Unfortunately for you, and unfortunately for those of us trying to run legitimate tree service companies, our industry is full of con artists, fly-by-night crooks, and companies that produce less than desirable results. According to a recent news release from the Better Business Bureau, "the tree service industry was the sixth most complained about industry at your BBB last year" (you can read the full press release here.) So what can you do to protect yourself when hiring a tree service? How do you choose the right company? What are the necessary steps to avoiding tree service scams? We would like to offer you a few of our insights based on our years of experience. These should help point you in the right direction:
1. Insurance: Make sure each tree service you are considering has appropriate liability insurance and workers compensation insurance. All certificates of insurance should be sent from the tree service's insurance agency directly to you. Otherwise, it could be a fraudulent certificate. If a company has an accident, and does not have the proper insurance, then you are liable. You will have to pay for repairs to your property and any injuries that may have occurred as a result of the accident.
2. Better Business Bureau: Ensure that the company in question is accredited with the Better Business Bureau. Only a handful of tree services receive BBB accreditation and those that do are generally reputable. Also, find out what kind of rating the company has. The tree service should be in good standing with BBB.
3. Reputation: Do some research to find out what kind of reputation the tree service has with its local community. The right tree service should have positive online reviews in a variety of places. Check to see whether the company in question is a member of any reputable trade association, such as the Tree Care Industry Association or International Society of Arboriculture. How long has the company been in business? Do they have any complaints on local forums, discussion groups, etc? Ask the company for references, if you need the extra assurance. Especially for expensive projects, doing a bit of research is always worth the time.
4. Too Cheap?: If a price seems too good to be true, it probably is. During these tough economic times we are all looking for bargains. But if a tree service is giving you a very low price, it may be because they a) have no experience, b) do not have the proper insurances and certifications, or c) they only intend to complete part of the project.
5. Too Expensive?: Similarly, if a price seems too high, say no thanks. Do not let a smooth-talking salesman convince you that $9000 is a reasonable price for removing an easily accessible oak tree in your front yard.
6. Multiple Estimates: You may be asking yourself, "how will I know if a price is too high or too low?" We recommend that you get estimates from at least three different companies. From the three estimates you should get some sense of what price is normal. If possible, we recommend that you meet with each representative in person. This will give you a chance to judge the company's expertise and professionalism. It will also enable you to ask questions, learn about more about what is involved, and so on.
7. Compare Apples to Apples: When you consider different estimates you should compare what is actually being offered. If one tree service is offering extra services or some extra benefit then you should take this into account. For example, perhaps one tree service plans on felling the tree whereas another tree service will remove it in small sections? Felling a tree is easier and requires less time, but it will cause more damage to your property. Piecing a tree down in small sections will cause minimal damage to your yard, but it requires more time and effort and thus it will generally be the more expensive option. This is also a good point at which to compare the service, professionalism, knowledge, presentation, etc of each different company. Remember that price is not everything - you should listen to your instincts about which company is most trustworthy.
8. Avoid Door-to-Door Contractors: Do not ever do business with door-to-door contractors, particularly for large projects such as tree removal. The BBB and a number of district attorneys offices across the country regularly warn against this. Door to door contractors are often con artists that travel from town to town, preying on homeowners, particularly seniors. If you simply make it a policy not to do business with them, you will not have to worry about being caught in a scam. Besides, deciding to complete tree work on the spur of the moment is not a good idea - there are too many variables that must be carefully considered first.
9. Use Caution After a Disaster: Natural disasters (or whatever sort of disaster it may be) usually bring the con artists out in droves. Unfortunately, this may be the one instance where hiring a door-to-door contractor is necessary. If, for example, you have a tree lying on your house and there is no electricity, you may have to hire a tree service that passes by. But even in this situation, make sure you are being charged a reasonable price. There are many examples of companies charging exorbitant rates for simple tree removal projects after a hurricane, ice storm, etc. You should also ensure that the company has the necessary insurances and certifications.
10. Pay When Satisfied: Once you have picked a tree service you feel comfortable with, the most important rule to follow is never NEVER pay for a tree removal or tree trimming project of any kind until you are 100% satisfied with the work. There are countless instances of homeowners paying for a tree service project up front, only to never hear from the company again. The tree service industry is not like the building industry - we never under any circumstance need to be paid in advance for our work. One popular trick among disreputable tree services is to begin a project, collect money (for any number of reasons - "I have to pay my staff", "we need money for fuel", "we need payment to finish the job", etc), and then never return. This is especially true with stump removal. In this scenario the company has completely removed the tree and then asks for payment, promising to return later to remove the stump. Upon receiving payment, the company never returns. Remember: do not pay a dime until your job is completely finished and you are happy with the service.
So long as you make contact with several companies, do your homework, make sure your company of choice is properly insured, and exert common sense, you are sure to choose the right tree service. Add to that never paying for a job until it is properly completed, and it is almost certain that you will avoid any sort of tree service scam altogether.