How to Choose the Best Tree Service for you


Advice is often given to homeowners that when seeking bids for a project, to never take the lowest bid nor the highest.  Although this is good advice in a general sense, especially if there is a significant range between the highest and lowest bid, there is more you should do as a consumer to make sure you are choosing the best company for you.  Notice I didn’t say “the best company”; I said “the best company for you. You should feel like you are working with the tree company.  If you don’t feel that partnership feeling, they may not be your best match.  On the other hand, if you don’t want to be that involved, and want to just let them handle it, then you’ll be looking more for that company that shows the confidence that they can do the job, and has the experience and credibility to back it up.  Either way, there are questions that you should ask before signing a contract. 

Define the scope of tree work to be done before contacting tree services

Before you start calling tree companies for quotes, determine exactly what it is that you want to accomplish, even if this means seeking qualified advice because you are not sure of the best course of action, or what options may exist.  This may seem obvious, but not all companies have the same level of expertise in the type of work you need done.  If you need a tree or trees trimmed, look for companies that advertise tree pruning in their services.  There are companies that specialize in tree removals, and really don’t like to do the smaller pruning jobs.  Look at their websites.  Find companies that emphasize tree pruning.  They should say they follow ANSI guidelines for pruning.  This is very important, because it shows that they are keeping up with the latest practices.  There are a LOT of companies out there, flouting 25 or 30 years of experience, but they are not following industry best practices.  In other words, they have been doing it wrong for a long time, and don’t see a need to improve.  Another good indication of competence is if they are a member of ISA (International Society of Arboriculturists) or TIAA, The International Association of Arborists.  Both organizations make materials and information available to their members, including ANSI standards and best practices. ISA certifies individuals (not companies). If you want somebody with a higher and broader scope of knowledge, particularly if you are looking for advice or diagnosis of a sick tree, finding an ISA certified arborist or certified Master Arborist could be just what you need. To be certified requires an understanding of all areas of tree care. You can find a list of certified arborists on ISA’a web site. TIAA certifies companies, not individuals, in safety skills and practices, so their certifications may be more relevant to the tree service company’s insurance agent than it is to the end customer.  If your project is not particularly complex, such as pruning, there are practicing arborist around who are not certified by ISA but can be quite knowledgeable about certain aspects of tree care. Generally speaking, these arborists are likely to cost a little less, because part of what you are paying for is knowledge. Pruning a tree incorrectly can adversely affect its health.  Or, more accurately, it WILL affect its health.  Look at the pictures on their websites to see if they are pruning correctly. Use our tree pruning guides to help you to know what to look for- see How to Prune a Palm Tree, and How to Prune a Tree (for all other than palms). Check their company name with the Better Business Bureau for your area to see if they have had any complaints.  If it is tree removal that you are wanting to accomplish, look for companies that advertise this service on their websites.  Make sure they are insured with business liability insurance; tree removal can be very dangerous work.  In fact, tree work, including arborists, foresters, and lumberjacks, is one of the deadliest professions in the United States. If you hire an uninsured person or company to work on your trees, and they get hurt, or worse- or your property gets damaged, or the neighbor’s property gets damaged- the doctors and lawyers will come after you, and your homeowner’s insurance company for payment. Before signing a contract for work, any tree service that you are considering should be able to show you a valid certificate of business liability insurance. If they cannot, or make excuses why they cannot, you should hire someone who can. Protect yourself in this regard. Now that you’ve been properly warned, let’s move on.

Ask a lot of questions before choosing a tree service company

Hopefully by now you have read How to Prune a Palm Tree, and/or How to Prune a Tree if you are having a tree pruned,. If you are wanting a tree removed, I invite you to read Do I need a permit to remove a Tree? , because depending on your circumstances, you very well might. .Those articles should arm you with the knowledge you need in order to ask intelligent questions.  The answers you get should help you to choose the best tree service company for you.  How do they intend to remove the tree?  What equipment will they be using?  How many people will be on site?  How long do they anticipate it will take to complete the job?  How do they handle restroom facilities? (if you are having a tree removed, you won’t want the whole crew tracking sawdust and mud through your house-believe me). Will they need to block your driveway, and if so, for how long?  You need to understand how much of a disruption there is going to be.  Are you going to be hosting a circus for a day, or will it be relatively low-key?  What risks do they see to your property (and your neighbor’s property), and how do they plan to mitigate those risks?  You don’t want a tree cowboy who approaches the job with the attitude of “I have insurance, so we don’t need to worry about those risks”.  The proper mindset of a tree professional should be “I have insurance, but I don’t want to use it, and I don’t want to put my customer through the stress of having things damaged”.  Ask them pointedly how they will protect your property from falling limbs and other tree parts.  These are all fair and reasonable questions. If the answers you get don’t inspire confidence, keep looking- there is plenty of competition in the tree services industry.  For pruning work, ask things like “Do you follow ANSI guidelines?” “What branches do you plan to remove or trim, and why?” If they give you a blank stare or stumble around the answer, find someone else.  A good arborist will study your tree for some time, from every angle, and may even climb up into the tree before finalizing their pruning plan.  They should be able to tell you exactly what they want to prune, where, and why. Before making ANY pruning cut on a tree, you should be able to explain WHY is a mantra that the most professional arborists live by.  For more about pruning do’s, don’t, and why’s, read this article. Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for proof that the tree service company you are considering carries business liability insurance.  They should be able to provide proof of insurance coverage if you ask. Understand that if they do not carry adequate insurance, you, the homeowner, could be liable for damages caused by them, or even injuries to members of their crew. Finally, there are tree service companies out there that try to impress you with their vast array of expensive equipment.  This game of “my truck is bigger than your truck” does nothing to benefit you, the customer.  What you should be paying for is knowledge, not shiny paint.  Every business needs to balance the cost of looking professional with the savings of using older equipment.  Somebody has to pay for that shiny new crew cab 4×4- but don’t assume that they earned it through their tree business.  It’s equally possible that tree work is their side gig, and that truck was bought from their weekday office job.  Sometimes the guy with the older, unimpressive truck knows more about what you need.  Maybe he finds that the old truck works just fine, so why pay for a new one? Again, probe them for knowledge relevant to your project.

Clarify the tree work specifications:

 The tree company representative should be asking you almost as many questions as you are asking them.  For example, are they hauling away the brush, or leaving it on site?  What about the logs? If they are hauling off brush and leaving logs, at what diameter does a branch go from being brush to a log?  If they are leaving logs, do you want them cut to a certain length?  There will most certainly be an extra charge for hauling away logs vs. leaving them on site, because they are heavy and require a lot of work to move, in addition to hauling and dumping fees at your county’s yard waste collection center. Will they be moving and stacking logs, or leaving them where they fall? Just make sure that they are going to be doing everything that you expect them to be doing. A good company should give you options, and adjust the price up or down according to what you want done.

Read the fine print before you sign anything authorizing tree work to begin

After you have discussed the project with the representative of the tree company, you will likely be given or sent a document to sign to authorize work to start.  Read this thoroughly. I cannot emphasize this enough.  Whatever you agreed to verbally, I can guarantee you that there will be a clause in the contract that states something to the effect that the written contract supersedes any verbal agreements.  Now this is not meant to trick the consumer; it is there to ensure that everyone agrees on what services will be provided, and at what price.  Before you make your final selection on a tree removal company, read their terms of service, or service agreement- they should have some kind of document besides the bid price that details expectations on both parties.  Read and understand it before you sign it. Some companies will say they are insured, and they might well be, but when you read their terms of service there will be a lot of clauses in there saying they are not responsible for this kind of damage or that kind of damage.  For example, the contract may say they are not responsible for cracks in sidewalks or driveways from the use of heavy equipment like bucket trucks or crane trucks.  This is not unreasonable, since driveways and sidewalks are not designed for this kind of weight- just be sure that the company representative discussed any such risks with you, and you are comfortable with the realities of the job. Some have a clause that says they won’t be responsible for any damages in excess of the price of the job. Think about that carefully for a minute.  This little clause is a doozy.  It means that if they slip, and drop a huge limb on your house that causes $20,000 in damage, but the price of the tree removal was only $5,000, then they aren’t liable for the other $15,000- you are!  And you can bet they will finish the job, and call it even- they removed your tree, so now you are on the hook for the damage to your home.  It will go on your homeowner’s insurance, not their liability insurance.  In college I took some pre-law classes, including one taught by a judge. She hammered home to those of us who were paying attention that anytime you sign a contract, you are giving up some rights.  Make sure you know what rights you are giving up, and that you are comfortable with the terms in the agreement.  If you are not, either negotiate the terms, or find a different tree service.  In the end, find a company that you feel good about, that understands your needs and expectations, and is willing to accept responsibility for their own mistakes, should the worst happen.  Hopefully your project will be completed as expected, with no unpleasant surprises, and you will have begun a good relationship with a reputable tree service company that you can trust in the future.

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