Unless you've lived in particularly close quarters, you might not appreciate the particular challenges it can present. It's probably rather unusual to reach adulthood without living in some kind of multi-unit housing -- apartments, condos, or even college dorms. So you know, or can easily remember, how easy it is to share (whether you want to or not). This includes unsavory aromas, unidentifiable sounds (which are sometimes preferable to the alternative -- those noises that are so easily placed they may bring visuals to mind) and, often, your neighbors might share their houseguests, too.
We're not talking about your neighbors' cousins coming over to steal a few beers from the fridge. It's a little less obvious (at least at first); but unfortunately, it also has the potential to be a lot more sinister.
Townhouse dwellers are among the luckiest types of neighbors -- they get lots of practice sharing! There's the shared wall; that's obvious. And depending on the particular complex's configuration, owners are likely to share driveways, patios and outdoor space, too. Chances are, people who live in townhouses are well aware that sights, sounds and smells can easily leak from one part of the building to another. But until a pest infestation occurs, it's much easier (and definitely preferable) to ignore the other ways the home can be intruded. Because of the many obvious ways that townhouses are connected, there are also lots of hidden pathways. (Think of Remy the rat scurrying undetected through Paris in the movie "Ratatouille.")
You might think you know your neighbors, but how well do you really know them? If pests spread around a complex, prepare to get a lot closer. Surviving pest attacks often requires a united front...but afterward, it's hard to forget a new and more intimate knowledge of your neighbors' domestic habits.
Know the Rulebook
Different states have different laws about townhouse associations and homeowners' associations. These guidelines will define whether you have a townhouse association or a homeowner's association (HOA) and the responsibilities and limitations for such an association. The bureaucracy can stay simple, or get really complicated -- depending mostly on your state's laws and the size of your complex.
Then, within the association, there is another set of laws and bylaws. If you own your unit, you should have received a copy while you were buying or you can get one from your management. (If you're a renter in a townhouse and a problem comes up, ask your landlord.)
How, exactly, does all this pertain to pest extermination? Well, your state laws and your association rules and bylaws do (or should) outline exactly how pests should be dealt with -- whether the infestation affects individual units or a wider portion of the complex.
If, for example, you notice ants in your unit, it might be easy enough to grab a can of spray next time you're at the grocery store and wipe 'em out. After all, it's a small problem, and generally, you're responsible for whatever happens inside the walls of your home. But what if the ants are in your garage, and upon closer inspection, you notice they're crawling through a crack in the wall that's adjacent to your neighbor's garage? Is it still your problem, or can you hold your neighbor responsible? True, ants are hardly worth the trouble, but what if it was something more dangerous or damaging, like a swarm of wasps or cockroaches? What if the infestation was outside your home, coming from what's known as the complex's "common elements" area? Should your HOA pay the cost of the extermination if it affects more than one unit or has the potential to spread?
We aren't lawyers and can't give you those answers -- every townhouse association is different. Like we mentioned above, generally, you're responsible for problems contained within your walls. If your creepy-crawly problems migrate next door, you might have an obligation to help your neighbor (especially if it involves damage that might be covered by a homeowner's insurance policy). But when it comes to living things that move around, and cause superficial or structural damage, and might require toxic chemicals that can hurt children and pets that your neighbors might refuse to allow, it gets complicated. That's why there are (or should be, anyway) established rules. Look 'em up before you decide what steps to take. Sometimes the association's budget might cover the cost; in other situations, the association might decide to take action and bill each owner for their share of the expense. And sometimes it might be your own problem, with the additional burden of ensuring the bugs don't make a getaway.
All of this is easier, of course, if you can form a united front.
Know Your Neighbors
Even though your townhouse association will handle any major decisions that need to be made, it's still helpful to talk to the other people in your complex. You can get all kinds of useful information, even if some of it is unsubstantiated gossip. Who saw a bunch of baby mice running alongside the swimming pool? Which garages are prone to bees' nests?
Let's hope none of this happens, and that your townhouse association is able to swiftly intervene to stop any problems right away. But if you're ever in a situation where you need to decide how to handle some sort of pest problem, it's better to act for the long-term benefit of your community. Sometimes neighbors have to decide together how to handle pest attacks, especially in small complexes or in states with relaxed laws. If four out of five neighbors want to treat a swarm of bugs with chemicals, and the fifth doesn't agree, what's your recourse? Depends on your particular situation...but it's better for everybody if you can communicate in a way that doesn't turn ugly.
Maybe you prefer to keep to yourself, or let the association management take care of such petty squabbles. That's fine, too. If you're not the social type or you're convinced that your neighborly efforts would go unrewarded, there's another way to interpret this bit of advice, one that might suit you better: Get to know your neighbors...the crawly, bloodsucking, furry, winged kind of neighbors. The ones that will come over uninvited and refuse to leave without chemical intervention. At some point in your townhouse-dwelling future, you'll probably be glad you did the reading.
Back Them into a Corner
When you're confronting an enemy, it's immensely useful to know and thoroughly understand the enemy's weak spots. In the early '80s, Super Mario Brothers fans quickly learned to jump up and land squarely on the bad guys' heads. Pro athletes study their opponents' patterns and try to catch them by surprise. Goofy examples, for sure, but they do offer some real-world guidance. Dealing with a pest infestation at home feels pretty real-world, and in the case of mice, a common townhouse pest, this might simply mean accepting that there are no limitations.
Not to get all discouraging, but think about it. They're small and quick. They're fast breeders and like to share their new digs with the whole clan. They hide easily. And, perhaps most of all, they're dirty and destructive little thieves.
Townhouses pose some interesting dynamics in a mouse infestation because, given enough time, mice can chew through anything. That includes your walls, especially if your complex was constructed kind of cheaply. The space between your rec room and your neighbor's is probably a few inches of darkness crammed between some 2x4s, a little insulation and some drywall. Drywall is easy for a mouse to nibble its way through. Beams and framing are excellent for climbing and navigating. Insulation fibers are prime nest-making material (reassure yourself, if you can, that the poor mouse might suffer from some nasty respiratory infections...which is only fair if they're stealing your insulation). So imagine a mouse (or several) living happily in the void between you and the adjacent townhouse and they occasionally head out to scavenge. Your neighbors notice some mouse feces, or find some chew marks along the baseboards or hear scurries in the night. They decide to put out traps, or maybe even some poison. The mice retreat back to the nest and wait as long as they can, but in a couple days they need food again. They'll go back to your neighbors' place if they get desperate enough, but not yet. There's a hole in the baseboard that one of them can poke its nose through. And mice have squishy little bodies and weird little skeletons. They can squeeze through any hole they can get a nose into -- and now your kitchen is theirs.
So keep your food sealed in heavy-duty containers and throw your garbage away frequently. Make sure your pets' food isn't scattered across the floor. And if you see any holes in the walls, baseboard, closets, garage or wherever, seal them up as fast as you can. Use a metal mesh drywall patch. Pack it well. A mouse will just poke its nose right through a sloppy repair job. Talk to your neighbors and formulate a joint plan of attack. Traps or more drastic measures will work better if you get the mice cornered on all sides.
If all else fails, just get a cat (but watch out for mites).
Keep it Wrapped
Your mattress, that is. It's the easiest way to avoid playing host to bedbugs.
Bedbugs, which are nasty blood-sucking insects, are a high-level threat in townhouses, apartments, college dorms and any other type of densely-packed dwelling where people sleep in close proximity. In recent years in particular, they've earned a reputation for toughness because they're becoming resistant to a lot of traditional extermination methods. Because bedbugs are so resilient, an infestation can only be reliably eradicated by extreme heat (which must be applied to every single fabric and textile-based product in your home, for certain periods of time) or chemical extermination. This is another situation in which hardware store chemicals are no help at all.
How do you prevent bedbugs from moving in? Well, you really can't. Contrary to popular belief, even immaculate hygiene and cleaning habits don't make you immune (and if you catch them from your neighbors, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll spot them on "Hoarding: Buried Alive"). But there are steps you can take to reduce your chances of an attack.
The easiest and least expensive way to combat bedbugs is to prevent them from penetrating your mattress. Bedbug-proof mattress sealers are fairly new products that allow you to place your mattress in a specially designed bag that doesn't allow bedbugs in or out. That's it. Bedbugs are known for burrowing -- that's how they get in your mattress in the first place -- but these covers are made from a special material that the bugs can't wiggle through. New bedbugs can't get in your mattress or around the seams, so you've deprived them of their favorite place to hide. Any existing bedbugs won't be able to get out or bite you through the cover, so they'll die a languid death over the next 18 months or so. (You can use this method to save your mattresses if you've already suffered from an attack...that is, if you aren't entirely creeped out by the idea of sleeping on an infested mattress.) For about $50 per mattress, you can rest a little easier.
Already infested? You know the drill. Alert your townhouse association -- they tend to take bedbug problems seriously because they spread so quickly. And if you get notice that there's a problem in your complex and your unit will be exterminated, cooperate with the instructions and methods. It's a pain in the butt, but it's better than getting bit by those little blood-suckers.
Chew on This
All our talk about staying on good terms with your neighbors -- it's not for nothing. That advice will be critical if you ever get hit with one of the worst pests known to townhouses: The dreaded termite.
Termites seem like they've been around about as long as the world itself, they can be found almost anywhere there's land and wood and they're able to survive in most climates and weather conditions. Their social structure and living conditions are similar to ants and honeybees, but they're far more destructive. They eat wood, build colonies in wood and destroy wood by nonstop chewing of little tunnels. In termites' defense, wood is wood, whether it's an abandoned campfire or someone's prized log cabin. They don't discriminate. Your challenge? Making sure your home's structure is as unappealing as possible.
Don't assume you can rid yourself of a termite problem by selling your townhouse. Home inspectors know that townhouses' conditions (basically, a lot of wood framing) make them especially attractive to termites, and they know to look for signs of damage. Termite damage is difficult and expensive to repair, because it goes deep into the depths of the structure, and it's hard to estimate the extent of the damage before actually digging in.
And then, there's the actual termites themselves to contend with. One sign of infestation usually means the whole complex needs to be treated, because it's unlikely the termite sighting is the only damage in the structure. Even if it's a small, single site, there's no way to confirm it and no way to isolate it. The termites can just do what they do and burrow on...down there, underground, they don't know or care if they've moved on to a different street address. It'll take the cooperation of the entire building to consult with an exterminator and go through the proper process to combat a termite infestation, which involves a multi-tiered approach of baits and specific insecticides that must be left in place for long periods of time. A few cans of insecticide simply won't cut it.
In other words, you don't want to live in a home with a termite infestation (even though they won't really harm you). And any prospective buyer will run screaming if the home inspector drops the t-bomb (yes, that's "termite" bomb). And there go the property values...on your entire complex.
When it comes to battling the big enemies with toxic chemicals, make friends with your neighbors...but make sure the termites know they're not welcome.
What's in your typical can of bug spray? Find out how bug spray works at HowStuffWorks.
Author's Note: 5 Methods to Keep Pests out of Your Townhome
I live in a condo that's been known to have some nasty creatures. It's in a densely populated urban area alongside a dirty river and adjacent to a bunch of long-term "renewal" projects. The building also has pretty high turnover, so there's always new neighbors who might be bringing in new things.
I'll spare you more details. I don't really want to think about it myself. And I'm glad I've (so far) escaped a lot of the experiences described in this article. But my homeowners association meetings should be on YouTube, they're so amusing. Like a parody of a reality show. Since they're not, I can assert first hand that petty bickering can put a stop to a lot of potential progress. Fortunately, unlike some townhouse complexes, owner consent is not required to treat pest infestations.
Nevertheless, my point holds true. If you're buying a condo or a townhouse, take a good luck around for evidence of pest damage. And maybe sit in on an HOA meeting (or two) to get a better sense of the place. You can get rid of pests more easily than you can get rid of your neighbors.
- Alliance for Healthy Homes. "Housing and Building Codes: Pest-Free." (July 24, 2012) http://www.afhh.org/pol/pol_housing_codes_pest-free.htm
- Cowleys Termite and Pest Services. "Pest Control for Property Managers NJ." (July 24, 2012) http://www.cowleys.com/multi-family-condominiums-townhomes
- Eden Advanced Pest Technologies. "Dorm Room Pest Control and Prevention." Sept. 14, 2011. (July 31, 2012) http://www.edenpest.com/blog/post/bed-bug-pest-control-pests-to-look-for-in-dorm-room
- Illinois Department of Public Health. "House Mouse Prevention and Control." (July 24, 2012) http://www.idph.state.il.us/envhealth/pchousemouse.htm
- Warner, Jennifer. "Foggers No Match For Bedbugs." WebMD. June 3, 2012. (June 24, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20120603/foggers-no-match-for-bedbugs