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The Dangers of Trees That Are Close to the House

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By Bill Primavera

Recently I drove by our former home, a large 18th century farmhouse my wife Margaret and I owned for over 40 years. I was somewhat surprised to find that one of the giant sugar maple trees that distinguished the property had come crashing down, all but obliterating the detached garage, which lay flattened on the ground like a pancake.

My wife always had an obsessive fear about falling trees – and with good reason. I remember well the night when we were enjoying TV when we heard a thunderous clap that literally shook the house. Looking out from our second-story window, we saw that a huge white pine had suddenly toppled, roots and all, narrowly missing the house.

That did it. From then on, my wife looked suspiciously at each tree near the house that could possibly fall. Soon after that, Superstorm Sandy knocked over 18 trees on our property, all of which had to be cut up for firewood. I have repressed how much that job cost, but the wood pile was almost as tall as the house.

As a realtor working in Westchester and Putnam, with many properties graced with big, beautiful trees, I always point out to prospective buyers the risks that go with trees that are too close to the house.

Fallen trees can cause thousands of dollars in damage to a house and pose a big risk to those who live in it. Tree damage to a home usually is covered by home insurance, according to the Insurance Information Institute. But it’s much better to avoid having to file a claim in the first place.

Fortunately, there often are warning signs that something is wrong with a tree, said Tchukki Andersen, staff arborist for the Tree Care Industry Association, a trade group for tree professionals.

Here are seven signs a tree may be in danger of falling.

  1. A hole in the trunk. A cavity can form in a tree trunk when the tree prunes itself by dropping a branch, which can lead to decay inside the tree. This doesn’t always mean danger, though, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. If there’s enough sound wood around the cavity, the tree probably won’t fall.
  2. Missing bark or deep cracks. An area where tree bark is missing, gashed or indented is called a “canker,” which can make a tree more likely to break at that spot, even if the wood looks solid, according to the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Deep cracks in bark are also a bad sign.
  3. Dead or falling branches. When trees start dropping parts of branches or entire branches, it’s an indication that something’s wrong. The tree is trying to make itself smaller so there’s not as much to feed, and dead branches are a major danger. They can come crashing down even on a calm day.
  4. Tilting. If a tree leans more than 15 degrees due to wind or root damage, it should be removed, but a tree that’s naturally tilted because it grew that way isn’t as risky.
  5. Leaf loss. When a tree loses leaves from the outside in, it often means something is wrong with the root zone, where the tree gets nutrients and water. It’s what holds the tree up. Without a healthy root system, a tree can fall more easily.
  6. Root rot. It can be detected by finding mushrooms growing around the base of the tree. Fungi growing on the trunk can be another clue that the tree is rotting inside.
  7. Branches growing close together in a V-shape. That’s a bad sign. A strong union will be U-shaped. Elm, maple, oak, yellow poplar and willow trees tend to break at weak forks. When the wind blows, those trees can fall apart. This problem is easiest to spot in winter after the leaves have fallen off.

If you’re not sure whether or not a tree is dangerous, consult a qualified tree professional, not a garden-variety landscaper. To find an arborist, use the finder tool on the International Society of Arboriculture website. Look at both years of experience and certifications.

A professional might advise taking down a dangerous tree. In some cases, though, he or she may be able to create a tree health treatment plan. Depending on the situation, the plan could mean cabling or bracing by a qualified arborist to shore up the tree. It’s not all that pretty, but it’s better than losing the tree.

Remember, just because a tree isn’t the healthiest or strongest doesn’t mean it’s a goner. So long as it’s not in danger of falling on your house or causing other damage, my belief has always been to save nature wherever you can.

Bill Primavera is a realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc., the longest running public relations agency in Westchester (www.PrimaveraPR.com), specializing in lifestyles, real estate and development. His real estate site is www.PrimaveraRealEstate.com and his blog is www.TheHomeGuru.com. To engage the services of The Home Guru and his team to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.


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