Neighbor's tree needs to go - but should we pay for it?
April 23, 2014 1:22 PM   Subscribe

So, there's this tree - a poplar, over 100ft tall. It's on our neighbor's property, directly on their side of the fence. ("Fun" fact - our neighbor planted it over 50 years ago, to his wife's dismay.) We've had a few casual, over-the-fence conversations about the possibility of removing the tree, and their answer has always been that they don't care if we get it removed, if we pay for it. Well, now the tree needs to go, but things have changed. My question is about not just legal responsibility, but good neighbor relations.

We bought our house about 5 years ago, and paid for an arborist at the time to come out and thin out some problematic-looking branches. The tree drops leaves and smaller branches all over our roof and yard, but until recently it's just been an annoyance. Last year a branch fell and punctured our roof last year during a windstorm, and since then it's been a priority to get the tree removed (as it probably should have been before).

So, we called arborists to get a quote, and the tree removal is going to be about $7,000 - which is about 5k more than our (obviously naive!) guesstimate. The cost is so high because of the proximity of the tree to our houses (it's right in-between, with about 8 feet of space on each side) and because of the size of the tree, which is wound with ivy and is actually two trees growing out of one.

Here's my dilemma: I'm not sure how to work out the "who pays" part. My spouse is a softy who thinks we should just suck it up and pay for it - we have some money saved up for yard improvements, and it would keep us on good terms with our neighbors. I am thinking we should provide them with the estimates and see if they offer to pay before doing any negotiation, splitting of costs, etc. I would be okay with splitting the cost, as a last resort, but really don't want to pay for the entire thing.

My question is - what do I need to know that can help make this decision? I feel like one aspect is the legal "who owns the tree" part, but then there's the whole "good neighborly relations" thing to think about, too. YANYL, etc. Thanks in advance for any wisdom and/or resources you can share.
posted by rocketing to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If the tree damages your house, then you can sue your neighbors. So it's really in their best interest to remove the tree.
posted by musofire at 1:24 PM on April 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

Forgot to add, in case it's helpful: I'm in Washington State.
posted by rocketing at 1:27 PM on April 23, 2014

Sounds like the precedent damage/suing has been set. Did you file a claim for the damage? I've never dealt with this but would insurance be able to help with the cost to remove a tree that obviously has the potential to cause damage?
posted by Big_B at 1:28 PM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

We didn't file a claim for the roof - just patched it up ourselves.
posted by rocketing at 1:30 PM on April 23, 2014

$7,000 - that sounds weird. I had a tree removed and the guy had to climb the tree and cut it in small chunks - $800. He was licensed and bonded. Not just a guy from Craigslist. I live in Idaho.

Get more estimates.

Sounds like you may want to hire from another county and pay extra travel costs.
posted by cda at 1:34 PM on April 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

If their tree seriously damages your house and you make a claim, your insurance will go after your neighbor's policy to pay damages. They're responsible for the tree and any damage it causes. If you're feeling especially generous and feel like giving them an enormous gift because they're in a financially precarious position, you could offer to pay half. But, that's absolutely unnecessary as it's their tree.

Are your neighbors aware that their tree punctured a hole in your roof? If they are, did they offer to pay for damages? If they didn't offer to pay, they're the ones being bad neighbors, not you. If they're not aware of the roof damage, it's time to let them know that they already used up their one good will repair and that they need to take care of it before a more serious accident happens.

Did the arborist that you had make a visit to evaluate the tree have anything to say about the health of the tree? An unhealthy tree is even more dangerous and there may be local regulations that require the tree to be taken down if it's a hazard.
posted by quince at 1:43 PM on April 23, 2014 [28 favorites]

Your $7,000 estimate sounds high. We removed a 60ft pine tree and a couple of smaller trees and our very respectible arborist (insured and bonded) charged $4,000 for the lot.

I have had TERRIBLE luck with trees. I had one limb crash into my car and cause a few grand worth of damage (Submitted to auto insurance).

A few months later, the neighbor's tree (also a 60 ft pine tree) fell into our backyard. I notified them, they paid for it. I had my arborist go out and assess the remaining tree, which also had pine bark rot. He elected not to use my arborist, and went with a guy who half-assed it with a chainsaw and a cherry picker (not a crane) turns out the cherry picker was too heavy and it decimated the clay sewer pipe in the guy's front lawn. So YAY $3,000 to remove tree, $7,000 to fix sewer pipe!

This is ZERO percent on you. If the arborist can testify that the tree is damaged, dead or dangerous, then your neighbor has to remove it. Additionally, if his tree damages your property, and he's on notice that it's damaged, dead or dangerous, any subsequent damages to your property will be on him. (Source: People's Court, My own experience.)

I live in Atlanta, the city in a pine forest.

You can be nice, but firm about this.

Go-get 'em!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:44 PM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

I hate to say this, but we had a medium-large silver maple removed from between our house and the neighbors' and the bill was $4600. Our initial estimate was $6000 and the guy was able to figure out a way to use a cheaper kind of crane and a large crew instead of a super-expensive crane and a small crew, which brought the cost down. It can be very expensive to remove large trees, especially when they are in tricky spots. (We had ours removed because, unknown both to us and our arborist, it had rotted at the core - we found out when about 1/3 of it broke and fell in a storm.)

But really, why are you offering to pay again? This is your neighbor's pain in the neck, and it's an unfortunate cost associated with owning a house. I just would not pay for such an expensive thing for a random neighbor unless there's something else in play - either you're fabulously wealthy and $7000 is a bagatelle, your neighbor is a mob hitman and you have to keep him sweet or there's some other huge risk if you get frank with him. I urge you not to pay for this - perhaps contribute, but $7000 is a hell of a lot of money to gift to a stranger because you're afraid to get him irritated with you.
posted by Frowner at 1:52 PM on April 23, 2014 [17 favorites]

you fixed your own roof at your expense after your neighbor's tree branch punctured it? oh dear. he's gotten a sense of entitlement by now, and he's gonna be mad about paying seven thou no matter what, so have him get mad at your lawyer who sent him the letter instead of you. think of the interpersonal awkwardness you will spare yourself.
posted by bruce at 2:13 PM on April 23, 2014 [10 favorites]

What is the payoff for maintaining good relations with neighbors? Isn't it so that they will gladly step up and do the right thing when it is clearly their responsibility to do so (and maybe more, but at least that)?
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 2:14 PM on April 23, 2014 [6 favorites]

We're generous neighbors, but no way would we pay for a tree removal on our neighbors property. But if you do decide, be sure to have a written contract authorizing the tree removal. He could sue you for removing his property against his wishes if you aren't careful.

In our city (Minneapolis), if an inspection of a private tree shows it to be hazardous, the city will send a request to the property owner to remove the tree. Do you have similar regulations in your city? If so, you may want to contact your city regulatory services department.
posted by apennington at 2:14 PM on April 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm totally on board with your desire to avoid awkwardness and conflict with neighbors but for this amount of money, unless you live next to the Micheal Keaton character in Pacific Heights, it's time to grow a spine and insist your neighbor take the lead in promptly dealing with the problem. You've already bent over backwards in paying for your own repair.

Your biggest risk apart from the thousands of dollars you are considering the outlay of, for an expense which is TOTALLY NOT your responsibility, is that this neighbor will be more confident in the idea that you and your wife are total patsies and he can do whatever he wants moving forward without fear of consequence from you. Taking a stand now may well save you more unpleasantness in future.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 2:26 PM on April 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

Offer to split the cost if you're feeling generous and want to keep things super-friendly with your neighbors, but I can't fathom why you'd offer to pay the entire thing. The tree isn't on your property and you've no obligation to pay for its removal. On the contrary, your neighbors should be fully responsible for the cost of its removal (and the cost of repairing your roof. But I digress.).

Is there some particular reason why you feel you must pay the cost to keep things cordial? It seems really odd to drop that much money (and $7,000 is quite a lot) solely out of fear of alienating your neighbors or causing conflict there (conflict over what? you'd be requesting they fulfill their obligation as the legal owner of the tree for the safety of your home/family). Is there some history there that makes this more of a justifiable concern? Are they on a fixed income that makes you think they can't cover the cost?

Look, I think you can certainly address this situation without causing conflict. Your previous conversations about the removal were based around your desire (not the need) to have the tree removed. Therefore, their response that you pay for it makes sense in that specific case. However, it has been demonstrated that the tree NEEDS to be removed due to safety concerns. This places the burden entirely on your neighbor (the property owner and therefore legal owner of the tree). Do you have documentation stating that the tree needs to be removed? If so, present that to your neighbor - if they don't know about your roof - tell them all about it (including that you've already paid for damages out of your own pocket due to the tree). Let them know that the tree has created a safety hazard for you, your family and your home. You can certainly offer to help them - but I would limit that help to providing contacts for tree removal services (since it sounds like you already did some homework there) and/or offering to be present for the removal (so they won't have to, presumably, take a day off work).

Whatever the case...don't eat the cost. This isn't your obligation. Don't let fear steal $7,000 from you.
posted by stubbehtail at 2:42 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with @apennington - find out your city's regulations. In some larger US cities, the city will send out and pay for a crew out to remove, say, a dead tree if they determine it could potentially fall on a city road.
posted by hush at 2:51 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My question is about not just legal responsibility, but good neighbor relations.

Good relations are a two way street. They are literally dangling a large club over your house. If they refuse to remove their threat against you unless you pay them money they are not relating well to you.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:00 PM on April 23, 2014 [13 favorites]

There may be more of a middle ground to be found here. The estimate seems high to me, too, and I've had multiple trees removed in a major metropolitan area. Is this particular estimate for totally removing the tree and digging out and getting rid of the stump as well? It depends upon jurisdiction but it may be that your neighbor is responsible for removing those parts of the tree that overhang your property (which I assume may be relevant as parts of it are falling on/in your house and yard). Your neighbor may be able to have just that portion removed and they may also be able to save money if they do not require the contractor to remove the wood (perhaps they would choose to keep and it for eventual fireplace use, for example). The remaining tree/wood might be an eyesore, but that is somewhat beside the point. Talk to the county. Whatever happens, keep it cordial and make cookies for them and your other neighbors around the holidays.

I remember those days when I was steadfastly against cutting down living trees. Now the wind howls and I know what they can do. This is not an issue of aesthetics; unfortunately, your family's safety may be at risk.
posted by Morrigan at 3:15 PM on April 23, 2014

My understanding is that now that the tree has been shown to be a menace, it's up to the neighbors to get rid of it; if it falls on your house, your insurance company will sue them to get them to pay for repairs. So it's in their best interest, too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:48 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Two houses ago, one of our trees fell down in a storm and (apparently) lightly damaged some shingles on a neighbor's shed. The first we heard of it was their insurance sending us a demand letter for damages, which our insurance then had to deal with.

You might mention to your neighbors that when (not if) this tree falls down, the insurance claim is going to cause a large hit on their future rates.

(I don't understand how you're even contemplating paying to take the tree down - it's not your tree, not on your property.)
posted by RedOrGreen at 3:57 PM on April 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is my experience with neighbor's trees here in Texas. Just happened this month by the way...

3 years ago an arborist I hired to look at my trees told me that my neighbors very mature magnolia tree right next to our property was dying from a fungus. I told the neighbors in writing and they got another guy out to trim the tree but not take it down(????)

Fast forward to April 2014, it was raining and the wind kicked up a little and the top top half of that tree landed in my pool and damaged part of the pool.

My homeowners policy does not cover damage to my pool (but would have covered losses had it damaged a covered structure -- pools are not). The neighbor's policy will only cover the damage if the neighbors were negligent in not taking a known dying tree down. Insurance company said, nope! No negligence, no liability, not paying.

(We are now trying to get the neighbors to pay for it)

Moral of the story....get the arborist's report in writing that the tree is dying, send that and your negative history with the tree in writing, certified mail, return receipt requested to the neighbor. Ask (again in writing) that they take down the tree. If they don't and you are damaged, hope that their insurer is not jerky and they pay for the damages.

And call your insurance agent and ask how your policy would likely handle it if the tree did damage your house and any other case scenario you can think of. I think it might surprise a lot of people (including me, a lawyer) that the neighbor's policy might only cover tree losses in the event of actual negligence. In other words, the neighbor's policy would not cover tree damage for acts of god.

And I am all for friendly neighbor relations, but do not offer or pay for a dime of removal. You have zero obligation--legally, morally, or good neighborly--to pay for this. You might choose to for other reasons, but you certainly have no duty to do so.
posted by murrey at 4:00 PM on April 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I also fall in the "this is your neighbor's responsibility" camp. And I really would not get into the sticky quagmire of hiring a tradesman to do work on another person's property - my head is swimming with the possible legal issues that could arise.

One other thing to consider - it sounds like your neighbors are quite elderly. Will they continue living there for the duration, or do you know if they have any plans to retire elsewhere? Because it's quite possible that a new homeowner would be more amenable to taking the tree out (they might even negotiate that cost off the purchase price of the house). If you think you can wait that long (i.e., if you can't get anyone to document that the tree is sick and/or dying), it's one thing to consider. But I would still do the documentation thing with the current neighbor so that there is some record and you can follow up with the new owners as it having been a pre-existing condition. Again, if you decide to go that route.
posted by vignettist at 4:26 PM on April 23, 2014

I think you're approaching this perhaps too collaboratively. Rather than framing it as "How can our two households figure out how to share this cost?" I think you should be asking "How do I deliver this bad news to my neighbor in a way that preserves our relationship?" The bad news being that they need to pay the high cost of having this tree removed because it's become a danger to both of your houses.

Do they know that the branch pierced your roof last year? If not, I'd start by telling them about what happened and that you decided to just fix it on your own rather than file with your homeowners insurance and have your premiums go up. However, you were worried about something similar or worse happening so you called in an arborist who said that the tree needed to be removed ASAP to prevent further damage to both houses. There's no need to bring up cost at this point because the cost shouldn't and doesn't factor into whether or not this is their responsibility.

And then I'd stop talking and let them respond. The key is to really make it clear that it's their turn to talk. At this point they'll either acknowledge that it's their responsibility to take care of it, or they won't. You can let them choose how the conversation is going to go.

If they say anything other than, "Oh gosh, we were afraid this day would come. Well, I guess we'll have to get right on that," then you'll have to push back. But it's a lot easier to push back when you know what their position is. They may say something like, "We've always told you that you're more than welcome to cut the tree down." In which case you can reply with something like "I know you've mentioned that option in the past, but since the tree is your property it's not our responsibility to remove it. We wanted to bring this to your attention since it's a risk to both of our houses and we know that neither of us wants to worry about damage or higher insurance premiums."

No matter what turn the conversation takes, make sure you conclude with a clear statement of what happened or will happen. They say they'll remove the tree? "Great! When do you think you'll start the work?" They say they won't remove the tree? "Well, I'm sorry to hear that you won't be taking steps to fix this. I just want to let you know that getting this taken care of is a priority for us, so we may be reaching out to our homeowners insurance and the city to figure out ways to resolve this."

All of this can be said in a calm, friendly, perhaps regretful in places, but firm way.
posted by Colonel_Chappy at 4:29 PM on April 23, 2014 [12 favorites]

One problem I see is that you've already extracted from them permission to remove the tree at your own expense. Another problem is that you repaired the damage to your roof yourself, without asking them to pay for it, a year ago.

I'm not a lawyer, but I've hired a lawyer regarding a neighbor and some trees of mine that she cut down during a property line dispute. I have three pieces of advice: first, it's very difficult to compel any behavior or remedial action out of a neighbor; second, any lawyer is going to cost you much more than the tree removal; and finally, if you "win", and get a judgement against your neighbor, it's very difficult to collect.

If I was on the receiving end of Col. Chappy's pep talk, I'd ask him the name of the arborist that had delivered that determination, and that'd be the last time he and I talked about the matter. I'd remind him, by registered mail, of my good faith offer to allow him to remove the tree at his expense, and offer to re-imburse him for the roof repair, if he can produce some reasonable proof of his outlays. This registered mail will be my reply to any further communications from the Colonel on the topic, until he shuts up or lawyers up.

Personally, I'd leave things as they were. I might move to a bedroom that was less vulnerable to the tree. The next time the tree damages a house, an opportunity will present itself, and they might take the tree out themselves or split the cost with you (if it damages their house), or they might be compelled by their own insurance company to remove it (if it seriously damages your house, and you have the presence of mind to file a claim).
posted by the Real Dan at 5:29 PM on April 23, 2014

I am not so sure that the advice above is wholly accurate. If the tree is sick, and may have a propensity to fall, then the owners have the choice of paying now or paying for the damage--if any--later. Their knowledge of a sick tree will be used against them, and their insurance will pick up the damages. This will be of little solace some rainy night in April when you have a tree in your living room, however.

To add on to Colonel_Chappy above (who gives very sound advice), remember that your most powerful tool to get them to foot the entire bill is having (or obtaining) advice in writing that removal of the tree is no longer something you and your wife would "prefer" to do (i.e., something you may decide is worth it to do, and willing to pay for since it is your choice), but instead that the tree is dying and it must now be done else further damages occur.

If the tree is not dying, and is merely dropping branches like a 100 foot tall tree may do, they may still be responsible for future damage (and the Real Dan is right about collecting on any past damages), but I don't know if you can compel them to do anything now. They may be playing the waiting game, figuring the tree will out-live them, and then their children/ the new owners will inherit the tree and headache.

If you cannot obtain an opinion that the tree has gots ta go, then I would probably approach it by saying that, boy, we'd love to remove the tree. Let them refuse to pull it down, and then offer a percentage to pay for its removal. Paying a few grand now may be preferable to that rainy night when the tree decides its time to give up the ghost.
posted by China Grover at 5:37 PM on April 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Unlike so many others here who are aghast that you would repair your roof on your own dime, I completely understand you doing that to maintain good relations with your neighbours -- sometimes I shake my head at the way people choose to handle their relationships with the people around them.

I'd use that repair, however, as your ammunition for the *needed* conversation with said neighbour, exactly as Colonel_Chappy outlined. "We covered the damage from your tree's branch puncturing our roof, but that's as far as we are willing to go." I would almost guarantee, unless you live in hickstown, WA, that there is a municipal process to walk through for this, as others referenced. Talk to your town/city office and find out what the process is, but do it *after* you use Colonel_Chappy's script.

At the end of the day, you have to decide how much good relationships with your neighbours is worth. You have been more than fair to now and have tried to maintain the relationship, and you may indeed decide to pay for the tree removal, if it's that important to you. Ultimately, however, it's his tree, and his responsibility.
posted by liquado at 6:31 PM on April 23, 2014

I'm in Seattle and have two large sidewalk trees that are technically my responsibility. They've dropped some branches and damaged some property, but when I called my insurance company to see if I needed more liability coverage they said that it's actually the neighbor's responsibility to get that covered. However, that also the case because I maintain those trees and have had a certified arborist evaluate them. Just an FYI.

And just across the street a large tree came down and damaged property and it's the property owner and not the tree owners responsibility for repairs.

I've used Seattle Tree Preservation and found them reasonable (approx 2K to remove about 6 holly trees from my backyard).
posted by brookeb at 7:18 PM on April 23, 2014

I'm kinda surprised by all the blanket assertions that the neighbor is responsible for damages caused by what seems to be a healthy tree (is it dead or doing anything to indicate it's something other than a healthy tree?). This is a lot trickier than many here seem to think. My understanding is that generally each homeowner bears his or her own costs (out of pocket or via insurance) for these kinds of things.

A quick look at Google seems to bear this out, especially this article from Pittsburg, or this from Toronto, or this WaPo article.

Bottom line: If the tree is sick/dying, it is probably your neighbor's responsibility to get rid of it. Nothing in the facts indicates this, though. You can cut down any branches you fear may be menacing your home. In fact you probably should, because you might be found negligent for letting them continue to menace. It's your job to protect your home.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 8:38 AM on April 24, 2014

In many areas you have the right to trim the tree back to your property line regardless of what your neighbor says. So you could theoretically take half the tree off without the expense of taking the whole thing down.
posted by rocketpup at 9:11 AM on April 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANAL. It seems to be that damage from a healthy tree is considered "act of god" in Washinton state. If the tree is in failing health, or dangerous, and the owner is notified, or should be aware, then it's the owner's liability. What did the arborist say about the tree's health? Additionally, arborists in the area might be more aware of local laws/regulations about trees - I'm basing my guess on some articles from the Seattle Times.

If the tree is diseased or dangerous as determined by an aborist, then paying anything would be right neighbourly of you in my book. I'd say that paying up to 50% would be quite generous.

If the tree is in fine health (and tree's in fine health will from time to time drop a branch during wind (Act of god)), then 50% is probably the starting point in negotiations with your neighbor. I suspect the same as other answers , that your neighbors are planning for the tree to outlive them unless you do something about it. They might kick in $500, and I doubt that they'll care about stump removal. I predict the guy who planted the tree 50 years ago will be pissed about any money you guilt them to contribute, and he'll feel sadness and redirect it to anger at you every time he notices that tree no longer being around. If negotiations look like they'll only kick in $500 or less, then it might be worth the good will to totally take all costs. I'm unsure how often you have interactions with them.

Definitely get another quote, and see if this is for tree and stump removal (as was mentioned above), or just the tree. Paying to remove the stump from a neighbor's property is far more generous than just being neighborly.
posted by nobeagle at 9:29 AM on April 24, 2014

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