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Be careful when hiring someone to clean up trees
Grass is always greener...
Don GardnerColor
Don Gardner is the UGA extension agent for Bryan County. - photo by File photo

Editor’s note: This column is being reprinted in light of the tree damage caused by Hurricane Matthew.

I have fielded more complaints than usual about residents, especially senior citizens, being preyed upon by less than honorable tree care companies. These are not the long established companies that have been around and part of the community for 20 years. These are the new starts that we have never heard of before. The best way to combat these charlatans is to turn as many of you as possible into informed consumers.

Most homeowners have a yard. The grass gets mowed once a week. Most of us know how to run a lawn mower, and have an idea about what mowing the yard and keeping it up should cost. However, most of us do not provide any care to our trees, even though they are the largest contributor to landscape value on our property. Because we consume tree care services so infrequently, there is often a wide gap between what we think should be done and what is actually needed. Our ignorance ensures a greater opportunity to pay too much for the wrong service when we buy tree care than for other landscape services. There is also much more at stake. I can replace a lawn in one season, but a large live oak might take 200 years.

I offer the following as a primer on buying tree care services with hope it will make you a savvier consumer.

Rule #1: Know when to call in a professional. Tree work is expensive, and with good reason. Quality tree work is labor intensive and requires skilled labor as well. The equipment is specialized and requires a significant capital outlay and frequent maintenance. Tree work is dangerous, even under the best circumstances. The insurance rates for tree work are among the highest of any trade, as one might expect for a company that routinely puts men aloft working with running chainsaws and hanging from ropes. Because of the expense, many homeowners try to do the work themselves; hire someone ill qualified, prepared and equipped; or put the work off indefinitely. Predictably every few years we read about a homeowner being killed or severely injured while trying to do tree work beyond their capabilities. If the work requires getting on a ladder or climbing more than six feet off the ground, it is time to consider hiring a professional. If the limbs and branches to be pruned cannot be easily controlled with one hand, get a pro. If you would have to hold a chainsaw above your heart to make a cut, you are not equipped to do the work. Your life is worth more than the cost.

Rule #2: Protect your net worth and your property. When the salesmen bid the work, require their insurance company send directly to you through U.S. mail a copy of their liability coverage and workers compensation coverage. Liability insurance makes sure the company has enough insurance to cover any damages that may befall your property. Workers compensation is critical. If anyone is injured on your property during the work, even the company’s own employees, you might be held responsible for all medical costs — and that can be for life — unless they are covered by workers compensation. Even if the courts later decide you are not liable, the attorney fees, court costs, missed work and aggravation just are not worth it.

Insist on the tree service’s insurance company sending the coverage letters through the mail, not by email and not by hand, FedEx or UPS. No insurance company is going to send these letters unless the insurance is actually in force. If it comes to you through the mail and the letters are incorrect, it is a case of mail fraud, and the FBI is on your side. Keep the letters and the receipt for work done for at least two years.

Rule #3: Shop for quality and value. Indicators of quality are membership in the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), National Arborist Association (NAA), and American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA); Clean, dent and rust free vehicles; and ISA certified arborists who look professional, work professionally and speak professionally. ISA members adhere to a code of ethics. ISA certified arborists must study and keep current on best management practices. They are required to take continuing education. This helps ensure the people caring for your trees know what they are doing, and that what they are doing is based on the best current science.
The NAA has a nationally recognized safety program that allows members to qualify for lower group insurance rates, which translates into lower overhead and more competitive pricing of services. ASCA members pool their knowledge to hone their skills on tree forensics and learn how to perform effectively as expert witnesses in court cases. Firemen are fanatics about equipment maintenance because their lives literally depend on their equipment. It is the same for tree work. How does one trust a company to take care of one’s property when their beaten up trucks testify that they do not respect their own property and equipment?  

Rule #4: Specify proper tree work in the contract. Require ANSI A300-1995, ANSI Z133.1 and all applicable OSHA requirements be met. Specify that no climbing spurs be used on any of your trees, except trees being removed. Never agree to top a tree. Topping is the most glaring indicator of arboricultural incompetence. I do not know a professional arborist who tops trees.

Rule #5: Specify the level of damage to property you will to accept. You can get a lower price if you are willing to accept more property damage. I know of competent professional arborists who can dramatically reduce costs to remove a tree if the owner is willing to accept their yard being left torn up and gouged out. These same arborists can also remove the same tree so that nothing but leaves, sawdust and footprints will touch the owner’s lawn. After one mowing, no one would know they were on site. This latter level of service costs more than the former as it takes more time, equipment, care and skill than just flopping a tree. Decide before you sign specifically what you want your landscape to look like after the job is complete and you are ready to pay the bill.

Rule #6: Document conditions. The day before the work is to be done, take digital photos with a date and time stamp on them of every aspect of your property: the driveway, roof, lawn, walkways, birdbaths, swing sets, everything. If something gets damaged you can prove what condition the property was in the day before the work was done.

Again, most of the companies out there are good, solid businessmen who care about doing a good job for their customers. It just takes one rascal to put a bad taste in your mouth that lasts a long time.

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