by Michael Oxman

The phone rings. The distraught client on the line has had some damage to his landscape.  "A drunk driver hopped the curb last night and wiped out my favorite Dogwood Tree!  Can you give me a free estimate for the insurance adjuster?"

Is this client really asking for an 'estimate', or is it a damage appraisal that he's after?  The two are not the same.  An estimate is a bid proposal made with the understanding that the client may accept or reject its terms and conditions.  A damage appraisal is an assessment of the reduction in monetary value of a plant due to an identifiable cause or event.  Its purpose is to recover the monetary loss through an insurance claim or legal action, and in some cases, a tax write-off of the casualty loss.

When an estimate is made, you give a little (your time) with the hope of getting a lot (the job).  When an appraisal is made without a consultation fee, you have already given away everything, with little chance of receiving a return on your investment.  It is common for recipients of settlement funds to bank the money, and not even attempt tree restoration.  Don't get confused just because your client is confused about how valuable your service is.  Before you give away your precious time by providing a piece of paper that is worth cash to this client, remember that your professional reputation is on the line. You are providing a valuable service when you give your expert opinion of the value of a plant, and deserve to be compensated.  In this age of information technology, you can be paid for what you know.  Here's how.

Clearly communicate precisely what you intend to do, as well as what you will not do. Require that the client respond to your proposal in writing to establish payment terms and conditions, and to verify acceptance of the fact that a legal contract for services is in effect.  Document all facts and procedures in a logbook to provide a complete record of the sequence of events.  Create a paper trail establishing all dates, contacts and evidence. Protect yourself from any liability by expressly qualifying all statements within the scope of a written contract.  The long arm of the law can reach back incredibly far, especially when documentation has your signature on it.

Tree Appraisal must reflect local market conditions.  Stay current on changes in Landscape Industry trends, costs, and techniques.  What someone will pay is what determines how much the real world actually values trees.  The true value of a tree is what the cost would be to replace it with another one of like kind, condition, and size, in that spot. The price of repairs to correct the damage is in addition to the casualty loss suffered by the property.  Pruning of a damaged tree does not restore a specimen to what it was worth before the occurrence.  Neither does replanting with a two-inch diameter nursery stock sapling replace a mature tree that was destroyed. The total cost of a damage incident is what it would take to restore the property to the way it was before the damage occurred.  Your bill for assessing the damage is merely tacked on to the end of the list of other miscellaneous price tags. This can include removal of the damaged tree, stump grinding, restoration of grade level, replanting costs, installation of an irrigation system needed to establish a new tree, monitoring costs, collection costs, etc.  You can see that the terms, 'price' and 'cost', are not synonymous.  'Price' (or, market value) is what someone will pay, while 'cost' can be considered the actual wholesale cost of the product or service (in this case, the damaged tree).  The dollar figure that you establish is often used as an impartial basis that serves as a starting point for negotiation of a settlement.

Use accepted standards of practice when writing specifications.  Trade association standards and industrial guidelines, similar cases with legal precedence, local ordinances, and other laws, regulations, and rules make an authoritative basis for your position.  Take advantage of these tools that have been exhaustively developed and tested by your contemporaries for just this purpose.  There is no substitute for doing your homework. Present your findings in a manner that is completely professional, using text and visual aids, such as charts, maps, and photographs.  Prepare your work as carefully as if it will be scrutinized by a hung jury many years after the incident.  You may end up in court and be questioned in minute detail about the circumstances.

Comparison of different appraisal methods adds validity to your report. Basic Value, Replacement Method, and other valuation systems are to be considered.  Average the results, or select the most appropriate formula. Avoid even the appearance of being grabby by conservatively applying adjustment factors that affect financial worth.  Be confident enough to exercise your professional judgment and years of experience in individual tree situations by plugging numbers into industry-standard formulas.  The key to achieving credibility is to use common sense and, above all, be reasonable.

Limit your report to an objective analysis of the situation.  The arboricultural consultant  is an  impartial observer of site conditions only, and should not be influenced by the relationship between the client and anyone else.  This is not to say that the dynamics of human interaction should be ignored.  Many people try to use pressure to get the appraiser to inflate or deflate the value of the subject plant, depending on their objectives.  The solution to this problem is to be frank, and "Just Say No!". Landscape plants have a set of intrinsic values that apply arbitrarily, no matter who owns the piece of property where they happen to be growing.  You will gain respect by explaining that you are merely the translator of a 3-D landscape situation into words and concepts that can be understood by non-technical people.  Advocacy of a position on either side of a dispute is not a part of a factual assessment.  As a 'hired gun', your work product is the same whether it is paid for by the plaintiff or the defendant.

Maintain client confidentiality throughout the entire process, from initial contact to deposition or trial, or until the case is resolved. Do not compromise the clients position or your own reputation by revealing unnecessary details to unauthorized personnel.  Gaining future trust is based on past performance.  Today's adversary may become tomorrow's client, if they feel you handle your job with professionalism and integrity.

Consult with other specialists in related fields.  Laboratory analyses, aerial photographs, surveys, engineers' reports, historical data, and contractors bids are often necessary to form a complete picture.  Pay particularly close attention to real estate appraisals (both before and after the event of casualty loss) on the property itself, or in the neighborhood. In this age of specialization, an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving can be very effective and persuasive.  Being a part of a team effort can carry substantial weight in the eyes of a judge, jury, insurance adjuster, or lawyer.  Many an opponent has folded in the face of the formidable competition represented by a cadre of qualified associate consultants.  Negotiation is a war of the words.  Those who speak the language best are the ones you want on your side in the heat of battle. The opinion of the expert witness is a legally accepted matter of fact. You must be able to defend your position with self-confidence and poise, and make yourself understood by lay people.  Under cross-examination by an opposing attorney, you may be contradicted or have your qualifications and credentials questioned.  Concentrate on the fact that your report is merely ammunition used by your side to win the case for your client.

Finally, alert others to the importance and benefits of protecting trees. Green Industry professionals and the general public must know how and why trees contribute to our quality of life.  Your stature as an expert makes you a respected spokesperson for trees.  Elevating our level of awareness of the need for quality tree care will benefit us, our clients, and the entire community as well.  Take steps to collect the facts and share the information on what trees do for us, and what we need to do for trees in return.  In the long run, we'll all be well rewarded.