Look for decay in any part of the house that is subject to prolonged wetting. Decay thrives in a mild temperature and in wood with a high moisture content.

One indication of decay in wood is abnormal color and loss of sheen. The brown color may be deeper than normal and in advanced stages, cubical checking and collapse occur. The abnormal color may also be a lightening which eventually progresses to a bleached appearance.

Fine black lines may be present with the bleached appearance. Fungal growths appearing as strandlike or cottony masses on the surface of wood indicate excessive water and consequently, the presence of decay.

The visual methods of detecting decay do not show the extent of damage. The two strength properties severely reduced by decay are hardness and toughness. Prod the wood with a sharp tool and observe resistance to marring. To determine loss of hardness compare this resistance with that of sound wood. Sound wood tends to lift out as one or two relatively long slivers, and breaks are splintery. To determine loss of toughness, use a pointed tool to jab the wood and pry out a sliver. If toughness has been greatly reduced by decay, the wood breaks squarely across the grain with little splintering and lifts out with little resistance.

Decay may exist in any part of the house, but some areas are particularly vulnerable. Special attention should be given to these areas:


Decay often starts in framing members near the foundation It may be detected by papery, fanlike growths that are initially white with a yellow tinge, and turn brown or black with age. Look for these growths between subfloor and finish floors and between joists and subfloor. They may become exposed by shrinkage of flooring during dry weather. These growths may also exist under carpets, in cupboards, or in other protected areas that tend to stay damp.


Where siding is close to the ground, look for discoloration, checking or softening. Also check for signs of decay where siding ends butt against each other or against trim.


Observe wood shingles for cubical checking, softening, and breakage of the exposed ends. Asphalt shingles have deteriorated if they can be easily pulled apart between the fingers. Edges of roofs are particularly vulnerable if not properly flashed. If the roofing is deteriorating, check the underside of the roof sheathing for evidence of condensation or decay.


Give particular attention to step treads or deck surfaces that are checked or concavely worn so they trap water. Also check joints in railings or posts. Enclosed porches may have condensation occurring on the underside of the deck and framing. Check the crawl space for signs of dampness and examine areas where these signs occur.


Look for brown or black discoloration near joints failure of nearby paint. Both are signs of possible decay. Also, check the inside for water stains on the sash and sill resulting from condensation running down the glass. Where these stains exist, check for softening and molding.


The three major kinds of wood-attacking insects that cause problems in wood-frame houses are termite, powder post beetles, and carpenter ants. Methods of recognizing each of these are discussed under separate headings. Where there is any indication of one of these insects, probe the wood with a sharp tool to determine the extent of damage.


There are two main classifications of termites: (1) Subterranean termites, which have access to the ground or other water source, and (2) nonsubterranean termites, which do not require direct access to water. Nonsubterranean termites are not found in this area.

Examine all areas close to the ground for subterranean termites. One of the most obvious signs is earthen tubes built over the surface of foundation walls to provide runways from the soil to the wood above. Termites may also go through cracks or voids in the foundations or concrete floors. They do not require runways to the soil where there is a source of water such as a plumbing leak.

Another sign of the presence of termites is the swarming of winged adults early in the spring or fall. Termites resemble ants, but the termites have much longer wings and do not have the thin waist of an ant. Where there is an indication of termites, look for galleries that follow the grain of the wood, usually leaving a shell of sound wood.

To combat termites, soil poisoning is often recommended, but this is generally done by a professional exterminator.


Powder-post beetles are most easily recognized by their borings, which are about the consistency of flour. Many borings remain inside the wood. The adults leave the wood through a hole about the diameter of a pencil lead, giving the wood the appearance of having been hit by birdshot. Such holes may be just the result of a previous infestation, so check for fresh, clean sawdust as a sign of current activity. Activity may also be recognized by the rasping sound the beetles make while tunneling.

Look for powder-post beetles in humid locations, such as near the ground. Sometimes, the homeowner may destroy them with an approved insecticide, but in severe cases, fumigation by a professional exterminator is required.


The presence of carpenter ants is often discovered by their chewed wood, which resembles coarse sawdust and is placed in piles outside the wood. They do not eat the wood but only nest in it. Working ants may be as much as half an inch long. They make a rustling noise in walls, floors, or woodwork.

Look for signs of carpenter ants in soft wood in high humidity locations.

An approved insecticide blown into the galleries will destroy carpenter ants. Eliminating the high moisture situation will prevent a recurrence.

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