The feds forced me to use insecticide
. . . and ticked me off no end. Although I spend vast amounts of time and energy preaching the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use, last week the FHA forced me to hire an exterminator and spray for non-existent anobiid beetles. I argued and pleaded, but no amount of logic had any effect on the all-knowing and all-powerful FHA. In short: no spray, no sale. End of argument.
It all started when my husband and I decided to sell a rental house we owned in downtown Olympia. The house was built in 1906 and was completely remodeled by a VA finish carpenter in the early 1980s. We purchased it in 1997 and kept it in rental service until September of this year. The house had been a great investment, but we were tired of being landlords and decided to get out.
We told our real estate agent in advance that we did not want to accept offers based on FHA loans, but he assured us it would be “no problem” so we reluctantly let him check off the FHA box. Sure enough, the first offer that came in was from a first-time home buyer seeking an FHA loan.
The problems started almost immediately when the certified pest inspector crawled under the house and photographed what he called an anobiid beetle infestation. Although neither of us had ever heard of such a creature, we studied the photos and decided he was crazy. When the carpenter re-built the house in the early 1980s he apparently found some weak joists under the floor, some of which had beetle holes. At the time he “sistered” these with new lumber. This simply means he installed new joists alongside the old ones to add strength and minimize distortion.
The photographs clearly showed the old wood with the beetle holes and the “new” (1980s) wood without a single hole or any other damage. We reasoned that if there were active beetles down there, they would have started boring into the “new” wood by this time. After all the “new’ wood is now thirty years old. Furthermore, an associate of my husband assured him that if anobiid beetles were active down there all these years there wouldn’t be a house left to sell.
Instead of listening to logic the bank was adamant. The spray had to be completed and the beetles “certified” dead. I couldn’t—and can’t—believe that a branch of the federal government would require us to spray poison in a dwelling as a condition of sale—a poison that will seep through the floorboards and into the home—a poison that isn’t necessary—a poison that the new owner will get to breathe and live with for who knows how long. I asked how this was ethical. But no one seemed to care. “Just do it and get it over with,” I was told.
So I did. It was the last thing on my list because I didn’t want to go back into that house after it was sprayed. I choose an exterminator—the $250 guy—who I liked better than the $500 guy, who I liked marginally better than the $600 guy.
Turns out, I really did like the $250 guy. He was a large man who arrived wearing a bushy gray beard and knee pads. He had a hand sprayer that he filled from a big tank on the back of his truck. I eyed him doubtfully but he managed to marshmallow himself into the tiny crawlspace opening. He spent all of fifteen minutes under there and then reappeared, spanking thirty years of dust from his fleece vest. “I’m done,” he said, “but there ain’t no beetles down there. Never was.”
I asked about the holes in the old wood. “Them’s exit holes,” he said. “No entrance holes. Dry as a bone down there.”
He went on to explain that in the old days, before wood was kiln dried, the lumber might contain anobiid beetles that entered the wood while the tree was still standing in the forest. If the wood was used in a damp environment, the beetles could thrive and you would see entrance holes and sawdust where the larvae bored back in. If you see only exit holes, the environment was too dry to support them and they died. End of story. Kiln drying kills the beetles, which explains why they are no longer a common pest.
I wrote a check and received my precious “pest certification.” As I walked back to my truck I could smell the pesticide seeping from the crawlspace. I thought of those molecules landing in the soil, washing away in the coming rains, and racing through the storm drains to pool in the estuaries where fingerling salmon try to survive their first year—all for a pest that doesn’t exist and never did. It’s so sad I wanted to cry.