When Phil and Ana Hernandez's first child, Jane, was born, they planted a crape myrtle in the front yard of their Echo Park home.
Now 11 years old, Jane's tree is about 25 feet tall, a flowering beauty that has bestowed an unexpected bonus: It's worth about $2,000, not a bad return on the initial $5 investment.
But you don't need the occasion of a new baby to reap the same profit.
"Planting a tree should be the first priority for a new homeowner," says Corona landscape architect Kenneth K. Kammeyer. "Don't get carried away with the fancy landscaping; you can even hold off on the irrigation system, but get those trees in the ground and get them going."
It makes financial sense, Kammeyer said. "A tree is one of the few things that won't depreciate every year" while still increasing its value and the value of the property.
But not just any tree. For maximum value, both aesthetic and financial, a tree should be properly placed and carefully tended, and it should complement the architecture of the house.
"A single palm in back of a bungalow isn't worth all that much," says Kyle Smith, a real estate agent with Progressive Properties in the Los Feliz area. "And if the tree is on a hillside and looks like it might fall, it could be a liability."
In Smith's area, he says, a handsome deodar cedar in the front yard "could have a value of $20,000 to $25,000. A giant bird of paradise in the front of a Spanish Colonial can have almost the same value, or giant palms."
Added Peggy Mueller, owner of New Frontier Century 21 in Sherman Oaks: "Aesthetically, people love it when there are full-grown trees on a property. In Palmdale and Lancaster, where trees are scarce, developers are putting them in for shade value. We use it all the time in ads, 'tree-lined street' and so on.
"Where the trees are mature, it adds a value to the neighborhood almost more than it does to the specific house because there's a difference in looking at a sterile neighborhood compared to one that has trees."
According to experts, landscaping in general--but especially trees--can amount to 20% of a property's total value--and that's as true in Beverly Hills as it is in Bellflower.
In many neighborhoods, though, as Mueller points out, the trees that warm a homeowner's heart aren't even on the homeowner's property.
City-owned street trees are, to many people, even more desirable than an isolated first-class specimen in the front yard. Dozens of mature trees lining a street--forming a canopy if they're shade trees, elegant sentinels if they're palms--make homeowners' hearts beat faster.
In Beverly Hills, where 30,000 street trees are petted and pruned as often as three times a year, residents come home to some fancy public greenery.
"Our street trees are worth more than $450 million," said Marcelino Lomeli, superintendent of parks for the city of Beverly Hills. "That's already an asset you have."
Although some of us think we shall never see a poem lovely as a tree, there is a more practical aspect. Though we may not like to think so, every tree has its price.
"There is an absolute formula for figuring the value of a tree," Kammeyer said, a formula usually invoked by insurance companies when a tree is injured or destroyed. But homeowners wishing to know the value of a tree they own might heed Kammeyer's general procedures.
"We take into consideration four things:
"First, the kind of tree. If you were building a cabin in Idyllwild, which is forested with pines, a big pine wouldn't be so valuable. But an oak tree in San Marino would be worth a lot.
"Second, look at the tree itself. What is its condition? Rank it and rate it.
"Third, look at its ambience: its quality, health, uniqueness.
"Fourth, measure it 38 inches above the ground for the diameter, and measure the height and spread. Each inch can have a dollar value."
Perhaps an easier way to find out how much a tree is worth is to find a comparable replacement tree. Or try to. It is often impossible to replace mature trees because they just don't transplant at that size.
Generally, a large tree in a 10-foot box will cost about $2,000, plus $1,000 for the crane and labor to install it. While $3,000 will buy a new tree, it won't replace the tree that was growing on site for many years, and age counts.
A fast-growing poplar, Kammeyer said, has little value, but "a 300-year old oak tree is priceless. The age would be more important than the species."
The city of Los Angeles thinks many of its oaks are an important heritage: Coastal and valley live oaks, including some oaks growing on private property, are the only trees protected by a city ordinance.
If one or more oak trees eight inches in diameter or larger are growing on property of one or more acres, the city's Street Tree Division has to be notified before the tree can be removed.
The ordinance doesn't apply to smaller city lots, although oaks on those properties are sometimes protected by city Planning Department restrictions.