October 2009: Get Real

October 2009: Get Real

Leafy hazards

For the proud homeowner, there are few sights more appealing than a gorgeous old tree tinged with autumn colors in front of a carefully tended home.

But just because a tree may look grand and sweeping doesn’t mean it’s necessarily an asset to the home. In fact, many homeowners don’t give enough consideration to potential problems big trees may pose to a property….or neighborly relations.


Most homeowners know that if a tree dies and falls over onto their house or another structure such as a swing set or woodshed, their homeowners insurance will cover the expenses, both to repair the damage and have the tree hauled away.

But who’s responsible should that same tree topple over into the neighbor’s dining room? “It depends,” says Greg Leffler, an agent at State Farm insurance in Charlottesville. “If the accident was weather-related and the tree was otherwise healthy—which is to say, no one was at fault—each homeowners insurance pays for damage to each respective property, right up to the property line.” So even if the tree owner’s damages are nothing more serious than some upturned dirt and rocks, while the neighbor’s roof is half gone, each side’s insurance has to pay for damages to their own properties. Insurance premiums won’t go up for either the tree owner or neighbor.

But if the neighbor whose dining room was destroyed can prove the tree owner was actually negligent—the tree had posed an obvious risk for several years—and decides to sue, then the tree owner’s insurance may end up paying for everything: legal fees for both parties and damage to both properties. And the tree owner can expect his insurance premiums to increase.

To prove negligence, a neighbor must keep a paper trail, either by producing copies of warning letters/e-mails or photos of the offending tree. 

So how to know a tree—whether for the tree owner or neighbor—may one day pose a problem? Large cracks are an obvious sign, but there are others that can be a bit more elusive to spot, says certified arborist Wayne Scott of Partlow’s Tree Service.

The most common sign, and the one that accounts for nearly 20 percent of Scott’s calls, is when the root system starts to crack through a cement driveway, deck or even the foundation of the house. “This means the tree was planted too close to the home and must come down,” says Scott. “Otherwise, the roots will girdle—they’ll turn back around and start growing into the tree, which will kill it.” 

Fungus or mushrooms growing around the base of the tree is another clue problems are forthcoming since it means the root system is in the process of rotting, or dying. The rot will continue up the trunk, which is why fungus sometimes appears on trees.

Multi-stem trees—trees that look like two trees growing from the same trunk—also pose a hazard since one stem is usually weaker than the other and will start to lean…or break.  

For more issues with trees, check out the USDA Forestry Services’ “How to Recognize Hazardous Defects in Trees” at na.fs.fed.us.

One more thing: If a homeowner decides to chop down a perfectly healthy tree because it’s obstructing the view, she is within her rights to do that, says Scott. The only thing stopping her is if she belongs to a homeowner’s association or similar organization that prohibits it.