Jennifer Root was told by a termite inspector a year ago that her 1923 Craftsman home in Eagle Rock was infested with the wood-gnawing pests.
The inspector recommended fumigation--covering the house with a tent and pumping in poisonous gas--to eliminate the termites, but Root, 34, was nervous.
"I have a dog and two cats," she said. "Tenting required us to be out of the house for three days, and I wanted an environmentally safe alternative that would be better for our health.
"I had heard of heat treatment and freezing but was so confused as to which methods actually work."
Root, a publicist, agonized over the decision until August, when she finally had the wood in her home injected with a nonchemical insecticide made from orange-peel oil.
"I'm not sure how well it will work," Root said, "but I'm relieved I finally got it done."
When Root bought her house five years ago, she joined the ranks of the 60% to 80% of Southern California homeowners whose houses are infested with termites.
And because she bought her home in probate, Root had to accept it "as is," termites and all. Most buyers and sellers, however, can't close escrow without a report certifying that the home is termite-free. The report is not mandated by law, but most lenders require it before they will make a loan. (Root's lender did not).
As a result, 1.2 million termite inspections were done statewide in 1998, according to Harvey Logan, executive vice president of the Pest Control Operators of California, an industry trade group.
"At least 90% of these inspections are the result of a real estate transaction," said Donna Kingwell, executive officer of the California Structural Pest Control Board. And of those inspections, 95% show some evidence of termite infestation, either local or widespread, or a condition that could lead to a termite problem.
Booming right along with the strong real estate market is California's termite population.
"As more people move," said Vernard Lewis, an entomologist at UC Berkeley, "they bring belongings such as wood furniture and planter boxes containing termites. And as more homes are built, more wood is available for termites to feast on."
With termites taking up residence just about everywhere, your home is a fertile feeding ground.
Homeowners' insurance doesn't cover termite damage, and eradicating the pests is expensive. Logan estimated that Californians spend about $1 billion on treatment each year.
The good news is that homeowners have an arsenal of alternative control methods, many of them nontoxic and greatly improved during the last several years.
"Concerned consumers have shown much interest in nonchemical methods of pest control," said Eric Paulsen, technical director of the pest control trade group, "so the majority of companies now offer some sort of alternative."
Those options include heating, zapping with microwaves, shocking with a device called the Electro-Gun, freezing with liquid nitrogen, even spraying with living fungi.
Companies offering these alternatives are reaping the benefits of catering to chemical-wary consumers. Jack Forster, president of Ecola Services, which specializes in alternative treatments, said his sales have increased 300% since 1991.
But do these methods really terminate termites?
Entomologists and pest-control operators say all the alternative methods, except heating, work best for treating small areas of infestation, such as a single wall or a room, not an entire house with extensive damage.
So if you've got a termite problem in your house, or think you might, here's some basic advice on coping with the pests:
Before choosing a control method, you first need to know what kind of termite you're taking on. California has two types--drywood and subterranean--and it's possible to have both at the same time.
* Drywood termites, the most prevalent type in Southern California, especially in beach communities, live in attics, garages and the walls of your home, creating what termite experts call "galleries" (nests) in the wood.
They enter on sunny days, usually in late summer or fall, through vents, cracks, knotholes and exposed wood. When not infesting a home, termites can live in utility poles, dead trees and stored lumber.
* Subterranean termites form nests in moist soil and tunnel underground to find wood, invading homes at cracks in the foundation or anywhere wood is in contact with soil.
Until recently, California has escaped the wrath of a particularly aggressive and destructive species of termite, the Formosan, found mainly in Hawaii and the Southeastern U.S. In 1992, entomologists discovered Formosans in a few homes in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa.
Michael Rust, a UC Riverside entomologist, said that although the Formosans aren't headed our way yet, if the infestation spreads any further, "it could be a major problem."