TREE DAMAGE APPRAISAL
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
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
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.