Based on a recommendation from his real estate agent, he hired home inspector Brian Finn of Pillar to Post in Morris Plains.
Finn is registered with the state as a home inspector, and he has no complaints against him, according to the state.
Finn’s report said the home was in good shape, noting some minor defects, but nothing that would stop the sale.
The inspection report said: “…it is very difficult if not impossible to visually identify underlying or interior wood destroying insect infestation. Recommend an annual pest control maintenance contract and a thorough pest inspection by licensed exterminator.”
Still, Finn issued a Wood Destroying Insect (WDI) Inspection Report, also known as NPMA-33, giving the home a clean bill of health.
The form was required by Berry’s bank because Berry’s mortgage was an FHA loan.
Unpacking was slow with a baby, and the young family was adjusting to their new home.
But on Friday, Jan. 18, Berry came home to a big surprise.
“I literally saw hundreds of what looked like ants all over our living room floor,” Berry said.
But they weren’t ants. They were termites. And they were swarming.
“I discovered the wings, which were shed in the corner of the room,” he said. “We still hadn’t finished moving in. They were getting into all of our belongings and open boxes.”
Berry called a pest control company, which treated for the termites and said it needed to see behind the walls before it would be able to recommend a permanent fix.
After the weekend, Berry shared several e-mails with Finn, the home inspector.
Finn responded, saying he “looked hard for any signs of Termites.”
Berry responded and sent photos.
“They certainly don’t look like termites,” Finn answered, recommending some exterminators and suggesting where they should look.
Over the next several weeks, four extermination companies gave estimates to eradicate the bugs.
Berry said the pest control experts all told him the same thing: The termites were an established colony.
“They all verbally stated … the mud tunnels weren’t made overnight or since the closing date,” Berry said.
The exterminators pointed out visible mud tubes, or tunnels, which are used by termites to travel in their favored damp environment, on the rear wall behind the furnace in the wallboard seam and in the corner of that same wall, Berry said. The tubes were nearly 4 feet long.
“Neither of these tunnels were obstructed by any objects,” Berry said. “All you had to do was look.”
It takes time to eradicate a colony. At first, the termites stayed in one location, Berry said, but then they were on the move.
“We started seeing the termites in the upstairs guest room. Then we saw them in the kitchen, then the living room and then … the garage,” he said. “We had glue traps all over the house that we had to make sure our son didn’t get into.”
Berry said he spent hours monitoring the swarms and vacuuming up the insects.
“I would come home every day and check all the known trouble spots to make sure they weren’t swarming again,” he said. “Imagine doing that for month, after month, after month until they finally stopped, and even then it took me another month to become convinced the colony was starting to break down.”
It was July before they were all gone.
In the meantime, the process cost thousands of dollars.
The initial treatment cost $294.25. Then it was $1,556.25 to eradicate the swarm, plus $160.50 to retreat a second area, $2,425 to repair the walls and other spots in the basement, $2,801.26 to replace hardwood flooring that had to be drilled through, $200 for an engineer, and $118.93 for pesticides, glue traps and related supplies. The grand total was $7,556.29.
Based on what the four extermination companies said, Berry believed the termites and the mud tubes were in the home at the time of Brian Finn’s inspection.
On Feb. 20, Berry wrote Finn a letter, but there was no response.
On Feb. 26, Berry’s attorney wrote a letter informing Finn of the work done, and it said Berry planned to make a claim “as a result of the negligent inspection.” It asked Finn to share the letter with his insurance company.
Berry’s attorney wrote again on March 18, threatening legal action.
Finn advised the attorney he was turning the matter over to his insurance company on March 22, and on March 25, Berry’s attorney asked Finn to tell the insurance company to contact him.
But for nearly four months, there was no further contact.
The attorney wrote again on July 15, detailing Berry’s expenses and demanding payment by Aug. 1 or, the attorney said, Berry would file suit.
Finn responded on July 24 saying after an “in-depth review, the insurance company will not cover this request.”
Finn offered to return the inspection fee of $525.
Berry declined, and he next sent a detailed letter to the CEO of Pillar to Post, which is a franchise company. The letter was signed for, but no one from the company has contacted him.
That’s when he reached out to Bamboozled, he said, as one last step to avoiding a lawsuit.
TOO MUCH INFORMATION
After reviewing all of Berry’s paperwork and photos, we embarked on some comprehensive termite research, which included conversations with half-a-dozen pest control experts and entomologists, and with two pest control industry groups. The experts agreed it takes between three and five years for a termite colony to establish. The winged termites — swarmers — don’t usually develop until the colony is established.
We wanted to know if it was possible for Berry’s termites to have built mud tubes nearly 4 feet long in less than four months.
Four of our experts said it was impossible for tubes of that size to be created from the time of the inspection to the time Berry saw swarmers, while two others said it was possible.
Bennet Jordan, a staff entomologist and research scientist with the National Pest Management Association, noted a research paper that found termites could build tubes at the rate of one-third of an inch per hour.
No way, said Tim Best, an entomologist and technical specialist with Arrow Environmental Services, who reviewed photos of Berry’s home.
“That occurred prior to Sept. 29 (the date of the inspection) based on the length of the mud tunnels and the extent of the damage,” Best said, saying that in his nine years in the industry, he’s never seen that buildup in such a short time.
Then there’s the Wood Destroying Insects Inspection Report, or the NPMA-33, which was required by Berry’s lender.
While Finn is registered as a home inspector, he does not hold a Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) license as a “commercial pest applicator,” according to DEP.
That’s important because, according to Leonard Douglen of the New Jersey Pest Management Association (NJPMA), only those with commercial pest applicator licenses are permitted to complete the NPMA-33 form.
“Anyone and their mother can write a termite inspection on a piece of toilet paper in the state of New Jersey,” Douglen said. “But for that form, they have to have a license from DEP as a commercial pesticide applicator, whether they do (pesticide) applications or not.”
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rules say: “Any wood infestation inspection is to be performed by a state licensed pesticide business (registered pest control technician or licensed pesticide applicator).”
Here’s some added bureaucracy: We asked HUD to confirm, and it said it’s up to the state to decide. But several state agencies said it’s a HUD form, so it’s up to HUD.
NJPMA’s Douglen said because the state doesn’t have a license for pest inspectors, it’s the commercial pesticide applicator license that applies.
We then spoke to Finn, who said he’s done more than 12,000 inspections over 14 years.
“There was nothing visible when I was there,” he said. “I sympathize with the guy … it’s a limited inspection.”
Finn also disagreed with his qualification to fill out the NPMA-33.
“A report can be filled out by anybody,” he said. “You need a license to treat.”
We also reached out to the CEO of Pillar to Post, who referred us to regional director Jim Loughery.
He said Berry was instructed in the report to get a termite inspection, and that Finn requested a site visit after Berry reported the termites to him, but Berry “wouldn’t allow him to return to the property.”
“Termites can build an 18″ tube in 24 hours,” he said in an e-mail. “Mr. Berry discovered termites in his house four months after Mr. Finn’s inspection. The four foot shelter tube could have been built in four days.”
In a follow-up e-mail, he also said: “Mr. Finn is a certified as a Wood Destroying Insect Inspector through the New Jersey Pest Management Association.”
That’s not accurate, according to the NJPMA, whose records show Finn took the course but failed one of the tests. Plus, NJPMA said, it does not give out certifications, but “credentials” with a badge number, which are awarded after applicants take the course, pass the tests and then get the applicator license from DEP — a license Finn doesn’t have.
We asked Loughery for clarification, he said Bamboozled’s facts were correct and Finn in fact did not have a badge number from NJPMA.
Berry isn’t satisfied, and he’s still considering suing the company.
“I still have images of termites in my head,” he said. “I am reminded daily about the financial stress it has caused my family.”
We’ll let you know what happens.
HOW TO FIND AN INSPECTOR
Termites cause $5 billion in property damage annually, and most damage is not covered under homeowners’ insurance, according to the National Pest Management Association.
That means it’s vital you do what you can to protect your investment. Before buying a home, you should hire a home inspector, but also get someone who is trained in bugs, whether it’s the home inspector or a separate pest control expert.
Don’t immediately hire whoever your real estate agent recommends, but do your own research instead.
When you select a home inspector, consider choosing someone who is a member of a respected industry group, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors, the National Association of Home Inspectors or the National Institute of Building Inspectors.
Home inspectors in New Jersey must be registered with the state. Check online or call 973-504-6200.
If you also want your home inspector to perform a wood destroying insect inspection, make sure he or she is experienced, and has had training in the area. Several large pest control companies offer training, as does the New Jersey Pest Management Association.
Make sure you don’t choose a group that issues a certification simply for someone who applies to a program and writes a check.
Or, hire a pest inspector who does bugs and only bugs.
While anyone in New Jersey can do a pest inspection without a license, remember that if your bank requires a NPMA-33, it must be completed by someone who is licensed as commercial pest applicator with the DEP.
To see if a company or operator is licensed, use the DEP Data Miner online or call (609) 984-6507.