1. “I’m a fan of global warming!” Experts agree, it’s a great time to be in the pest-control business. Tighter restrictions on pesticides, changing weather patterns, and the emergence of treatment-resistant insects and regional epidemics have converged, creating a perfect storm for exterminators in many parts of the country. And it’s spraying the business with cash: According to the National Pest Management Association, bug zapping has grown into a $6.7 billion industry, up 28 percent since 2000.
Two issues in particular seem to be driving growth, according to Austin Frishman, an entomologist and industry consultant. Recent temperature increases seem to allow pests to thrive in an everextending geographical area, Frishman says. Case in point: fire ants as far north as Virginia. Even more important, he says, are the movement and migration of people; travelers can bring new kinds of pests into the country, while population shifts have trended toward the Sun Belt states and other areas where insects thrive. The number of pest-control firms is now over 19,000, up more than 7 percent since 2000, and is expected to continue to rise. “There’s a lot of business opportunity,” Frishman says.
2. “Bedbugs are back—and I have no idea how to treat them.” One day in the summer of 2006, Ellyn Sullivan awoke to find itchy welts all over her skin. Her doctor was mystified, but with some online research, the Brooklyn, N.Y., publishing assistant discovered to her horror that she had bedbugs. “I didn’t even know they existed anymore,” she says. Indeed, the fabled bloodsuckers are making a comeback. In New York City, bedbug complaints from renters more than doubled in 2006, to 4,638, and according to the National Pest Management Association, nationwide complaints rose 71 percent from 2000 to 2005.
Among household pests, bedbugs are particularly insidious. They can test your sanity—“I felt like they were all over me all the time,” Sullivan says—and they’re extremely difficult to get rid of. “There’s nothing tougher than bedbugs,” says Phil Cooper of Cooper Pest Solutions in Lawrenceville, N.J. “And very few [exterminators] know how, or are willing, to do it right.” Proper treatment isn’t cheap—up to $500 a room—and often requires multiple visits. But lowballing the job isn’t recommended. “With sleep on the line,” Cooper says, be prepared to “pay through the nose.”
3. “You can’t sue me—my contract’s ironclad.” When Elizabeth Allen of Ponta Vedra Beach, Fla., discovered that termites had seriously damaged her house despite a lifetime guarantee from Orkin, she wanted to sue. The contract was supposed to cover repairs, but the damage was so extensive that the house had to be bulldozed. What’s worse, litigation was out of the question, thanks to a clause in the contract limiting her to binding arbitration; Allen did get a cash award (which she can’t disclose) but feels the process didn’t favor her. “It was brutal,” Allen says. “I felt I couldn’t have justice.” (Orkin says this litigation “is not indicative of the way Orkin does business.”)
Termites are responsible for an estimated $5 billion in property loss per year, so being aware of your legal rights before signing with a pest-control firm is key. When cases do go to court, as was the case for Allen’s neighbor, Collier Black, the damages can be huge: He walked away with $4.6 million. “There’s a reason these companies go to such lengths to avoid lawsuits,” says Pennsylvania entomologist Thomas Parker, who has consulted on nearly 550 disputes between clients and pest-control providers.
4. “Either I’m not using enough juice for the job . . .” The pesticide industry has come a long way since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring led to the ban on DDT in 1972, and the industry is creating new products all the time. Problem is, they aren’t cheap. Thanks to strict regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture, it now costs roughly $100 million to develop a new pesticide, according to Frishman. And while most exterminators buy and use the right stuff for the job, some have been known to skimp once a contract’s been signed. A classic example: termite pretreatment for homes under construction, says Steven Dwinell, president of the Association of Structural Pest Control Regulatory Officials. “It might cost 40 cents per square foot to treat a foundation,” he says, “but the contractor offers five cents. Whoever wins that bid isn’t using pure juice.”
In some cases exterminators have been known to mix milk into white-colored pesticides, like that used to treat termites; in others they might use a different product than promised. The best defense is to pick a reputable service: Ask for references, and interview a few firms before hiring one.
5. “. . . or else I’m using way too much.” In 1996 the Trimpers of Rotterdam, N.Y., had their house treated twice for termites—only to suffer serious health problems later. “They used enough pesticide for a warehouse,” says Bruce
Trimper, who blames his and his wife’s ills—including two miscarriages, chronic headaches and fevers, and fatigue—on fumes that lingered in their house for a year and were so strong that friends found it unbearable to visit. The Trimpers took legal action against Terminix and received an undisclosed cash settlement: “We got some money, but now our health is wrecked forever.” (Terminix wouldn’t comment on the case but said it works “diligently to meet the needs of our customers and provide them with the best service and protection available.”)
Pesticides are “highly dangerous poisons” that have been linked with everything from autism to memory loss, says Kaye Kilburn, a toxicologist specializing in chemical exposure. Don’t rely only on an exterminator’s word about their safety; do your own research. One great resource: the National Pesticide Information Center (1-800-858-7378), which answers specific questions about everything from rat poison to mosquito spraying.
6. “If your neighbors don’t hire me, too, this treatment is worthless.” Pests have no respect for property lines. Indeed, many people get infested directly from their neighbors—or vice versa. Cockroaches, fleas, rats, and even bedbugs can move from home to home with ease. Dan Suiter, an entomology professor who does community-based fieldwork, says he’s measured Argentine ant trails 350 feet in length, more than enough to go from one house to another, while carpenter ants can crawl 150 feet. As a result, he says, treating one home doesn’t really solve the problem, as ants, thriving next door, will return once your “ant-proof halo” wears off.
The problem, Suiter says, is that “the whole business model of pest control is treating individual properties.” Some parts of the country are experimenting with neighborhood treatment for ants, including a fire-ant-specific program in Louisiana. For those in a hurry to kill off mobile pests, it’s important to talk to your neighbors—whether or not they seem to have a problem. Offer to split costs or organize a blockwide effort. “If the whole neighborhood doesn’t cooperate, everyone will have the same problem,” says Wayne Cowart, a Georgia-based industry consultant.
7. “We’ll spray even when you don’t need it.” Speaking of ants, more than 20 species afflict American homeowners, swarming into dwellings and, in the case of carpenter ants, burrowing through structural wood, making them the top property threat after termites. And while they can be a horrible problem, most aren’t active in areas with a true winter. That doesn’t seem to stop many exterminators, however, from pushing contracts for monthly yearround treatment, a level of care critics say has an upside for only one party: the exterminator. Quarterly spraying is usually more than enough—“unless you live in South Florida,” says Frank Meek, technical director at Orkin.
“Good pest control is detective work, not brute force,” says entomologist Parker,
who advocates the “six-pack-and-a-lawnchair method” of observational pest control. In the case of ants, they generally use a single point of entry into a house, following a chemical trail. Placing a small amount of ant-killing gel in the path of that trail, ensuring the poison is brought back to the colony, is far more effective than generalized spraying. “Most cases don’t require overkill,” Parker says.
8. “I’ll bungle your home inspection—but you’ll pay for it.” There’s nary a bank in the land that will approve a mortgage without a presale termite-damage check, making such inspections a top source of revenue for the pest-control industry. In theory, the extermination company is responsible for any preexisting, or “old,” damage not caught during inspection, yet buried in their contracts is tricky language that can make it difficult to win a claim. Since such problems can take a while to become evident to a new homeowner, pest-control firms often argue the damage is “new,” making it a matter of a consumer’s word versus an expert’s.
That pretty much sums up the experience of Carla Virga, of Yuba City, Calif., who says a Terminix inspection on her new home missed $20,000 in damage, including a gaping hole in the roof. Virga filed a claim, and Terminix sent out a manager, who agreed there was damage, Virga says, but refused responsibility and would not repair it. Virga sued (her contract didn’t bind her to arbitration), but the case was thrown out for lack of evidence. “I got nothing but frustration for something that wasn’t my fault,” she says. (Terminix declined to comment, saying its “guarantee ensures that if any issues arise, we will work to resolve the issues to our customer’s satisfaction.”) Industry consultant Cowart explains that since these inspections are for visual evidence of damage only, it’s important to be present during the process. In addition, if you’re the buyer, ask to pick your own inspector, and pay for it yourself, which reduces the possibility of a conflict of interest.
9. “I’m not above preying on your vulnerability.” We understand: The last thing you want to think about after spotting some creature skittering across the floor is homework. But that’s exactly what you should do. Spend some time online to research the critter in question so you’ll be prepared when talking to exterminators. Then don’t call one, call several, and have them perform an inspection, giving you a written estimate of what they plan to do and how much it’ll cost.
Also, contact the local Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints filed against the company you prefer. And most important, says Michael Weisburger, president of the nation’s largest pest control insurer, check credentials, because the extermination industry is plagued with fly-by-night operators. “It definitely attracts some crooks,” he says. Any legitimate operator will be state-certified and have proof of insurance; top-quality operators will also have an entomologist on staff and certify every field technician.
10. “You really don’t need to call me for every bug you see.” While serious, chronic infestations like bedbugs or termites demand professional help, you can often treat “nuisance” pests, including roaches, beetles, and rodents, yourself. Start by keeping your kitchen crumb-free and removing sources of water. When shopping for chemicals, eschew contact-kill sprays in favor of residual products like dusts and gels, which insects walk through or ingest, then take back to share with their pals.
For rats and mice, exterminators agree that snap- and glue-traps, placed under the sink or in the basement, are more effective and safer than highly toxic rodenticides. “It’s not personal. They’re just looking for food,” says exterminator Cooper. “If you make conditions inhospitable, they’ll look somewhere else.”