By Jamie Wiebe
Close your eyes. Think about your dream home: a steeply gabled roof, a puppy frolicking in the yard. Bedrooms and bathrooms aplenty.
Now think about the backyard. Let us guess: There’s a tree. A big, tall one! It seems idyllic, doesn’t it, that stately oak? You’ll spend hours lying in the shade. Your kids can have a treehouse. You can dangle fairy lights from the branches and host Pinterest-perfect parties.
If you’re shopping for a home, you’re probably searching for something that looks as though it came straight out of your dream. But if you’re lucky enough to find it, wait a beat before you rush to make an offer: Those big trees can bring a host of problems.
Your dream doesn’t have to die, though. All you need is a little front-end scrutiny. Consider these factors during your home search.
1. Big trees can be dangerous
Sprawling trees are a “double-edged sword,” says Brenden Monahan, an arborist in Portland, OR.
On one hand, trees offer an awesome return on investment. A mature tree can add $1,000 to $10,000 to the value of your home, according to the Council of Tree and Landscape Appraisers. Plus, trees can reduce your heating and cooling bills, clean the air, improve your attitude, and help your curb appeal, Monahan adds.
But temper your expectations. Large trees can also be a huge liability.
“Rot issues that go unidentified can fester over time, leading to property damage and potential bodily harm,” Monahan says.
2. You’ll need an extra inspection
That sky-high oak calls for another step in the home-buying process: hiring a professional arborist to inspect it. These experts can spot illness, determine whether trimming is needed, and eye potential pitfalls — before you plunk down the purchase price.
“A good certified arborist will be able to identify the things that make your tree an asset or liability,” Monahan says.
Costs for arborist services vary, but some initial consultations can range from free to $75.
3. Some trees simply can’t stay
Just because a tree would make the perfect home for your daughter’s treehouse doesn’t mean it’s actually a good tree. When looking for houses, keep an eye out for indications that large trees may need removal.
Brad Hines, an arborist, suggests looking for insect holes along the tree, which might mean a bug infestation. (Bad!) Shy away from trees with vertical fractures, ones that are uprooted, or ones with a prominent lean. This might indicate serious breakage in the tree’s future. (Double bad!)
“Any combination of those problems would call for the tree to be professionally assessed,” he says.
4. You’ll need to prep for a mess
Even the healthiest, happiest trees can still make a mess. Are you prepared to dedicate a half-dozen fall afternoons to raking? Pine trees scatter their needles everywhere, Hines says, and “Branches above driveways become perches for birds to poop on cars.”
And even if you’re fine with the mess, will you be game for any post-storm cleanup?
Those over-driveway branches “hold the house and cars hostage, with the chance of dead or even healthy branches falling,” Hines says.
Repairing a damaged car or roof can prove a painful expense; and preventive maintenance isn’t cheap, either. In order to keep your walkways safe, you could spend around $200 for trimming—and up to $1,000 for very large trees.
5. There could be a root problem
Big trees are old trees — and old trees often have wandering roots. As they go hunting for water and nutrients, roots expand and grow, causing problems throughout the surrounding property.
Roots can extend three times farther than the tree’s foliage and “cause a problem if roots pop through the ground or grow into structures, pavement, pipes, or utility service lines,” says Bryan Raehl, the general manager of Agronomic Lawn Management in Chesapeake, VA.
These roots can get really hairy as they inch towards your foundation, sometimes requiring a costly fix.
6. Big trees can draw mosquitoes and other pests
Wait, what do mosquitoes have to do with trees?
It all comes down to the leaves that fall in your gutters. If you’re not fastidious about cleaning out the gutters, piled-up tree leaves can create pockets of standing water, inviting — you guessed it — mosquitoes.
And big trees can attract other unwanted guests, too.
“If branches touch the siding or roof of your home, they can also serve as a bridge for pests like ants and termites,” Raehl says.
7. Your trees might throw too much shade
Tree placement can dramatically affect the success of your garden and lawn. If most of your lawn is shaded, you’ll need a dose of creativity to get vegetable beds thriving and flower beds sprouting.
Shade gardens are better suited to woodland plants, so you may find growing grass is more difficult.
But ... you could be sitting on a goldmine
Big trees don’t always mean doom and gloom. Buying a home with the right tree can put cash directly into your pocket — when you sell the house, or even if you only sell the tree.
Take, for example, homeowner Peg Theobald, who purchased a house closely flanked by an enormous tree. It needed removal — but luckily for Theobald, the tree was a black walnut. For the uninitiated, black walnut wood is a Big Deal. (Wood Magazine calls it “our most expensive native hardwood.”)
Theobald “received a flood of responses” when she posted an ad about the tree on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. “I met more loggers than I had ever before imagined.”
Eventually, she found the right match: a man willing to pay her $3,000 for the pleasure of removing her tree.
And if you want to keep your tree?
“It’s important to remember that few things are set in stone, and most trees, even mature ones, can be pruned to alleviate minor maintenance problems,” Monahan says.
So there’s no need to give up your dreams of a gorgeous yard, shaded by a show-stopping tree. Just do your due diligence before buying, and you can have a long, healthy friendship with your leafy new pal.