10 Things Your Tree Service Won't Tell You
Smart Money, April 2010
BY JAMI MAKAN
1. Turns out, money does grow on trees.
TREE CARE IS A multibillion-dollar industry, with homeowners forking over money for services ranging from pruning, tree removal and pest management to fertilization, reinforcement cabling and even lightning protection. As home prices rose between 2001 and 2006, spending on tree service more than doubled, from $3.1 billion to $7.2 billion, according to the National Gardening Association. And that doesn't count billions more for work done for local governments and commercial clients.
More recently, say industry experts, the real estate slump has taken a big chunk out of the tree-care business. Bartlett Tree Experts, which operates in 27 states, saw its 2009 sales fall 9 percent from a year earlier, to $152 million. Peter Gerstenberger, a senior adviser at the Tree Care Industry Association, says his organization s 2,000 member companies were also hurt by the downturn in construction, another big source of business. On the bright side, he says more people are noticing that tree care requires different skills and knowledge than landscaping or lawn care, making it an increasingly
2. Sometimes, less is more.
PRUNING IS THE most common tree-care practice. But tree workers might want to go easy with the chain saws too much can be a bad thing. For example, experts caution against cosmetic pruning, since trees depend on their limbs (even the less attractive ones) for sunlight, water and nutrients. And thinning out trees to boost air circulation often touted as a way to protect them from being toppled during storms doesn't always work, says Nelda Matheny, founder of Pleasanton, Calif., consulting firm HortScience. She thinks adult trees should be trimmed only when there is clear need, like when dead or diseased wood appears or the tree interferes with power lines or buildings.
Lucille Messina, a retired music teacher in Bucks County, Pa., would agree. A few years ago she noticed what she calls lollipop trees near local schools: trees whose crowns had been trimmed to look artificially round. Concerned about their health, she says, she sent a letter to every local tree service listing an address in the Yellow Pages, asking them to avoid such practices. (None fessed up to the chainsaw massacre.) There is nothing more beautiful than an untouched tree, says Messina.
3. Your trees are worth only so much.
STUDIES SHOW that attractive trees and gardens add value to homes. According to a 2007 survey by the National Association of Realtors, 32 percent of new homebuyers said professional landscaping was very important. Clemson University agricultural and applied economics professor Mark Henry once analyzed home sales and found that excellent landscaping increased the sale price by four to five percentage points.
But homeowners shouldn't t put too much money into tree care. While sudden destruction can qualify taxpayers for a casualty loss deduction, the IRS considers only the overall change in the market value of the property, not how much your trees are worth. You're not going to get as much as you think, says Deborah Gaddis, a forest taxation expert at Mississippi State University. Removing a damaged tree can cost hundreds, even thousands, of dollars. And while insurance policies typically pay for damage and tree removal if one hits your house, you re on your own if a tree just falls in the backyard and creates a big mess, says Jeanne Salvatore, spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute.
4. We like bad weather.
STORMS AND hurricanes can be lucrative for companies tasked with removing damaged trees, hanging limbs and scattered debris. It is good business, but it s hard business, says Doug Malawsky, of HMI, a Cary, N.C., firm that assists insurance companies with tree-related claims. He notes that Hurricane Katrina destroyed 320 million large trees along the Gulf Coast, so many that NASA says the rotting wood increased carbon levels in the atmosphere.
Unfortunately for homeowners who need help, tree-care companies get flooded with calls after damaging weather passes through the region. Kevin Fredette, who owns Gate City Tree Service in Nashua, N.H., says that he received 60 to 70 calls a day following one bad ice storm in 2008. To deal with urgent cases such as trees that have fallen on houses, many companies do offer 24-hour emergency service. There s a price: Overnight work can sometimes cost double the regular rate. But Greg Linander, a tree-care provider in Columbus, Ga., says he charges his customers an extra 25 percent and will prioritize your job if it sounds serious. If it can wait, says Linander, he'll come during the daytime to save you money.
5. Tree medicine isn't exactly hard science.
AS POLITICIANS clashed over health reform, scientists were debating another kind of health care for trees. Many tree services sell fertilizers and soil amendments, substances mixed into the soil to help trees stay strong and healthy. But the underlying science isn't always settled. Case in point: mycorrhiza, joining fungi and roots to promote growth. Bartlett Tree Experts uses it in some soil management plans. But horticulture professor Roger Harris at Virginia Tech says,
As a general practice, it's probably not effective because natural fungi already exist underground. (Bartlett researcher Tom Smiley agrees but says it s inexpensive and sometimes worth a shot.)
Consider asking your tree-care company to conduct a soil test and tell you what needs to be done, why and at what cost. Otherwise, says John Ball, a forestry professor at South Dakota State University, it can amount to faith-based arboriculture. But it s not just about money Ball says some treatments can backfire. For example, adding high-nitrogen fertilizer to a tree that doesn't need it can cause abnormal growth, inviting borers, aphids and other insects.
6. Its hard to keep track of all the rules.
SOME STATES, municipalities and homeowners associations restrict what you can do with trees on private property, and property owners and tree-care companies need to know the rules before starting a job. Barri Bonapart, a California attorney who specializes in tree cases, says ordinances can vary significantly from town to town. In Sausalito, Calif., where she s based, coast redwoods are deemed undesirable, which means they receive no special protection, but in nearby Mill Valley, they re heritage trees, meaning you need a permit to cut one down. States can have their own requirements. California s Solar Shade Control Act, for one, says trees can t block neighbors' solar panels.
To help sort out the rules, some consumers turn to the American Society of Consulting Arborists, whose 575 members focus on providing expert advice rather than any physical service. They aren't lawyers, and their expertise mainly covers the health, appraisal and environmental impact of trees. But executive director Beth W. Palys says members have at least five years experience plus a college degree and often serve as expert witnesses in court cases.
7. If we mess up, you might have to pay up.
TREES CAN GET between you and your neighbors in more ways than one. Disputes often center on damage caused by overhanging branches or roots sprawling across property lines. The rules governing what you can do to encroaching trees aren't always clear, because their interpretation often depends on court rulings from state to state and can t be looked up in city codes or homeowners association bylaws. Lew Bloch, an arborist in Potomac, Md., and author of Tree Law Cases in the USA, says he s seen lawsuits running into the millions of dollars."
The bottom line: Make sure your tree service has liability insurance and proceeds carefully when working on trees originating outside your yard. In some states, you can trim an encroaching tree all the way to your property line. In others, you have to be careful when cutting a neighbor s invasive trees; if you harm them, you could face a lawsuit. These distinctions matter because if your tree service makes a mistake, there may be liability for both you and your tree company, lawyer Bonapart says.
8. Sometimes the bugs win.
THE BUGS ARE taking over. No, it s not Eight Legged Freaks, the 2002 movie about vicious mutant spiders. Rather, tiny insects are infesting trees across North America. The half-inch-long emerald ash borer, first spotted on this continent in 2002, has spread across at least 10 states, from Missouri to Pennsylvania, feeding on ash trees and often killing them. In the West, pine and spruce beetles are drilling through bark and have destroyed millions of acres of trees.
UC Berkeley professor David Wood, an expert on insects, says tree services in at-risk areas should apply pesticides as early as the springtime. They also need to keep an eye out for infestations near your property, because they can be hard to detect. Trees can be infested and at a distance you couldn't tell, Wood says, noting that in some cases you have to peel off bark to see. And if you haven t applied chemicals beforehand, he says, the window to act can be short: The tree will die in a matter of just a few weeks during the attack process.
9. Certification is all over the map.
SOME STATES, like Maryland and Connecticut, run their own mandatory licensing system for tree workers. The Illinois-based International Society of Arboriculture, meanwhile, administers a largely optional certification program. The idea behind such programs is to ensure consumers are dealing with qualified professionals. But just because someone lacks such creds doesn't mean he is unqualified. Matthias Tennhard, who owns a small tree service in Port St. Lucie, Fla., says he s been in business for 30 years, relying exclusively on referrals. He says he has plenty of business and would become ISA-certified only if I was pushed into a corner.
Of course, problems can arise whether tree workers are certified or not. Nancy Hart, a social worker and gardening enthusiast in Ann Arbor, Mich., says she didn't keep an eye on the workers when she had a 40-year-old crabapple tree pruned in her garden. She says when she returned, she found they had trampled her cherished 15-by-15-foot patch of orchids and wildflowers; she had to wait until the next season for them
to reappear. I could have pruned the bloody thing myself, she says.
10. Some of us like regulation.
NOT MANY COMPANIES clamor for more government rules. But the Tree Care Industry Association, the industry s main trade group which makes campaign contributions through its Voices for Trees political action committee is pushing for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to recognize separate workplace safety rules for tree care. Depending on the activity, tree workers now are subject to safety standards meant for loggers or more general ones dealing with protective gear and fall protection. In a 2006 letter to OSHA, the Londonderry, N.H. based group said more precision could provide us with a solid foundation for new regulation.
The association says more oversight could help reduce tree-worker deaths there were at least 48 of them in 2008, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Malawsky of HMI thinks another goal is to cut down on competition from freelance operators who tend to hawk their services door to door after storms, offering cut-rate deals. And some experts say prices could rise if tree workers have to spend more on things like safety gear.
Gerstenberger of the tree group responds that OSHA fines aren't much of a deterrent for operators working under the radar, and that more safety rules could actually lower prices for homeowners by reducing the premiums companies pay to insure their employees.