We didn’t see it coming. Or hear it happen.
During a windy day last month, a 40-foot tree landed in our driveway. Right on top of the glorious Bamboozled minivan.
We went outside to look, and boy, we were lucky. Only the very top branches grazed the minivan, leaving one small dent on the bumper and a couple of minor scratches.
But we had a 40-foot tree laying across the driveway.
The plan was to get estimates to remove the tree, but also to have someone assess the health of two trees that seemed to share their fallen brother’s root ball, and a fourth tree, some 65 feet tall, in the same planter bed.
We didn’t want to see any of the trees go. Year after year, the trees were the backdrop for many family photos. They provided shade, and copious piles of leaves for the kids to play in.
This quartet of trees even had an interesting survival story. During the construction of our development in the 1980s, the home’s original owner said, the builder wanted to remove the trees. It was a big fight, but the homeowner prevailed and the trees remained.
But alas, it was probably time for the trees to come down before one landed on the house.
So we took to a community Facebook page, where the day before, we saw recommendations for tree removal companies. The same company was recommended over and over, so we gave the business a call.
The proprietor said he could come over that night, a Friday. Sure, why not?
It was only for an estimate, and there would be time to research the company before making a final decision.
The guy came at about 7 p.m. and it was already dark outside. With a flashlight app on his cell phone, he examined the trees and very quickly said they all needed to come down. We tried to ask questions, but before we could, he asked if we were going through insurance.
Our insurance, unfortunately, had a $500 deductible and wouldn’t cover the trees that were still standing.
“Don’t worry about it,” the tree guy said. “I’ll take care of it.”
He said it would cost $1,200 to take down all four trees, but he would write the invoice for $1,700. That way we wouldn’t have to actually pay the deductible and the insurance company would pick up the $1,200 tab.
We asked how insurance would cover the entire bill.
Easy, he said. In addition to removing the fallen tree, he said, he’d show that we had to pay him to remove the tree from the top of the minivan (even though we had already backed the minivan away from the tree).
“I do it all the time,” he said.
He was ready to come Monday at 7 a.m.
We weren’t in a rush. We asked him for a written estimate. He said he only gives written estimates if he is going to do a job.
Thanks, we said. We’d think about it and give him a call.
This scheme wasn’t going to happen, not with us. Even without looking up the guy’s history, we knew we’d never hire him.
It’s insurance fraud, plain and simple, and moves like this cost us all more in the form of higher insurance premiums. And while some of you may call Bamboozled a fool for not taking advantage, well then, call Bamboozled a fool.
By now you’re probably wondering why we’re not naming the company. In short, Bamboozled features stories from alleged victims of fraud, and we have no victim here. We rarely write about our own consumer affairs escapades. Unless, of course, you can learn from our experiences.
And in this case, you can.
We made an appointment for an estimate with another tree removal guy, and we called our trusted landscaper — who doesn’t take down large trees — for an objective look at the health of the trees.
The landscaper said the two trees that shared the root ball were dying, but it wasn’t an emergency to remove them. They’d have to go eventually. And while the locust tree — the tallest of the bunch — was also dying, it was likely to stand sort-of petrified rather than fall on the house.
Then we mentioned the tree removal company. The landscaper knew it well.
He told several horror stories, such as one he witnessed at the home of a widow who needed several trees to be removed. It was a windy day — the kind of day the landscaper said was dangerous for the removal of tall trees. During the removal, one tree was taken in the wrong direction by a gust of wind, taking out large sections of a fence. The tree remover, according to the landscaper, told the homeowner not to worry because his insurance would cover it.
But in a side conversation, the landscaper said, the tree remover confided he didn’t actually have insurance.
The business card given to us by the tree remover, indeed, said he was “fully insured.”
The widow never heard back from the tree remover, the landscaper said.
We wanted to know more about this guy.
Our research found tax liens and judgments worth tens of thousands of dollars against the company and the guy personally, plus a few bankruptcies, too.
And about 25 years ago, he twice pleaded guilty to drug charges. A separate charge for weapons possession was dropped, records show.
Now, that doesn’t prove he’s bad at his job, but why take that chance?
More importantly, the contractor wasn’t properly registered or certified with the state.
He wasn’t a Certified Tree Expert with the Department of Environmental Protection. (You can check that by calling DEP’s Board of Tree Experts at (732) 833-0325.)
If someone isn’t certified with DEP, he could operate if he’s registered as a Home Improvement Contractor (HIC). He wasn’t an HIC, either. (You can check that here or by calling (973) 504-6370.)
That’s all changing soon.
The Board of Tree Experts said its waiting for new rules to be approved by January 2017.
“The Board will require all tree care companies in New Jersey to register with the Board and have the necessary insurance coverage set by law,” a spokesman said. “In addition, every tree care company will need to have a licensed person on staff.”
That’s good for all consumers, and for legitimate companies, too.
In the end, we didn’t go through insurance at all. We decided to take down all the trees, and we paid $1,000 to remove the four and grind the stumps.
We researched before we hired the company that ultimately did the work, and workers did a good job. The company seemed to do business by the book. We were even charged tax on the sale.
So, dear readers, please learn from our experience. Don’t just take a recommendation from Facebook or even from a neighbor without independently checking out the company. And read this story for some help.
Be sure the company or contractor is in good standing with the state, and that it has insurance.
A final note on the minivan’s bumper: It miraculously popped itself out a few days after the incident, leaving no evidence behind.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. Find Bamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.