There’s a scam that’s well known in the arboriculture industry. A person, often in a high-vis vest, will knock on an unsuspecting person’s door and offer to prune a dangerous-looking tree in their backyard.

They’ll do it for a reduced price because they ‘happen’ to be in the neighbourhood.

Often, they’re not qualified, or will overcharge. Sometimes the tree in question doesn’t even need to be pruned.

Finding a reputable arborist requires doing your research.

Finding a reputable arborist requires doing your research.

“There are some unscrupulous characters out there,” said David Spencer, arborist for 18 years and member of the NZ Arboricultural Association (NZARB) executive committee.

He advises against hiring any unsolicited tree-pruners who knock on your door. “Reputable companies don’t use this technique to get business.”

He’s heard of door knockers who want payment before the job is completed or who demand extra half way through to take the waste to the tip. Sometimes they don’t have the correct gear or technique.

“You might get a person turn up with just a step ladder and a saw,” he said. “That should raise a red flag right there.”

Such scams were part of the reason the NZARB set up their approved contractor scheme, where arborists are assessed on their skills, safety practices and customer service.

Tree felling and pruning is dangerous work and a good arborist will be highly skilled.

Tree felling and pruning is dangerous work and a good arborist will be highly skilled.
 It’s small at the moment with just 12 – 15 participants, but more are in the pipeline. Spencer said if you can’t hire someone from the list, there are other ways to find a good arborist.

“Ask what qualifications they have and always get references. They will be happy to supply them. If you really want to you can ask for other examples of their work and go and take a look.”

The gear is expensive. A truck and chipper alone costs over $200,000.

The gear is expensive. A truck and chipper alone costs over $200,000.

He also recommended checking if they belong to the NZARB, which vets all arborists before their membership is approved.

“It’s a small industry. We tend to know everybody, and if we don’t we ask for references.”

The International Society of Arboriculture, of which the NZARB is a member, recommends getting more than one estimate and making sure your contractor doesn’t use outdated practices.

These include tree topping (instead of pruning), removing an excessive amount of live wood from a healthy tree and using climbing spikes on a tree that isn’t going to be removed.

Tradie hire website Builder’s Crack also has a list of recommendations to follow before engaging an arborist.

These include being clear about what the quote covers, asking exactly how the work will benefit the tree and asking for a guarantee of workmanship.

It also advises shopping around for quotes and balancing reputation with price, rather than just going with the cheapest one.

So how much should you pay? Prices seem to vary from expensive to even more so.

According to Spencer, that’s because arboriculture is a highly specialised industry with high overheads.

“It is expensive, but there are not many rich arborists,” he said. “They have a lot of overheads, the truck and chipper alone is worth $200k.”

Ropes, harnesses, chainsaws and helmets need regular servicing and replacement. “For example, people don’t realise that UV light degrades helmets and they need to be replaced, particularly so in New Zealand.”

Darren Bevan has a large fire tree on his property that needs pruning every few years. A while back he was quoted $1400, but more recently was quoted $600 less for the same job.

“The quotes are so varying in range that it makes it confusing,” he said. “It just seems to be a wild west kind of service, with no basic prices, and with so many different companies cropping up.”

The Builder’s Crack guide advises people to make sure they’re comparing like with like when it comes to quotes.

Does the company have their own gear or will they charge you extra for hireage? Is it a fixed price? Will health and safety practises be followed? Will they do a complete clean up?

A skilled arborist will not just be a tree pruner or remover, but be able to offer planting and tree health advice, including fertilisation and soil care, or bracing and cabling if needed.

A lot of their work is dangerous, and they need personal insurance. “Our premiums are higher because of the nature of the work,” Spencer said.

But the value added to a property can be considerable. Well pruned trees are attractive, while badly or unpruned ones can detract – and endanger lives.

“I’m not taking anything away from gardeners because they’re very skilled,” Spencer said. “But people need to know that this is not gardening.”