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How to Protect Your Home From Pests

Geoff Williams
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Frustrated by the occasional mouse in your house? You're not alone.

When Pablo Solomon, an artist and sculptor in Austin, Texas, and his wife moved into their home, which was built in 1856, they knew they would need to fix it up. However, they didn't realize how much of their home improvements would be dedicated to keeping animals from coming inside. In 1988, shortly after moving in, they found a den of copperhead snakes living under the house. The copperheads never came indoors, but over the years, rat snakes, ribbon snakes, sand snakes and ringneck snakes -- none of them poisonous -- all managed to work their way inside the house.

"We also had an infestation of scorpions. The first three years, we averaged over 300 a year," Solomon says. "They come out just after dark to hunt for other bugs."

To top it off, raccoons attempted to open their doors by turning the knobs.

Pest problems are not unusual, says David Brugh, co-owner of Meridian Wildlife Services, LLC, which is based in Christiansburg, Va., but operates in a number of states. The company specializes in trapping birds humanely and getting them out of supermarkets, but Brugh says his company catches a lot of critters in homes as well. "Every day there is a story for me to tell the kids," he says.

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Humans have been trying to keep animals at bay since the days of living in mud huts and caves. We may be living in the 21st century, but we're still rooming with bedbugs, termites, mice, rats, voles, chipmunks and more. To protect your home from animal invasion, try the following strategies -- none of which, we should note, are foolproof.

Check your perimeter. "Animals are seeking food, water and shelter to live and have their young," Brugh says. When he puts it that way, you almost want to leave the windows and doors wide open. (Well, maybe not.) Brugh says your goal should be "making the home less attractive for animals to take up residence."

He suggests looking for holes and gaps near the house's foundation. If you see any that are larger than one-fourth of an inch, seal them up. "This includes spaces beneath porches, decks and outbuildings," he says.

Patricia Sterbenz, who recently retired from her job as an animal services officer for the city of Sugar Land, Texas, can back him up. Last year, she was called into a rented home that was having difficulties with possums.

Sterbenz was skeptical as she was driving over. "People in general overstate the magnitude of their situation over wild animals living in the city," she says.

Not in this case. Sterbenz met with the tenant in a clean, organized home and then noticed what she thought was a cat. "The tenant began frantically screaming and running about," says Sterbenz, who quickly caught the possum and placed the animal in a cage in her truck. She went back inside, thinking the situation was resolved, only to hear more screaming from the tenant. Another possum was wandering through the kitchen. Sterbenz eventually discovered that six possums had taken up residence under the deck on the other side of the kitchen wall. They ate through the siding, giving them access to the home.

Other potential trouble spots to check include the areas around window air-conditioning units, says Nancy Troyano, an entomologist and training manager for Rentokil North America, a pest control company based in Reading, Penn.

"Be sure that you seal any openings between the unit and window frame," Troyano advises. "Also, be mindful of items that draw pests to your home, such as woodpiles stacked against your house, garbage cans without lids, pet food bowls, untrimmed vegetation and bird feeders with spilled seed on the ground below."

Look to the skies. Since you probably aren't on your roof a lot, it can be easy to forget that this is where a lot of animals can enter your house. Mice can climb brick walls and enter an opening in the roof, like a chimney. Brugh says everyone should have properly fitted chimney caps -- no easy feat, of course, reaching the top of a chimney to make sure there's a cap and that it's on tight.

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But even if the chimney is fine, there may be other parts of the roof that aren't. Brugh says sealing gable vents in the roof is also important. After all, bats enjoy living in crawl spaces and attics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends bat-proofing your roof by caulking openings larger than a quarter-inch by a half-inch. It clearly doesn't take a big opening for them to get inside.

Examine your yard. Trees with branches touching your house, particularly the roof, can be trouble. "Insects and other pests will essentially use these items as highways to travel directly inside your house," Troyano says.

You really don't want that. Brugh remembers another time when an angry mother raccoon took over the upper floor of an upscale house. "I could hear the angry raccoon still trying to claw through the door over the police officer's phone as he was describing the situation," Troyano says.

Are your garbage cans enclosed securely? A Florida woman recently made news for barely escaping with her life after the ultimate animal home invasion -- bears wandering into her open garage to forage for food.

Even your lighting can work against you if it radiates ultraviolet energy, which bugs love. Troyano suggests replacing porch lights with yellow bulbs or high-pressure sodium bulbs to help prevent flying insects from landing on your house at night.

The cost. You can spend a fortune keeping animals out, of course. If you call an animal control agent to come out and address your pest problem, you may not spend anything. Sterbenz says the resolution of the possum problem was paid for by taxpayers.

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You'll spend considerably north of free if you hire a private service to remove an animal. For instance, Brugh says a typical skunk removal can range from $125 to $250, depending on the number of no-kill traps needed and factors like how often the traps need to be checked. Of course, you might have a bigger problem than a skunk around your house -- it might be inside. Brugh has had clients with skunks hiding out in their living room.

If you hire a tree trimming service to cut back branches and remove the highway into your house, the average price nationally ranges from $558 to $796, according to HomeAdvisor.com, an online portal that matches homeowners with licensed home contractors for free.

But the cost of keeping animals out usually seems to be far less than what you'll spend if they get in, given the potential for destruction. Mosquitoes and cockroaches spread disease, Troyano points out, and rats and mice gnaw on just about everything. And nobody wants to wake up with a bat staring you in the face. Which makes it all the more important to prevent an animal invasion. If you don't, it's a problem that could literally come back to bite you.

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