Find a top agent in your area

Get started

Selling a House With a Dead Tree: Are You Responsible for Removal?

At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.

No matter how you look at it, a dead tree is a major liability. Without moisture and nutrients reaching a tree’s extremities, brittle branches can fall and cause injury or property damage. Even if a storm caused the breakage, homeowners insurance won’t give you any coverage if you’ve neglected to maintain the tree.

So when selling a house with a dead tree, you could risk legal trouble for failing to disclose it to your buyers who definitely don’t want this liability on their hands. At the same time, a solution could be simpler than you think if a tree can be saved with the attention of an arborist. Whether you have confirmation of a dead tree or just a hunch, here’s what you should know to move forward.

A man disclosing a dead tree on his home for sale.
Source: (mentatdgt / Pexels)

Dead trees and disclosures

Let’s say you’re already aware that there’s a dead tree somewhere on the property. You’re not surmising that it could be dead, but you’ve had a certified arborist come out to confirm its condition. We asked Tiffany Webber, a North Carolina real estate attorney, legal YouTuber, and one-half of the legal team at Thomas & Webber about your obligations as a seller in this event.

Here’s the dispatch:

A few, but not all states, ask specifically about dead or sick trees in the state’s mandated disclosure form. For example, Colorado’s disclosure form has a checkbox for “Dead, diseased or infected trees or shrubs.”

My disclosure doesn’t have that. Am I cleared?

The absence of a tree checkbox or explicit mention of it on the disclosure form doesn’t absolve you from sharing what you know. Real estate disclosures essentially require sellers to outline any material facts that could impact a home’s safety or value. A dead tree poses a risk to the home and the people who live in it, which constitutes a material fact about the property.

“Material fact” is information a seller knows that could lead a buyer to change their mind about purchasing the property if they knew about it as well. “It’s always a good idea that if you know something, you should just tell the buyer upfront,” says Webber.

If a seller has a dead tree on the property that could pose a risk to the home’s structure if it fell, they should disclose it, even in the state falls under caveat emptor (i.e., buyer beware), which puts the onus on the buyer to do their due diligence prior to purchasing a home.

What’s the risk, really?

“If the seller knew about this and didn’t tell the buyer, the buyer’s got to figure out, ‘What did the seller know? Why didn’t they help?’ and the buyer could come back with a variety of legal claims against the seller to try to be restored,” Webber says.

In the event that the tree fell and the buyer could determine that the seller withheld their knowledge of the tree’s condition, the buyer can sue for damages, the cost of repairs, and even legal fees, according to Webber.

What’s more, the seller could be on the hook for damage caused by the tree years after the property has changed hands. “Depending on the circumstances, the statute of limitations could be between three and six years,” Webber says.

So when in doubt, disclose. “When you disclose up front, you can price accordingly and retain some of your negotiating power,” says Webber.

What if the tree comes up in the inspection?

Another question you may have about selling a house with a dead tree is whether a buyer can ask for a tree to be removed as part of the home inspection. This scenario assumes you’ve already gone under contract with a buyer and negotiated the contract price without anyone knowing about a sick or dying tree.

However, home inspectors are generalists in their assessment of a home. When it comes to pests, structural damage, and yes — trees — they’ll need a specialist to confirm that anything’s wrong. The most a home inspector will probably do is point out whether a tree is hanging over a roof or coming into contact with a house in a way that poses a risk to the structure itself. From there, a buyer could negotiate for you to have those branches trimmed away from the property.

If an inspector questions a tree’s health, they may recommend that the buyer call in a certified arborist for an official evaluation. Whatever the arborist confirms could be used by leverage as the buyer to negotiate for tree’s removal or a credit that would cover the costs of removing the tree after closing.

You don’t have to say yes — at this point, the dead tree will be a matter of negotiation. But if you can’t come to an agreement, your buyer may be able to wiggle out of the contract using the inspection contingency. Your real estate agent will be able to help you navigate your options from there.

A dead tree stump near a house for sale.
Source: (Street Donkey / Unsplash)

Can the tree be saved?

The following are strong signs that your tree is dead or dying, according to the USDA’s Forest Service:

  • “Dead wood” that is dry or brittle and doesn’t sway with the wind
  • Cracks or deep vertical splits in the trunk of the tree
  • Weak branch unions or upright branches
  • Decay, including mushrooms or fungus growing at the base of the tree
  • Cankers growing on the stem or branch of a tree, large enough to compromise the structure
  • Damaged or exposed roots
  • Leaning trunk
  • Uneven growth
  • Thin foliage

However, as Bartusek points out: “Without a licensed arborist coming and looking at it, you don’t truly know. I’m always going to default to a specialist.”

Based on their visit, an arborist might recommend services that could help save the tree. One-time applications like a deep root fertilization, a trunk injection, or an insect treatment might do the trick. These services range in price based on complexity, but cost anywhere between $50-$300, HomeAdvisor says.

Sick, but not dead

That was the case for some sellers who were clients of top-selling Omaha real estate agent Todd Bartusek. When the couple suspected a tree was sick on their property, Bartusek suggested calling an arborist to confirm. The arborist discovered that the tree was sick, but not dead, and gave the sellers an estimate for annual care: $200 a year.

“We had the invoice from the tree company, we provided it to the buyer, and had a very small negotiation from there,” says Bartusek. Instead of detracting buyers from the sale, it confirmed to them that the sellers were thorough with property upkeep.

Full check-up

Having an arborist come to inspect your property’s trees costs between $80 to $150 on average. For this fee, an arborist will come to your home and give the trees on-site a quick check-up and look at everything from the health of the leaves to new twig growth. They can determine whether a tree can be saved or if you’ll need to remove it.

Falling risk

In addition to a prognosis, a good arborist will also be able to estimate when the dead tree becomes a falling risk. “If you’ve got a 15-acre property and a dead tree on the corner that’s not near the structure, that’s probably a nonissue,” says Webber. In some instances, it’ll take years for a tree to die, so removing it now may be unnecessary.

If you’re deciding whether or not to remove a tree prior to listing, also consider the impact its absence will have on your curb appeal, says Bartusek. “It just changes the landscape of the property. Your pines might not be looking the greatest, but you take them down, and now you can see everything behind the house,” he explains.

In many cases, a standing sick or dead tree will look better than a stump. If an arborist can confirm the tree is dying, but 1) It’s still years away from being dead and 2) It doesn’t pose an immediate falling threat — you might decide to keep the tree up for now and simply disclose its condition to the buyer.

A man cutting a dead tree down near a house for sale.
Source: (Jorge Salcedo / Shutterstock)

How tree removal works

Trees, as sturdy and stately as they may be, are living creatures vulnerable to the threats of their environment. Poor soil health, parasitic insects, and fungal disease all pose a risk to a tree’s health, as do catastrophic weather events including storms, heavy wind, and lightning.

Depending on species, a healthy tree may live to 50 years (as is the lifespan of palm trees), up to 5,000 years (the Bristlecone pine will outlive us all). But widespread tree epidemics can cut the long life of your stately tree short.

Since 2010, for example, a pathogen called “Sudden Oak Death” has prematurely killed millions of redwoods, oaks, and bay laurels across northern California backyards and forests. The emerald ash borer, an insect originally from Asia, has plagued ash trees beautifying midwestern and eastern America since it was discovered in Detroit in 2002.

Because of these realities, sometimes it’s time to face the music: A tree has got to go. The complexity of your tree removal will vary based on size and location, but in general, a professional will determine how the tree should fall (space permitting), then make a series of precise slices with a chainsaw to the trunk to direct its fall to the predetermined location. From there, they’ll cut up the trunk and branches and use industrial equipment to grind the stump and root system out of the soil.

Tree removal can cost anywhere between $400 to $1,200. Larger trees could cost closer to $2,000 to remove.

The variation in price is due to several factors: 

  • What type of tree do you have? Some species, like a palm or oak tree, have fewer limbs and smaller diameter on average, says HomeGuide from SF Gate. That makes removing them less labor-intensive. Other species could carry state or local protections, which can require some legwork to get approval to remove them.
  • Cost of living. Labor in your area might be more expensive than others. In some areas, you’ll need to apply for a permit to remove a tree.
  • Access. If the tree is surrounded by power lines, nearby homes, or fencing, it will be more expensive to take down, putting in on the higher end of the estimate, closer to $1,200. However, according to OSHA, if the tree’s branches that need to be trimmed are within 10 feet of an overhead powerline, it’s the power company’s responsibility to remove the tree.
  • Height. The taller the tree, the pricier the takedown. A tree up to 30 feet tall will average between $100 to $300 for removal, while a tree over 80 feet tall will cost $1,100+ to cut down.

Once the tree is down, you’ve got a few options for disposal:

  • Hire a tree removal and stump removal professional. Once the tree is down, you can hire professionals to haul it away and remove the stump from the ground. Stump removal costs $2-$3 per inch of diameter, and some companies charge a $100 minimum, explain the industry professionals at TreeRemoval.
  • Chip the wood. For less than $100 a day, you can rent a wood chipper from Home Depot. In an afternoon, you can convert the trunk, branches, and root of your dead tree into wood mulch for your garden beds. (Pro tip: 84% of real estate agents strongly recommend installing fresh much before selling your home.)
  • Chop the wood. If you’ve got a fireplace or fire pit, you might keep the chopped wood for future fires.
  • Sell the tree. There’s a chance a sawmill might buy your felled tree for lumber, but that will depend on the species and condition of the wood. If the tree is dead as a doornail, it’s of little value to a mill.
  • Rent a dumpster. You can rent a yard debris dumpster — once it’s full of your dead tree debris, they’ll haul it away.

The trunk and branches may be gone, but you’re still dealing with the stump and inevitable pit it leaves behind in the ground.

Here’s what to to with the stump remains: 

  1. Rent a stump grinder to grind up the remaining stump and root system. For about $150 a day, you can rent a stump grinder from Home Depot to grind through the stump and roots in the ground. If you don’t have a trailer hitch, you’ll have to have the grinder delivered to your home.
  2. Use a rake or small ax to break up any remaining roots left behind in the ground, while evening out the soil around where the stump was. Pick up any roots you find and dispose of them to keep from contaminating the rest of the soil.
  3. Fill in the hole with a mix of topsoil and compost to restore some nutrients back into the ground. Spread the mixture evenly and use a shovel to pack it down.
  4. Before planting grass seed, water and smooth the soil daily for at least a week. This helps the soil settle. Fill in any settled areas with more topsoil.
  5. Plant grass seed and gently rake the soil over it. Avoid walking over this area for at least a week, and mist daily.

What killed your tree shouldn’t kill your sale

Even if you could have done nothing to save a tree, it’s a sad day when you discover a beloved tree in the yard is sick or dying. Beyond the shade and curb appeal a tree offers, their presence can also boost property value.

A summary of tree studies featured in Arborist News — “City Trees and Property Values” — by social-scientist Kathleen Wolf found that, “homes with trees are generally preferred to comparable homes without trees, with the trend across studies being a price increase of about 7%.”

But that’s only true for vigorous, healthy trees that don’t pose a risk to a house or passersby. When selling a house with a dead tree, remember to disclose what you already know and deal with negotiations as they come with the help of a top local real estate agent.

If you can’t save the tree and it’s an undeniable hazard, buyers may ask for it to be removed. Now at least you know what to expect as far as cost and hassle if you lose that negotiation. Thankfully, all this drama is pretty rare: “I’ve been selling houses for 20 years, and I’ve sold 1,400 homes,” says Bartusek. “I can probably count on literally one hand how many times I’ve had this come up.”

Header Image Source: (Stanislav Ferrao / Unsplash)