MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - They silently tear through billions of dollars worth of homes every year, and bug experts say termites could be eating away at your home right now.
Many fight back with pest control companies, but do you really know what you're buying or what type of warranty you have? Our undercover investigation shows you might not be getting the whole story.
Homeowner Jeff Lipman admits the treatment of termites is "a little confusing."
"Came here from the Midwest, termites was new to me," he says.
Like so many Grand Strand transplants, Jeff Lipman is learning the southern climate also comes with consequences.
"The higher levels of humidity do contribute to increased termite problems," says Ben Powell, an entomologist with the Clemson Extension.
Ben Powell says those termites are typically best controlled by professional companies, like the company which installed bait stations on Lipman's home before he bought it. Lipman didn't know it at the time, but the product typically comes with a warranty to cover termite damage repairs if you pay the annual upkeep fee.
But what do those fees or inspections really get you? We randomly selected a few companies to find that answer. With our undercover cameras rolling on an Orkin pest control inspection, the termite hunt appears to end quickly.
When our photographer asks if any termites were found, the Orkin inspector responds, "Find some? Yeah, you got some close, so I wanted you to see them."
Lipman had no idea the bugs were this close to his home, or that the cost to help prevent them from getting inside would be just under $2,000.
That is, unless he chose the Orkin three-year payment plan, which spreads that amount over three years.
That's more than $3,300; with a $275 annual fee every year after to keep his warranty in place.
The inspector made no mention about Lipman's old bait stations, which remember, may still have a warranty or bond in place.
The Terminix employee we interviewed assured the termites are an inevitability. "Sooner or later you're gonna get them, it's just a matter of time," he says.
As the second inspector, the Terminix employee used bait stations. "Every 10 feet all around the perimeter of your home, I put stations in the ground, I check once a year, there's bait in every station, kills them off," he says.
Remember bait stations are what Lipman's previous homeowner had installed, and this inspector actually found one of them.
"This house looks like it may have been under a termite bond," the Terminix inspector tells us.
As he shows our undercover photographer, the bait station appears to be empty. But when it came time for the quote, there was no mention about the old bait stations or the chance for that existing home warranty.
"This is the price I worked up for you, $1,326.80," the inspector says, informing us that that price includes his discount. "I knocked off $214 off the list price on it."
The deal would also include an additional $225 each year to keep the warranty on the home.
But in regards to the warranty, the inspector says, "If half the house gets eaten, it's on us."
For a third opinion, Lipman called in the Bug Doctor. One of their inspectors tells him, "their tracks are already here."
This inspector spots the previous bait traps and tells Lipman he may already be covered against termite damage.
"I'd go to their office and tell them," he encourages.
"He told me, you don't need me, it would be a waste of your money essentially," Jeff Lipman says.
After hearing that, WMBF News tracked down an Orkin inspector – because Orkin gave us the highest quote for termite service. Orkin Residential Inspector Jason Martin says Orkin's higher fees come with higher service. He said he personally trained the inspector who was called to Lipman's home, the one who did not mention the old bait station or existing warranty potential.
"We don't make a practice of trying to be deceptive about anything - certainly don't want to mislead customers," Martin insists.
Our news anchor Michael Maely questions, "But can you see why this seems deceptive?"
Martin responded, "Absolutely...well, let me rephrase that I don't think it was deceptive intentionally at all. I just don't think it's something that [the inspector] might have thought of."
Michael Maely added, "There's a valid fear of losing business I suppose too?"
"Absolutely," Martin replied.
Martin says he commends the inspector who did point out the possible existing warranty. But as for changes at Orkin?
Michael Maely asks, "Would you wish he'd handle it differently again if he sees bait stations?"
Martin says, "I'm sure it's something that we'll probably discuss now that it's been brought to our attention a bit, and I'm sure it'll be a topic of discussion."
Meanwhile, the price quotes we were getting weren't just unexpected for us.
Michael Maely asked Clemson Extension Entomologist Ben Powell, "How surprising is the range in charges that we're seeing?"
"Well, it's very surprising, and we don't really know all the factors that play into the pricing," Powell answers. "Obviously different companies are gonna have different business models."
Powell says read the fine print on what's covered if termites do invade your home after treatment, and the cheapest price isn't necessarily the best.
But that doesn't mean the most expensive is the best quality either. "Well that's true too," Powell admits. "Obviously we live in a capitalist society, so we wanna go with the guy with the best bid, not necessarily the lowest price."
Our final price comparison happened to be the lowest. It came from Hometeam Pest Defense.
They quoted us $825, with a $300 annual renewal after the first year. Inspector Jason Wilson said no matter whom you select, watch out for contract exclusions.
"Termites like wood. Gotta keep wood as far away as possible. If you've got pieces of wood going into the ground and termites come up in that area - might be something in that agreement where it might not be covered," Wilson explains.
And for those of you who feel your inspector isn't spending enough time at your house?
"I don't think there's any house that requires a three-minute treatment, so if that did happen I would check into it," Wilson encourages.
As for what you can do at home? Powell says for starters; keep an eye on your mulch.
Pushing it away from your home may not offer much for curb appeal, but, Powell says, "Mulch is good for weed control too, I just don't want it where it's up here along the siding."
Homeowner Jeff Lipman ended up paying the annual renewal to his home's original vendor. They refilled the bait stations last week. But Lipman said after all this, he's still waiting to see the warranty contract.
Lipman admits it's still unclear who is the most reputable, most honest.
Just hours before this report aired on WMBF News, a representative from Terminix returned our phone calls. Franchise Manager Dale Huff said his associate probably didn't mention anything about the chance for an existing warranty because he figured the homeowner was unhappy with the current service.
But Huff added that he sees the benefit of that information and said our story is a good lesson for his company's future inspections.