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
Seven Steps to Better Service
Unsure about bids and contracts? Before you sign on the dotted line, here’s what you need to know:
1. Get initial bids in writing. Then get a firm, fixed-price contract from the business you choose.
2. If the following are not in a written bid (and then in the contract that follows) for tree removal or pruning, they probably aren’t included in the price: cleaning up the area, hauling away the debris, cutting wood to desirable firewood lengths, splitting wood, stacking wood, and removing the stump. Be prepared to pay for this separately or do it yourself.
3. Other points to have clarified in a tree removal or pruning bid (and in the contract): dates when work will begin and end; whether branches will be lowered or dropped; who is responsible for any damages; and, in general, exactly what will be done (for example, "removal of all dead, dying, or weak branches of at least one inch in diameter").
4. Points to be covered in bids (and contracts) for spraying include: type of spray and equipment to be used, pest or disease to be treated, and what you must do to prepare (for example, cover lawn furniture).
5. For fertilizing jobs, get specifics on the type and amount of fertilizer to be used and how it will be applied (for example, by drilling holes in the ground or by injection into the tree).
6. Before agreeing to any work, make sure a business has current certificates for both liability and workers’ compensation insurance. If not, you might be liable in the event of accident or injury—even to the company’s own employees.
7. Finally, before signing a contract, ask about a company’s payment policy to see how much of the total cost is payable upon completion of the job or later. Paying after the work is completed gives you the leverage to ensure that work—including cleanup—is carried out properly and on time.
Seven Signs of Sickness
Got funky foliage? Deciduous disasters? The list goes on and on. Here are some signals that your trees might need work:
1. Discolored leaves or leaves that are smaller than normal or thinning in the tree’s crown
2. Roots pulled loose from the ground or fungal growths on roots or on the main trunk
3. Dead or fallen branches that are more than two inches in diameter
4. Deep vertical cracks on opposite sides of the main trunk
5. Sawdust on the trunk from wood-boring insects
6. A trunk that noticeably leans in one direction or a branch canopy that is not roughly balanced
7. Other unusual deformations or deposits on leaves, limbs, or bark
If you have questions, a good place to turn is to the University of Illinois Extension. Find the office for your county through web.extension.uiuc.edu.
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22 Top-Rated Tree Services
The 22 tree care businesses on the chart above rated highest among the 71 companies evaluated in Chicago Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and at checkbook.org.
In analyzing Chicago-area tree services, Checkbook asked area consumers to rate several aspects of their service experience as "inferior," "adequate," or "superior." More than 3,200 surveys were collected. Each of the businesses on the list was rated by at least 15 customers. The percentage of customers who rated the overall performance of a company as "superior" is given on the list.
Checkbook also considered complaints on file at the Better Business Bureau for a recent three-year period, and none of the companies listed had more than two complaints during that period (some others, not listed, had more than a dozen complaints in the same period).