orkin, Massey Services and Terminix, offer to pay for "new" termite damage. But for many customers, trouble arises when trying to define just exactly what "new" damage is. Most exterminators usually take it to mean damage in an area that didn't have termites before your home was treated. But Roger E. Gold, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, says, "I don't know anyone who can look at a two-by-four and say which is new damage and which is old."

Just ask John Spence. Last July, Spence, president of his condominium complex in Ormond Beach, Fla., noticed that termites had eaten away chunks of wood holding up a picture window. He then found similar damage at five other buildings in the complex. He was told by Terminix that the damage was considered "old." Spence disagreed, contending that because Terminix had had the service contract since 1987, shortly after the buildings were completed, any damage had to be "new" damage and the exterminator was responsible for paying for repairs.

"If (Terminix) did its job, we wouldn't have any termites now," says Spence, who estimates the total damage to be around $30,000. A Terminix spokeswoman says, however, that the condominium complex has been "plagued with a history of moisture problems" that are a "natural attraction for subterranean termites." However, the pest control company did agree to pay $1,960 toward the repair of one damaged building.

4. "Don't bother with those expensive baits. Just use Raid."
Baiting systems geared to terminating termites have become quite elaborate in recent years — and expensive. For instance, exterminators will place about 20 small green tubes around your yard. Ideally, termites nibble at poisoned wood in the tubes, then return to their colonies to share the killer bait with other termites. The tubes need to be checked monthly by a technician for termite activity, and the total treatment can cost at least $1,200.

Pretty cool, but do the systems work? A study by Texas A&M University of 75 homes using such baits found that, after one year, only 50% of infested homes had fewer termites. (Dow AgroSciences, which markets Sentricon, one popular system, claims 98% effectiveness provided enough stations are used and they are serviced properly.) Harold Scheer, owner of a pest control company in Oklahoma City, Okla., says the problem with bait systems is that they don't attract termites. "They rely on the termites finding the baits," he says. Plus, "they won't work if the termites have an alternate food source-like your home."

5. "You find ants tricky to get rid of? Funny, so do we."
Fire ants. Pharaoh ants. Acrobat ants. Little black ants. Pain-in-the-ants. No matter what you call them, ants are aggravating. "Because some ants change dietary habits frequently," says John Klotz, entomologist at the University of California-Riverside, "it's hit or miss if you're using a bait" in trying to eliminate the little pests. Plus, some exterminators often have trouble identifying different types of ants in the first place.

Rob Steinbach found this out after a Terminix technician sprayed around his Memphis home in late 1997 to get rid of an ant infestation. Instead, the ants multiplied. What did Steinbach do? "We went on the Terminix Web site's online database and found the type of ants we had, Pharaoh ants. It said that if you spray, the colony will divide," says Steinbach. "We went out and bought our own baits, and within six weeks the ants were gone." Steinbach then canceled his pest service contract with Terminix. While not commenting on Steinbach's claims specifically, a Terminix spokeswoman says the Memphis office has an on-staff entomologist available, "as a resource to all technicians, and (he) speaks often with customers."

6. "I failed exterminator college."
Think the exterminator you let into your home is a qualified professional? Don't be so sure. A Pest Control Technology magazine survey shows that 46% of pest control operators say "lack of qualified labor" is the main factor limiting company growth. "Applicators are not trained as well as they should be," says John Munro, an expert witness in pest control cases. He adds that many applicators "don't have the necessary experience to size up and solve your problem."

To determine if your technician is right for the job, Munro advises you give him a quick quiz. Some questions to pose: Which professional organizations do you belong to — and where's the proof? What are some of the habits of the pests we're dealing with? (His answers should match trends you've noticed.) And are the chemicals you want to use safe around children? As Munro puts it, "If he says, 'They're safe enough to drink,' show him the door."

7. "Our chemicals will clobber bugs-and you."
Each year, 4.5 billion pounds of pesticides are applied in the U.S. That's a lot of potentially harmful chemicals. Consider Timothy Veal's situation. Shortly after Orkin applied more than 160 gallons of Dragnet FT to treat termite infestation at his Coloma, Mich., home in 1999, Veal's youngest daughter, Lindsay, had to be rushed to the hospital for vomiting and diarrhea. Veal says he suffered from upper respiratory problems and "couldn't think straight." Orkin arranged to have the family stay in a hotel for a week and had Braun Intertec, an engineering and consulting firm, perform environmental tests of the home. According to an Orkin spokeswoman, the tests showed "no harmful levels of products." Still, Veal charges Orkin was negligent and is seeking relief through an arbitration panel.

Got a bad taste for bug spray? Then ask your exterminator for a copy of the Material Safety Data Sheet and the chemical's label for your own records. Besides providing application instructions and noting EPA approval, the documents will list what side effects can occur if you're overexposed to the chemicals.

8. "Your old service contract means little to us."
Sure, more than 75% of pest control companies are independently owned, but "there's been a consolidation trend going on in the industry," says Bob Rosenberg, director of government affairs for the National Pest Management Association. Orkin and Terminix keep acquiring mom-and-pop companies and snatching up service contracts in the process. Think that means better service for customers? Well, consider this first: One in four complaints about exterminators to the Better Business Bureau in Houston (an area that has year-round pest problems due to its climate) involves customers upset over the service rendered by a pest control company that has taken over for a previous exterminator.

Has your old reliable Main Street exterminator just sold out to a major chain? Here are a few things to watch out for: First, inspect your bill closely. One Houston homeowner says he was suddenly charged for "future" services after his contract was assumed by a national chain. Also, make sure your new exterminator will accept responsibility for damage caused by termites during the time your home was being serviced by its former exterminator. And as many customers contend, don't be surprised if your new and bigger exterminator frequently calls to reschedule appointments — or doesn't show up at all. What's your next move? Cancel your service contract and start searching for a new and more reliable exterminator.

9. "We're stingy with the poisons we use."
Before a pest control company actually sprays, it measures the perimeter around your house to determine the right amount of chemicals needed. Although companies are legally prohibited from applying less than what the label states (generally, 4 gallons per 10 linear feet), by undertreating your home, the exterminator keeps money in his pocket (5 to 10% of your cost goes toward chemicals). "Accuracy is extremely important when the operator calculates how much to apply," says Texas A&M's Gold. "But their math can err on the side of undertreatment." Can rogue companies be ratted out? Ohio's Department of Agriculture ended a nine-month investigation by finding that a branch of a central Ohio pest control chain used inadequate chemicals when treating homes for termites in the late '90s. In January 2001 the department revoked the branch's license.

10. "That ain't parmesan on your tortellini."
Think back a moment. Remember that last bad stomachache you had after eating at your favorite restaurant? Don't automatically blame the chef. It could be the restaurant's exterminator. A rodenticide known as tracking powder is often used to control mouse problems in restaurants and other stores where food is sold. Shortly after running through the chalky substance, a mouse or rat is all but doomed. The problem? "The mouse can run through the powder," says Thomas A. Parker, an entomologist and owner of Pest Control Services in Lansdowne, Pa., "and then run over a countertop where your food is prepared." We agree, that's pretty gross. Here, at least, is some good news (we think): "It would take ingesting more than 12 ounces of tracking powder," says Ed Marshall, director of technical services for LiphaTech, a tracking powder manufacturer, "to kill a 150-pound human."