A tree specialist makes appraisals easy

Sometimes, in order for the universe to advance in your favor, you just need some adversity, some incentive and a talented brother-in-law. That’s all it took for Bob Wallace to become a whiz at tree appraisals.

PHOTOS BY DON DALE.
Bob Wallace says his tree consulting business can now produce three times the number of reports because of his homemade appraisal software.

Although appraisals were a huge part of his tree consulting business, Wallace was slow at them. It was agonizing filling out those valuation forms by hand, and he was never sure if he had the formulas for evaluation correct. That all changed when he and his brother-in-law developed appraisal software.

Wallace is the owner of Tree Life Concern, Inc. in Simi Valley, Calif. His father was a tree care specialist, and from the age of 7 to his teen years he would work with his father. He loved tree work. He went on to start his own tree care company, he worked with trees as an employee for the city of Los Angeles and later for another company. He also had his own tree pest control company for 10 years.

It was that work, which involved diagnosing and knowing trees well, that gave him the impetus to become a consulting arborist. In 1990, he started Tree Life Concern solely as a consulting business, and now he is an ISA-certified arborist as well as an ASCA-registered consulting arborist.

With appraisals being half of his business, some years he was buried in paperwork. Wallace loves the field part of appraisals, and even the reports, but when it came time to figure out all the worksheet formulas that go into setting a value on a tree he was in an area that didn’t suit him.

“I’m not good at math. I spent hours and hours trying to figure it out,” Wallace says, recalling the ISA Plant Appraisal Guide worksheet that he used. The four factors determining an evaluation—species, size, condition and location—all have specific calculations that had to be figured out with a calculator, then combined with a species classification guide for his region to put a dollar value per square inch of trunk at a height of 4.5 feet. It’s all there in the ISA guide.

“The formula process worked. The only problem was that it was time-consuming.” It was agonizing, despite the fact that he had worked out his own streamlined system over the years, and it had to be handwritten. When he had to go to court with the appraisals he prepared as a legal expert, he found that it was difficult to explain the handwritten worksheet notes to a judge or jury, especially since he didn’t understand the math all that well himself.

Seven years ago he was scheduled to visit relatives in Virginia. He stayed up the whole night before his flight preparing an appraisal on over 80 trees right on the deadline. By the time he got to his destination, he was frustrated with the worksheet process, the only part he wasn’t doing on a computer. He talked about his frustrations with his brother-in-law, Jerry Normand, and Normand had an idea.

“We spent three days out in the shop building what we call TreeCalc,” Wallace recalls. Since then, his life as a tree appraiser has been transformed.

Normand is a retired lumber company employee who liked working on computers, and he said that the appraisal worksheet was essentially a spreadsheet that needed some tweaking. The software they came up with, TreeCalc, did involve some original programming, but the result was a system that calculates all the formulas automatically as Wallace enters the numbers.

The software has been refined several times over the years as ISA and regional guidelines changed. Loaded into Wallace’s computer, including a laptop he can take into the field, it is a tool that enhances and facilitates his business.

“Now it’s a well-refined, fast appraisal method that takes all the mathematics out of it,” Wallace notes. In fact, it works so well that he and Normand are considering ways to sell it to other consulting arborists.

TreeCalc is set up in two parts: a data sheet and a worksheet. The data sheet is where all of his observations are entered, expressed as a percentage of the regional valuations. It not only accepts tree species, size, location and condition, it also allows Wallace to enter aspects, such as contribution, which is the function the tree is performing, i.e., as a shade or windbreak tree. He also enters placement, which refers to other elements of the tree such as if it is damaging a wall or beautifying a driveway.

These aspects allow him to assign additional percentage valuations that help place a more exact dollar cost of the tree. The software is set up to analyze 10 trees at a time, but it can be expanded in sets of 10 to accept a larger job. Wallace has appraised up to 300 trees at a time with the software.

The data sheet information is sent automatically to the worksheet side of the report, and the software computes all the formulas. No more math to do, and all the calculations are visible across a lateral chart that is easy for a client or judge to see and understand. It also allows for damage to the tree to be entered as a percentage, which provides an automatic devaluation for damaged trees. In addition, below the chart, all the formulas that go into the calculations are listed so that the reader can look at the math behind it if he wants.

“It makes appraisal fun,” Wallace says. Normand also built in a method of going back and changing values. If he gets up the next morning and decides that the condition of a tree is 60 percent of perfect rather than 80 percent, it’s easy to alter the calculation in the computer.

The clever brother-in-law also came up with a method of evaluating the replacement cost of small trees. This is a different method that is applied to large trees, because all he may be looking for is the cost of buying and planting a new tree. The beauty of TreeCalc is that both types of valuations can be completed in the same form.

What has this done for his business? Wallace says it not only makes him more efficient, it also makes him more valuable than another appraiser who is jotting down calculations on a vertical worksheet.

“It gives me a big advantage,” he says. For one thing, it gives him a method of giving a general valuation to a potential client instantly. As he’s on the phone, he can enter some general valuation information into TreeCalc and come up with an estimated value for a tree; that really impresses the client, and may get him the job.

The job that once took him all night to do, now takes about 45 minutes. Wallace estimates that he now has the potential to write up three tree appraisal reports per week, instead of one. The software has not only taken the stress out of the job, it has enabled him to increase his cash flow.

The odd thing is, Wallace says, there seems to be no good commercial software out there for this operation—at least none that he could find. Every consultant he has seen has used the handwritten worksheet, and it seems that in the world of tree litigation and municipal appraisals a better way should be available.

Wallace points out that he still has to be a good consulting arborist in order to look at trees and analyze their health and values. By going the extra distance and adding this homemade software to his computer, he has made his business efficient and complete.

For more information on the TreeCalc software, e-mail Bob Wallace at treelifeconcerninc@sbcglobal.net.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.