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Tree Roots and Property Damage: Whose Responsibility?

The roots of many types of trees are well known to cause damage to properties. This damage will often take the form of subsidence, particularly if the soil is of clay composition. This is because clay soil is prone to shrinking when it dries out, which is precisely what happens when tree roots take hold and help themselves to the moisture in the soil. In some cases, they will travel as far as 6 metres downwards in search of water, and even further outwards. This inevitably leads to foundations moving or subsiding.

Subsidence, however, is not the only issue connected with tree roots. Drains can also become blocked as tree roots follow them to take advantage of the abundance of moisture on offer. In most cases, the best course of action will be to lay new drains. Modern drains have been designed to withstand tree root damage, so this would, therefore, be the best long-term solution.

Of course, who pays for all of this remedial action is the key question.

Who meets the costs to rectify problems caused by tree roots?

The answer to this question is dependent on the situation of the tree or trees in question.

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Trees on public land

If they are on public land, then the local council will be involved in some capacity. The first step to take if you suspect subsidence or movement due to tree roots is a call to your buildings insurer. They will send a surveyor to conduct an inspection and various investigations will be carried out. In some cases they will conclude that the subsidence was not caused by tree roots, but if they believe it has been, then information will have to be provided to the local council.

If the tree is protected by a Preservation Order, then this information will usually be quite detailed in nature, and it would usually require the assistance of a surveyor or structural engineer to compile it, the cost of which will usually be covered by your insurer. You can find out what information will be required by contacting your local council, or checking their website. They will also advise you on what to do if you have evidence that damage to your property is being caused by trees that they own.

Who covers the cost of tree root damage is down to where the trees are situated.

Who covers the cost of tree root damage is down to where the trees are situated.

Trees on neighbours’ land

If the roots of a tree situated on a neighbour’s land have caused damage to your property, then the owner of the tree can be liable for the damage under the law of nuisance. Again, there is a process to go through to prove the cause of the damage, and the extent of that damage.

A qualified arborist will need to be called in to provide an expert report on the cause of the damage, and a surveyor’s report will also be required so that the extent of the damage is clearly documented, together with the remedial work required and its associated costs, plus any resulting reduction in value of the property.

Responsibility for rectifying the situation and for any damages claim will more often than not lie with the owner of the tree, although it will need to be proved that the damage was ‘reasonably foreseeable’. If the tree is situated on rented land then the occupier of that land may be liable if they have not taken reasonable steps to put a stop to the nuisance, i.e. they did not arrange for it to be removed or cut back or at very least inspected, or did not report an obvious issue to their landlord.

Trees on your land

When you took out your buildings insurance policy, you were probably asked whether there were any trees on your land, and how far away they were from your property. If the insurer did not foresee an issue and did not place any warranties on the policy, such as insisting on a tree report or the removal or cutting back of any trees in order to validate the policy, then you should be able to proceed with a claim, although there is usually a sizeable excess associated with claims for subsidence.

However, the ‘foreseeability’ test will again usually apply. If it appears reasonably obvious that the trees were causing an issue, for example, if they were particularly close to the property and had grown considerably, then you may be questioned as to why action wasn’t taken to deal with them, such as removing or reducing them. If you can prove that you were regularly maintaining the trees and had taken advice from a qualified arborist and instructed regular tree surveys, then you will stand a better chance of your claim being accepted.

What species of trees are likely to cause the most damage?

The biggest culprits when it comes to roots causing damage are willow, sycamore, oak, poplar and plane trees. If you have any of these trees on your land that is of a significant size, then you should take immediate advice from a qualified tree surgeon. Bear in mind that tree roots can spread up to 3 times the height of a tree and that if you have clay soil, or there has been a particularly dry spell, you will be more at risk.

Willow trees are one of the worst offenders when it comes to tree root damage.

Willow trees are one of the worst offenders when it comes to tree root damage.

What are the signs my property is suffering tree root damage?

Most damage occurs when trees are situated 10 metres or less from a property. If you spot a crack in your property and there is a tree close by, and particularly if it is late in the summer, then this could be related to the tree roots. Contact your buildings insurers and follow their advice.

If you are concerned that a tree on your land may potentially cause damage to your property or that of a neighbour, T.H. Tree Services can assist by undertaking a tree report and then conducting any required remedial action. Contact us without hesitation if you have any concerns: we cover all of Essex and East London.

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