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Building a Safe Tree House

A tree house is the perfect getaway for kids. But just the idea of a “way up there” tree house can make parents a little nervous. With these suggestions, you’ll learn how to build a safe tree house.

A Safe Tree House: Sweat Equity

Building a solid tree house takes a lot more than a few boards, some nails, and a ladder. You’ll need wood, tools, bolts, screws, and a whole lot of know-how. Be prepared for a technical process—if you’re not very handy you might even want to hire someone to do the job. No problem, because you’ll find plenty of tree house building companies online. But don’t be too intimidated, because all the work hours—or phone calls to builders—are worth it once your tree house is up and your kids are playing in it.

There’s no getting around one fact, though. Climbing up and down introduces an element of danger. So ensuring your homeowner’s coverage protects you is especially important. Call your agent or insurance company to make sure. And check out our Coverage for Trampolines and Tree Houses article for useful baseline insurance information.

Doing Your Homework

Your local planning department might have something to say about a structure that sits high above the ground. For starters, a tree house that looks into your neighbors’ homes is a big no-no. They’re also likely to check how close the structure is to power lines—and you should, too.

And don’t forget to check with your insurance agent, too. It’s possible that adding a tree house to your property will impact your homeowners insurance coverage.

Once you’re clear to build, remember that a good tree house starts with a great tree. It should be sturdy and healthy, with deep roots and a strong trunk. Also, keep in mind that 90-degree branches provide the strongest support for weight. You might want to consult with an arborist to make sure the tree you choose is strong enough.

The next step is drawing up plans for your tree house. Be forewarned: this is no small task. Several websites offer downloadable plans based on the size of the structure, shape and type of tree. Plans also vary based on the actual type of tree house you want to build—do you want it to encircle the tree? Do you want to rest it on several branches, or will it span multiple trees? With a little bit of online research, you’ll find plans for whatever configuration you’re considering.

Once you’ve picked your tree and design, it’s time to head to the hardware store (and maybe hit up some neighbors for their tools). You’ll need all sorts of equipment, starting with a jigsaw, a reversible drill, a ladder, nails and screws, and of course lumber. Some experts recommend using treated pine—it’s a light wood so it’s easier to work with, and it also repels bugs.

Time to Start Building a Tree House!

When it’s time to start the actual construction, there are some important rules to remember:

  • “Perch, don’t pin.” This saying is one of the most important recommendations for building a tree house. It means that boards shouldn’t simply be nailed into the tree. Instead, they should be placed on top of the branches and affixed using a bolt system. This allows the tree to grow and expand while developing a stronger connection with the tree house.
  • The tree is alive, too. Drilling or cutting can harm a tree and make a tree house unsafe down the road. So instead of nailing into the tree, look for methods that keep a tree healthy over the long run. Artificial limb systems are often a good way to build a tree house’s infrastructure. You should use fewer, larger fasteners rather than several small ones, and the fewer times you pierce the tree’s bark, the better. Even chains and straps can be harmful, as they can rip into a tree’s protective barrier and cut off nutrients.
  • Start on the ground: Some experts recommend building as much of the structure on the ground as possible. Even if your tree house is just a few feet in the air, it’s easier to work on level ground than on heavy wood that’s suspended above you.
  • Give yourself some room: Keep in mind that a tree grows and also moves in the wind, so craft a structure that isn’t locked down, one that gives the tree some flexibility. Anything too rigid will be bad for the tree and may make the tree house unsafe. And make sure no part of the structure rubs up against the tree—that’s a sure way to damage the tree.
  • Use the right tools: When you drill into a tree, use a high-quality auger-bit. This type of bit is designed to remove chips, so it’s less likely to get stuck in the tree. Back the bit out of the hole periodically, to keep the drill hole clean.

Once you’re finished with your tree house, you might want to spend some time in it before you let the kids take over. Check it out during rainy and windy weather to make sure it’s steady.

For information about how tree houses can impact your homeowners insurance, contact your insurance agent.