Cost of tree removal angering homeowners, but no price-gouging charges yet

Hal Cherry paid $3,500 to cut a single tree that snagged his roof. A local company said that estimate seemed “out of line.”
Hal Cherry paid $3,500 to cut a single tree that snagged his roof. A local company said that estimate seemed “out of line.”

While some Beaufort County residents have received expensive estimates for tree removal — some reportedly as high as $50,000 — the S.C. Attorney General’s Office has not sought any price-gouging charges statewide in connection with Hurricane Matthew.

Contacted Monday by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette, Hayley Thrift Bledsoe, spokeswoman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said the office has received a total of more than 350 reports of alleged price gouging in the 14 days since Gov. Nikki Haley declared a state of emergency for South Carolina and the anti-price-gouging statute took effect.

But investigating potential offenders could take time, given that the office is still “collecting information” and working with local law enforcement and the State Law Enforcement Division, Thrift Bledsoe said.

Thrift Bledsoe could not provide any specifics about price gouging in Beaufort County. No one has reported price gouging locally, said representatives from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and the Bluffton Police Department.

Under state law, price gouging is considered a “gross disparity” between the quoted price and the average price for that service in the 30 days immediately prior to the official state-of-emergency declaration. The misdemeanor charge is punishable by a maximum 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Although there has been no enforcement of the state law, price gouging exists in Beaufort County — at least anecdotally.

“The stories keep pouring in,” said Toby McSwain, director of safety, security and transportation at Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island. “We’re a resort community, and people think we have wads of cash.”

McSwain shared a story he heard from a Sea Pines resident. After the tree crew finished a job, the owner’s wife drove up the driveway in a luxury vehicle and a worker commented, “If I’d known you drove a BMW, I would have charged you more.”

Tree removal ripoffs

While gas stations that gouge customers might put them back $20 to $30 at the pump, tree removal companies doing the same can cost homeowners thousands more dollars than necessary.

The highest estimates provided Monday to The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette by managers at some of the island’s gated communities fluctuated from $25,000 to $50,000.

“I can’t believe people are paying that, but they are,” McSwain said.

Residents whose homes sustained structural damage are anxious to save their property before the next rain, so they often accept estimates far higher than if they’d called around, managers said.

Hal Cherry paid $3,500 to cut a single tree snagging the corner of his roof. The company did not include removal in the bid.

“I paid it as I needed it off ... to keep squirrels and raccoons out of my attic space,” he wrote in an email.

From last Wednesday to 3:30 p.m. Monday, the town of Hilton Head issued 117 business licenses to landscaping and debris removal companies, town attorney Brian Hulbert said.

Thirty-four of those licenses stemmed from warnings passed out by town employees to companies operating without a license, he said.

Sea Pines considered checking company’s business licenses before allowing entrance into the gated community, but the large number of crews requesting access “would have traffic backed up on Palmetto Bay Road,” McSwain said.

For property owners who waited too long, the chance to shop around for a fair price might be limited.

“Folks are desperate and when they have a contractor in front of them,” said Hilton Head Plantation general manager Peter Kristian. “They’ll do anything to save their property.”

Local companies swamped

Meanwhile, a number of local tree-removal companies said they would continue to honor the prices they advertise year round.

“(Our) prices are the same as they’ve always been,” said Cindy Becker, office manager for Sea Island Tree Care in Beaufort.

Sea Island Tree Care has not billed anyone more than $10,000, Becker said.

Fallen trees in backyards are almost always more expensive than the front yard, she added, because of increased accessibility issues.

Jones Brothers Tree Surgeons on Hilton Head also hasn’t charged more than $10,000 for a single job, said co-owner Clay Jones.

“I’d like to see what a $50,000 job looks like,” he said.

For one to two trees on a house, $3,000 to $4,000 per tree would seem to be “out of line,” Jones said. But some estimates could be fair if heavy-duty equipment is involved, he said.

Jones said his business has been averaging 400 calls per day. Southern Tree Services in Beaufort received 3,000 calls last week, said Sonya Reiselt, a certified arborist with the company.

Southern Tree Services subcontracts with a crane company that charges $5,000 just to set it down on each property, Reiselt said. She encouraged homeowners to hold off on tree removal for a while unless it is an immediate hazard.

“Live with it until the dust settles,” she said. “That might save you some money when the other storm-chasers leave town and the local companies can come in.”

For Comfort Point resident Megan O’Leary, there was another alternative.

As neighbors received $20,000 estimates and she received an almost $6,000 quote to remove an oak across her driveway, she instead turned to family and friends for help.

Kelly Meyerhofer: 843-706-8136, @KellyMeyerhofer

Feeling gouged?

To report price gouging, contact the Attorney General’s office:

Have the establishment’s name, location, price and documentation of the gouging ready. Price gouging is a misdemeanor offense and comes with a $1,000 fine and/or 30 days in jail.