When to Hire a Tree Specialist

Well-maintained trees can add value to a property, while poorly maintained ones can pose a liability. An arborist can help you ensure the trees remain a home's valuable asset.

April 1, 2009

Trees offer countless benefits. They enhance curb appeal, increase real estate values, provide fruit and flowers, curtail energy consumption, improve air quality, and camouflage unsightly views. But like any living, breathing organism, they should be selected properly and tended to regularly.

For example, if planted in the wrong size or spot, a tree may block views. If not cared for, they may become susceptible to disease, and hurt a property’s looks, damage a home’s structure, and even injure family members.

But when trees are properly cared for, they offer an important incentive: An increase in a home’s value by as much as 20 percent, says certified arborist Mark Chisolm, co-owner of Aspen Tree Expert Co. in Jackson, N.J.

Many buyers will take note of a listing with a tall, healthy tree boasting a green canopy of leaves or even those graceful, smaller trees lined up in a stately row. Unfortunately, they’ll also recall trees that look diseased—with dangling branches, rotted trunks, and few or no leaves—since those may signal major work and expense.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve pointed out that [home owners] might have to spend $10,000 immediately or I've had to tell them their trees may have suffered from prior construction work that the average eye won’t spot for years,” says certified arborist Ed Milhous, president of Trees Please in Haymarket, Va., who’s also president of the American Society of Consulting Arborists, an association based in Rockville, Md.  

So how can you ensure a home's trees hold value and don't hamper it?

What to Look for in a Tree Specialist

A tree specialist—or arborist—can help revive your trees and keep them in good condition. Arborists can help advise home owners on how much food, water, and mulch the trees need, when and where to prune, what lighting to add for safety and decoration, how to protect trees during construction or whether transplanting them is possible, and what new trees are best to plant and where in a yard.

Consider the following when hiring an arborist.

  1. Are they certified? While many landscape designers, architects and tree-service companies can offer tree care recommendations, a certified arborist has field experience and has passed an examination that covers everything from tree biology to tree bracing and transplanting. Arborists can be found through recommendations from nurseries and landscape professionals and by going online to the main association Web sites: www.tcia.org (The Tree Care Industry Association); www.treesaregood.com (International Society of Arboriculture); and www.asca-consultants.org (the American Society of Consulting Arborists).
  2. Do they have insurance? Ask to see copies of the company's certificate of insurance to prove they're adequately covered for any personal and property damages. Also, request to see their workmen's compensation insurance. Home owners can be held responsible for damages or injuries caused by uninsured tree companies.
  3. What services will they provide? Find out how the arborist plans to get the job done, if he has the right equipment to do it, and how they will clean up the property afterwards. You might also want to ask about specific chemicals they plan to use and any potential impact on the environment.
  4. Do they have strong references? Visit past jobs the arborist did to view the quality of the work. You might also want to contact references to ask if the arborist completed the job on time and also whether he did any damage to the house, wires or lawn while completing the job.
  5. How much will it cost? Make sure you ask for them to provide a written estimate so you know how much it will cost. Prices vary, depending on the area of the country, number of trees, and their condition. Generally, home owners should expect to pay between $100 and $300 an hour for an assessment, says Chisholm R.J. Laverne, manager of training and education at The Davey Tree Expert Co. in Kent, Ohio. It’s not unheard of to spend $10,000 to remove a tree if it’s located in a difficult-to-access spot and if a crane will be needed to remove tree parts over the top of a house, he adds.
  6. Get it all in writing: Before they start working, you'll want to have a written proposal or contract from the arborist that includes details of what the work will entail, a timeline for completion, and the cost of the work.

The Right Time for Tree Interventions

While an arborist can help home owners maintain healthy trees at any time, sellers and buyers particularly might want to seek one out during or before a real estate transaction.

Before a house is even listed, sellers might want to consult an arborist to maximize curb appeal.

“A tree is either a liability or asset,” says Laverne. “If it’s a liability, you want to remove it before people see the house. If it’s an asset, you want to spend a little bit to increase its value, possibly by removing dead or broken branches that don’t look good or might hurt someone.”

And buyers who have fallen in love with a property may also want to hire an arborist before signing on the dotted line. Hiring an arborist before they make an offer may help them gain leverage with the sales price and get a better handle on future expenses involved with the property.

“It’s no different from hiring a home inspector to be sure the foundation, wiring, and plumbing are sound,” says certified arborist James Tuttle, president of Christmas Décor by Tree Loving Care.

In general, home owners may want to hire an arborist to prune and check for defects every three to four years; once a year is considered excessive unless problems develop or natural disasters cause damage.

“Worse than not maintaining a tree may be maintaining it improperly,” says Milhous. “Topping a tree—cutting off limbs indiscriminately—doesn’t make it safer but shortens its life expectancy." (Read more: Tree Care Tips Dos and Don'ts)

As such, home owners should keep watchful eyes on their trees, noting any changes such as the size or color of foliage on deciduous trees. “If leaves turn color earlier than what’s expected—in June rather than October—that could indicate the tree is stressed, possibly from construction,” Laverne says.

Never Underestimate a Tree's Value

Trees can add a potential legacy to a property that can make them a treasure of a home.

“They’re something that can still be there when home owners have children and grandchildren," Tuttle says. "You don’t become attached to your shrubs or grass the same way you grow to love your trees."

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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