Considerations when buying a property with trees

Date: 7 August 2015

For many buyers, the lure of a leafy suburb or a property in a natural bush setting can be a hard temptation to resist. A tree doesn’t just offer a shady sanctuary on a warm summer’s day; it is a place for children to explore, a canopy for a lazy brunch, and a home to an array of local wildlife.

While a tree can form a critical part of a home’s mini-eco system, those thinking about a tree-change need to consider a range of pros and cons. Chris Short from the Association of Building Consultants shares his top ten tips when thinking about buying a property with trees.

  1. Suck it and see. Check to see if the tree is one of the varieties that extract significant amounts of moisture from the ground. When one of these tree varieties is living in reactive clay soils it can lead to the soil shrinking and cracking, and that can cause footing movement and cracking to walls.  This is often a significant problem and expensive to fix.
  2. Going native. Native trees typically have high suction capacity and have perfected the ability to extract every drop of moisture that they need to survive. If a native tree is near a home – especially one that may not have gardens or lawns that are regularly watered - it can cause problems by drying out the soil under the home’s footings.
  3. The missing link. A property may have recently had a large tree removed as part of the preparations for sale. It might sound odd, but this sudden lack of a tree can also cause problems, especially sudden swelling of soil once wet weather returns.
  4. Take it or leave it. It is important to remember that a property with trees will need to have moisture put back into the soil in dry weather to maintain the tree and prevent damage to a home. A tree’s moisture requirements are roughly proportionate to the leaf mass – so a tree with a small light canopy will need much less water than one that has a larger dense canopy.
  5. The root cause. Roots can travel surprising distances as they hunt for water, and many home owners find that a small crack in a stormwater or sewer pipe can grow to require a sudden need for a plumber’s visit.     
  6. Take it or leaf it. Leaf litter can be a constant source of frustration for a homeowner, with leaves building up over time to block gutters and stormwater systems. It’s not ideal to find out that rainwater cannot wash away after a big storm hits, so regular maintenance is essential.
  7. Level playing field. Roots can cause damage to footpaths and driveways – whether they are brick pavers or concrete, so consider how close a tree might be, look for signs that might show it is starting to impact, and whether at some future point it might cause bigger problems.
  8. Regulated and significant trees. No one wants to see beautiful trees removed just for the sake of it, but if you are thinking of buying a house with the intention of removing a tree then first make enquiries as to whether it can be legally removed. South Australia recently saw new laws regarding regulated and significant trees, so check with the local council to determine if you need permission to remove a tree, or prune it.
  9. Going out on a limb. A tree that is structurally unsound is likely to drop limbs, so talk to an arborist. They are able to advise you whether a tree– such as a eucalypt – might suddenly drop a limb with no warning. While trees naturally shed limbs to retain the moisture within the rest of the tree, if the canopy overhangs the house, shed or where cars are normally parked, this can leave a major repair cost in its wake. It might even kill you!
  10. Back to nature. Trees offer a number of important benefits to consider. Deciduous trees provide cooling shade in the summer but let sunlight warm your home in the winter. They can shade hard surface areas such as driveways, patios, buildings and paths, providing welcome relief on stinking hot days. Trees absorb and block noise and reduce glare, produce oxygen and create an ecosystem that provides habitat and food for birds and animals.

Get fanatical about botanical – You only have to walk through Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens to see why you shouldn’t put a Moreton Bay Fig next to a house. Most varieties of Ficus, poplars, willows and larger gums should not be close to a house because of their invasive root systems. Even smaller plants can cause havoc - bamboo, grapevines, and wisteria love invading sewer pipes for moisture. It pays to get to know your local horticulturalist or plant supplier. The idea is to minimise large trees near a house.