Your idea of a dream home probably doesn’t include rats scurrying around your kitchen cabinets or cockroaches playing hide and seek in your bathroom. But sadly, just because you don’t see any critters during an open house doesn’t mean they’re not there.
“Professionals are your best bet in identifying potential pest issues,” says Chelle Hartzer, an entomologist for pest control service Orkin. But if you’re not ready to shell out the extra money for that just yet, you can still protect yourself against future creepy-crawly surprises. Brace yourself: You're going to have to play a spine-tingling game of “I Spy” during your next tour of the home.
"Knowing what you’re looking for when it comes to pest droppings, casings, and wings can save you from having to take care of a pest problem later,” explains Glenn Bridges, general manager at Bama Exterminating in Northport, AL. “While it may seem excessive to look at a home in such detail, it can save you a lot of hassle in the long term.”
Here are the telltale signs of vermin you need to keep an eye out for before you sign on the dotted line.
Why you should care: When they’re helping Cinderella sew a dress, rats and mice are helpful and kind. IRL, they spread ticks and fleas. In the case of rats, disease too. Plus, they leave droppings everywhere.
What you should look for: The most obvious sign is scratching noises coming from under the floor or behind the walls. (Duh!) But rats are nocturnal; depending on when you tour your prospective dream home, you might not hear a squeak.
What's a home buyer to do, then?
“Rodents nest, so check small, dark crevices of the home such as cabinets, pantries, or storage rooms for signs of them, including shredded paper or fabric,” Bridges says.
Check for dirt, grease, or small holes in baseboards. (A small rat can squeeze through a hole that’s no bigger than a quarter.)
And pay attention to how stuffy it feels inside the home—food attracts rodents, but so does humidity.
Bugs and insects
Why you should care: First off, they’re a freaking nuisance. Moths, for instance, will devour your clothes, bedding, and furniture. Others are serious health hazards. Cockroaches top the list with gastrointestinal and respiratory illness. They can even trigger asthma attacks in some people. They're also hard to get rid of.
What you should look for: The bugs themselves will be the clearest sign, Harzer says. No signs of a swarm? You should also be on the lookout for dead bugs and bug parts, holes in packages, and openings in the home that bugs may creep through from the outside.
Why you should care: If a colony’s been happily living in your would-be house for some time, your foundation may be at risk. In fact, termites cost Americans $5 billion in repairs each year, according to Orkin. (And what's even scarier? Many insurance companies don’t cover termite-related damage.)
What you should look for: Visible clusters of termites and mud tunnels in the foundation.
“Pay special attention to any wood in the home, noting whether floors are sagging, wood has visible holes, or it sounds hollow when you knock on it,” Bridges advises.
Why you should care: Bedbugs have elongated beaks (!) that they use to jab into your skin to extract blood, which they then gulp down. For most people, that's plenty reason to avoid them. Revulsion factor aside, they’re also ridiculously difficult to obliterate. If you’ve walked through a home that you suspect has bedbugs, you’ll need to obsessively check your clothing and bag for any signs of the critters, then wash everything ASAP in very hot water.
Professional bedbug removal can set you back as much as $1,500.
What you should look for: Any rust-colored stains on furniture or bedding are serious red flags, Bridges warns. (This isn’t human blood, FYI. It’s bedbug feces. Gross, right?) If you’re eagle-eyed, you may also spot tiny cream-colored eggs in the nooks and crannies of beds or other furniture.
Is there any type of pest infestation that’s a deal breaker?
The answer to that question is it "really depends on the pest, how much damage is already present that you are willing to repair, and your tolerance for the pests,” Hartzer says. Because despite your wishful thinking, “the problem won’t get solved overnight.”
In some cases, it may not be worth the extra money you’ll have to shell out to treat the problem or repair the damage, Bridges adds.
“For example, repairing termite damage costs around $3,300 on average,” he says. “Getting rid of pest problems and keeping them out will usually require an ongoing pest control service. Unless your heart is really set on a home, it might be wiser to keep looking.”
If you can’t decide whether you should make an offer or walk away, call a pest professional. Ask the pro to evaluate the infestation in person and give you an unvarnished opinion on what can be done and how long it’ll take.