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You heard it here first: Money can grow on trees. Just ask the folks at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, home of more than 4,000 types of trees, shrubs, and other woody stuff from around the globe. They say studies show that as few as three trees properly positioned in the yard can save the average homeowner in Illinois between $100 and $250 annually in heating and cooling costs.
But trees can also have the opposite effect. They can cost money—big money. Why? Because when a tree falls in the yard, grows too big for its space, or gets sick, the homeowner turns to tree care services to do the heavy lifting. After evaluating 71 companies throughout the area and surveying more than 3,200 customers (see note on methodology), the nonprofit magazine Chicago Consumers’ Checkbook whittled them down to a list of 22 of the top tree care services.
The good news is that many Chicagoans surveyed told Checkbook that they were thoroughly pleased with the quality of work done by local tree care businesses. Just ask Allen Himsworth of Elmhurst. He thought he had trouble when, on a sunny day and without warning, part of a large branch fell from the silver maple in his front yard onto the sidewalk. Thinking the tree couldn’t be salvaged, he called Dawsons Tree Service to cut it down. Dawsons removed the branch but told Himsworth that the tree was healthy and didn’t need to be removed. Dawsons’ honesty saved Himsworth $500.
But not all consumers are gushing to Checkbook over the work of their tree care companies. Some examples: “They butchered our trees”; “Poor knowledge of trees and poor communication”; “Gave the wrong estimate and he wanted more money”; “Price too high.”
The complaint about high prices is fairly common—and not surprising—given the size of the price differences Checkbook’s researchers/shoppers have found among businesses for the same job. For example, to remove one maple tree, grind the stump, and haul away resulting debris and wood from a home in Westchester, prices ranged from $375 to $980; and, for a home in Naperville, the prices quoted to remove one spruce tree, grind the stump, and haul away resulting debris and wood ranged from $150 to $400.
You don’t have to pay top dollar to get good work. As Checkbook finds with many services, price and quality often don’t go together. Some of the tree care businesses that gave the lowest price quotes also received Checkbook’s top marks for quality.
To get a good price, the key is to get competitive bids. Have several services come to your home to bid on exactly the same work, but know that you may have a hard time reaching the estimators at some businesses—especially during the day, when crews are out on the job. And not all show up at your home when promised. Emanuel Pollack of Skokie says he chose his tree care service “because no other companies we contacted even bothered to call back,” which is a problem that happens all too often.
To get quotes from several businesses, call and leave a number where you can be reached at night or on weekends. And be aware that you may not have to be there for an estimate. Just leave instructions on what you want done and mark the trees that need work.
When you do get to talk with an estimator, use him or her as a consultant. Ask for advice on the best way to care for, or remove, your trees. Then write up exactly what you want done so each company can quote on the same work. (See below for tips on how to review bids and contracts.) Of course, the trick is to avoid needing a tree service in the first place, so keep reading for other hints on how to keep your arboreal friends healthy.
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Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham
9 months ago