How to Hire an Arborist

HYG-1032
Agriculture and Natural Resources
Date: 
03/27/2019
Amy K. Stone, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Lucas County
Cynthia M. Meyer, Conservation Program Specialist, Warren County Soil and Water Conservation District

An arborist, by definition, is an individual trained in the art and science of planting, caring for, and maintaining individual trees. Arborists are knowledgeable about the needs of trees and are trained and equipped to provide proper tree care. Hiring an arborist is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Proper tree care is an investment that can lead to substantial returns. Well-cared-for trees are attractive and can add considerable value to your property. Poorly maintained trees can be a significant liability. Pruning or removing trees, especially large trees, can be dangerous work. Tree work should be done only by those trained and equipped to work safely in trees (ISA, 2018). 

Man in a yellow hardhat and orange shirt trimming a tree

Arborists provide services such as pruning, fertilizing, damage assessment, or other problem diagnosis. Full-service arborists are professionals who possess skills in planting, transplanting, pruning, fertilizing, disease and insect diagnosis, pest management, tree removal and stump grinding. Consulting arborists are experts who offer advice, but do not perform the actual services. They specialize in tree appraisals, diagnosing problems, and recommending treatments.

Tips for Selecting an Arborist

  • Check online, searching under “arborist” or “tree service.” Look for accreditation as an ISA certified arborist.
  • Beware of door-knocking salespeople, who are especially common after storms and when invasive tree species enter the area. When these types of events happen, nonprofessionals see a chance to earn some quick money. Often these events create high risk situations for both workers and homeowners. Buildings and existing landscapes can be damaged if work is not done properly.  
  • Obtain several quotes before purchasing tree services. You may have to pay for the estimates, and it will take more time, but it will be worth the investment long term. Once you have had a positive experience with an arborist, working together in the future can develop a relationship beneficial for the long-term care of your trees.
  • Never be rushed by bargains and don’t always accept the low bid. You should examine the credentials and the written specifications of the firms that submitted bids and determine the best combination of price, work to be done, skill, and professionalism to protect your substantial investment.
  • Never pay in advance.
  • Check for necessary permits and licenses. Some governmental agencies require contractors to apply for permits and/or to apply for a license before they are able to work in the community. If a pesticide application is being made, the company is required to have a current pesticide applicator license through the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
    Tree by power lines
  • Companies should be bonded and insured. You should request certificates of insurance, including proof of liability for personal and property damage (such as your house and your neighbor's house) and worker's compensation. Phone the insurance company to verify current policy information.
  • Request local references of jobs the company or individual has done.
  • Take a look at some, and if possible, talk with the former clients.
  • Determine if the arborist is a member of any professional association(s) and/or employs certified arborists, such as the International Society of Arborists (ISA). Membership and/or certification will not guarantee quality but can help distinguish more reputable companies from fly-by-night companies.
  • An arborist may recommend topping a tree, but this should be done only under rare circumstances, such as to save the tree after severe physical damage to the crown, or for the decorative effect of pollarding in a formal setting or restricted space. Pollarding is a severe form of heading that produces knobs at the ends of branches.
  • Trees planted in your yard may be in the public right of way. These trees may be the responsibility of the local tree authority, rather than the homeowner. Consult with the municipality’s public works or forestry department for clarification.
  • A conscientious arborist will not use climbing spikes if the tree is to remain in the landscape. This can cause damage to the tree, and provide a potential opening for diseases and insects to enter the tree.  

Remember when evaluating bids that reputable arborists have made large investments in equipment and training. Trucks, hydraulic booms, chippers, sprayers, stump cutters, and chain saws represent major capital investments and maintenance costs. Labor, insurance, safety training and continuing education add to the overhead. The price charged for a job reflects all these costs as well as a margin of profit. Work is usually priced one of two ways: as a single price for the job; or on an hourly basis plus materials. The arborist's skill and professionalism may be more important than a low bid to ensure the continued health of your trees and landscape.

Bucket truck with an arborist trimming branches toward the top

Most reputable arborists have their clients sign a contract. Be sure to read the contract carefully. Ask questions, such as:      

  • When will the work be started and completed?      
  • Who will be responsible for clean-up?      
  • Does this include stump removal?      
  • Is this the total price?      
  • What are the terms of payment?      
  • If I would like more done, what is your hourly rate?

Ways to save on the cost of tree care:

  • Schedule work well in advance. Allowing the company to plan for your work may provide an opportunity to save on cost.
  • Talk with neighbors about tree maintenance needs on their properties. An arborist may be interested in a group job over smaller individual jobs. This type of hiring has been used in areas facing infestations such as gypsy moth or emerald ash borer, or infections like oak wilt.
  • Be aware that it is often less expensive to remove a tree that has some life in it, rather than one that has been standing dead, especially when the tree is larger and access to remove the tree is limited (e.g., fences, buildings, leach field).  

Resources for Finding an Arborist

The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) consists of individuals who have demonstrated their skills and have been recognized nationally. ISA offers various membership categories for professionals, students, and interested lay citizens. ISA promotes the improvement of arboriculture among its members and the public, sponsors research, produces educational materials, and maintains a computerized information service. More information can be found by searching the internet for:

  • International Society of Arboriculture
  • Ohio Chapter of the ISA
  • ISA listing of certificated arborist at treesaregood.org

Additional Resources

More information can be found by searching the internet for:

References

International Society of Arborist. 2018. isa-arbor.com/

Acknowledgement

All photos by Joe Boggs, Extension Educator, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Hamilton County

Original author: Susan R. Metzger, Ohio State University (Originally published in 1996).