HOMEOWNERS, when confronted by a tree that needs trimming, usually hire whomever gives them the least expensive estimate. They often regret the decision. "It isn't easy to find a reliable tree-maintenance service," says Alden Kelley, an arborist consultant in Fullerton. "There are no official licensing standards for the profession." But, he says, consumers can protect themselves by following some guidelines.
Tree trimming professionals recommend that homeowners get at least three estimates. One should be from a large company with a reputation to protect, and one should be a small tradesman or someone who advertises in the local newspaper. In all cases, check references, going to recent jobs to check the quality of the work. A small number of tree trimmers are certified by the International Society of Arboriculture and have to meet high standards to get the ISA designation. Finding one of them might be worth the trouble.
A word on insurance: Most large companies carry protection, but many small firms and individuals do not. Insist on proof that the tree trimmer has workman's compensation and liability. "Get the proof directly from the company's insurance carrier," says Robert Kelley (no relation to Alden) of Kelley Tree Specialists in Los Angeles. "Ask for a copy of the insurance binder--many people dummy up papers to look legitimate." If a homeowner's insurance fully protects them--against liability, property damage from hired workers and injury to those workers--the homeowner can hire a skilled trimmer who does not carry insurance.
The most important thing is trimming skill. "Like a well-styled haircut, a properly trimmed tree is not conspicuous," says Alden Kelley. "It should have much the same shape as before." Don't take the trimmer's word alone that he is good; watch him work, if possible. Certain trees are trimmed with a chain saw, but check for bad cuts, rips in the bark and remaining stubs. Other trees need fine, or feather, pruning and will be trimmed by handsaw and pruner only; look for stubs and tearing of the bark.
Fine pruning requires a light touch--most trimmers don't have it. A trimmer who can fine prune is worth any extra cost. "It's an all-or-nothing type of thing," says Alden Kelley. "Invest profitably, or pay 2 to 10 times the actual cost in damage. You might save $200 but lower the assessable value of your tree by $2,000."
An average minimum figure is about $35 an hour, but most jobs are priced by what the market will bear ("You need at least three estimates to get a competitive price," Robert Kelley says.) Figure on paying at least $100, with no limit on the other end of the scale. People who routinely pay $400 for work on their car flinch when asked to pay the same for tree work--even if that tree adds $5,000 to the value of their property. A well-cared-for tree is an investment that keeps growing.
For basic information, contact the City of Los Angeles, Bureau of Street Maintenance, Street Tree Division. It also provides information on choosing types of trees and where to plant but does not give referrals for tree trimmers or companies.
Write for general information to International Society of Arboriculture, Western Chapter, 232 Archer Way, Nipomo, Calif. 93444.
For referrals for International Society of Arboriculture certified arborists, write International Society of Arboriculture, Certification Program, Denise Froehlich, P.O. Box 424, St. Helena, Calif. 94574.