Remember Grandma’s awful fake Christmas tree when you were a kid? The one with thin branches covered in what looked like plastic bread ties, and cheap flocking that came off if you so much as looked in its direction?
Well, since then, modern artificial Christmas trees have come a long way, not just regarding realness, but regarding quality as well.
This, along with their comparatively low prices, means that more than 9.5 million artificial trees are sold each year (and growing), which is about 1/3 of the number of real trees.
Despite their potential savings over time, buying an artificial Christmas tree can cost you hundreds of dollars up front, and you’ll probably own yours for a decade or more.
So it’s important that you make sure you understand what you need before taking the plunge, and that you look at it as a long-term investment.
To help you navigate the process of purchasing a fake Christmas tree, we’ve outlined 6 steps below that can help you find what you’re looking for and make the most of your hard-earned money.
Specifically, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees, what to look for when buying one, whether or not you should consider pre-lit options, the best time to purchase one (including popular retailers), and much more.
Ready to dive in? Great!
Real vs. Artificial Christmas Trees: Pros & Cons
Real Christmas Trees
Probably one of the most noticeable benefits of a real Christmas tree is their wonderful pine scent. It can keep your whole house in a state of perpetual cheer all throughout the holidays, and losing it might make you feel less Christmas-y.
Overall, the Christmas tree industry employs more than 100,000 Americans.
But this doesn’t mean that all areas of the country have the same access to Christmas trees. In fact, depending on where you live, your tree may have been trucked in from somewhere hundreds of miles away, which has a greater impact on the environment.
Speaking of the environment, most major metropolitan areas features free tree recycling (known as “treecycling”) programs that reuse them in landscaping and gardening products.
Artificial Christmas Trees
As we mentioned above, probably the biggest drawback to an artificial tree is that you’ll be losing that traditional pine scent, which can make it feel less like the holidays.
One of the biggest reasons that people purchase artificial trees is to reduce their yearly expenses on real trees. But do the numbers add up? Let’s take a quick rundown:
- The average cost of an artificial, pre-lit Christmas tree: $149. Most manufacturers claim their trees are good for 10-15 years (we’ll talk more about this next), but the average life expectancy is 6-9 years.
- The average cost of a real Christmas tree: About $50. Over the course of 6-9 years, you’d spend $300 to $450, not counting lights, stands, or other decorating costs.
Overall, this means you could potentially save $150 to $300 over time by choosing an artificial tree. Of course, these costs can vary widely, so be sure to prepare a budget based on prices in your area.
Artificial trees are easier to set up and maintain, as they can be put in place in a matter of minutes (no more worrying about crooked trunks!), don’t require watering, and have little-to-no clean up involved. If you’re someone who leaves their tree up well after Christmas, you’ll be able to keep yours in place without worrying about added fire danger.
Have allergy sufferers in your home? You won’t have to worry about that with artificial trees.
However, from an environmental perspective, artificial trees is widely understood to have a greater negative impact than real ones. Why? Their branches and leaves are made of metal and PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PE (polyethylene), which are petroleum-derived products. Neither of these materials is recyclable or biodegradable, which means your fake tree will sit in a landfill for hundreds of years after you’re finished with it.
Finally, 80% of artificial Christmas trees are imported from China, so you’ll have to be diligent if you’re looking for one manufactured in the US.
Now that you’ve got a better handle on the pros and cons of artificial Christmas trees, let’s put this information to use and help you decide which one is right for you.
What to Look for When Buying an Artificial Christmas Tree
1. Preparing a Budget
Like you would with any other big purchase, set your budget before browsing different fake tree options. After all, even though we learned above that the average cost of an artificial Christmas tree is $149, you can easily reach the $1,000 mark if you’re not careful.
A large, often overlooked expense when shopping for an artificial tree is decorations, so be sure to factor this into your budget as well.
Related: How to Save on Holiday Decorations
As we’ll see shortly, though, it’s important to keep your expectations in line with your budget. In other words, if you’re expecting to get an uber-realistic looking tree but only have $150 to spend, you’ll quickly end up disappointed.
2. When Is the Best Time to Buy an Artificial Christmas Tree?
Once you have a budget in mind, you’ll want to make your money go as far as possible by purchasing at exactly the right time. Too early and you might pay more than you need while waiting too long can severely limit your options.
To this extent, USA Today recommends buying an artificial tree during the first two weeks of December, which they call your ideal “sweet spot.”
However, as a word of caution, ChristmasTreeForMe.com notes that, if you’re looking for the best, you might want to buy even earlier:
“With artificial trees, when you find the tree that you want, buy it right then. Chances are that if you like it so will everyone else. The best trees do not go on sale; the best trees are sold out before Thanksgiving.”
Going this route, though, means that you might not achieve the same savings as waiting another week or two. Although doing so could mean you’ll have to settle for something other than your first choice.
3. Measure Twice, Buy Once
Next, figure out where your artificial tree will be located (e.g. in the middle of the room, in a corner, etc.). Based on location, you’ll then need to take measurements and determine how much floor space and ceiling height you’ll need. Most experts recommend leaving at least 6 inches for your tree topper.
Pro tip: When shopping for your fake tree, check its actual diameter before purchasing. Don’t rely only on the tree’s shape, such as “full,” “narrow/pencil,” or “slim.”
Make sure you’re near outlets, and that you have plenty of room to maneuver around it while decorating and for gifts. Just be sure not to put your tree close to electrical outlets, heat sources, or other potential fire hazards (be sure to verify that the manufacturer applied fire retardant to your tree). When in doubt? Use an extension cord.
4. Style & Substance: What to Look for When Buying an Artificial Christmas Tree
After measuring, the next consideration (and perhaps one of the most important) is style. This includes:
What species are you looking for? Fir, spruce, baby redwood, or something else? There are even subcategories from there, such as balsam fir, white spruce, Fraser fir, and more.
Do you want your tree flocked or dusted to give the appearance of snow? Would you like accents like berries or pinecones?
How realistic-looking would you like your artificial tree? Those made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) tend to be the least expensive, but also the least realistic. On the other hand, if you’re in the market for realism, you’ll want to focus on trees made from PE (polyethylene), which uses an injection mold process for the most realistic results, but also higher prices.
Another thing to consider is branch fullness. The fuller your tree is, the better it will look, but the more it will cost. If you’re buying online, look for a close up/detailed picture of the tree to check the fullness of the branch tips. If you can clearly see the center pole, it’s probably low quality.
Want even more branch considerations? Some manufacturers use attached branches that are locked in place, while others feature hook-in or hinged branches that allow you to customize their placement. Either way, just be sure the branches are sturdy enough to hold decorations.
Finally, avoid plastic or flimsy metal stands. These are often permanently attached to the tree, so if it becomes damaged, your long-term investment might fly right out the window.
5. Who Makes the Tree?
As we’ve already discussed, even though 80% of artificial Christmas trees are made in China, there can be a huge difference in quality between manufacturers.
So, if you’re thinking about a specific brand of a tree, be sure to find out as much as you can about the company before buying. The Better Business Bureau is one of the best places to start, although since most of these companies are headquartered overseas, they might not be listed.
If not, try searching online for “[Company Name] + reviews,” or more specifically, “[Company Name] + Christmas tree reviews.” Bad news spreads quickly, so if customers have poor experiences with specific tree brands, their complaints will soon be read by millions of consumers around the globe.
Lastly, the length of your warranty can also vary widely between manufacturers. Most high-quality companies offer 10–15-year warranties, while less expensive models might only come with 3–5 years. Not all warranties are created equal, though, as timelines can change depending on whether you’re talking about structural versus lighting coverage.
Lights: Pre-Lit Christmas Trees vs Unlit
Outside of the factors above, perhaps one of the biggest dilemmas facing artificial Christmas tree customers face is whether it should come unlit, or pre-lit. In this section, we’ll briefly discuss some important considerations to keep in mind during the decision-making process.
Should You Buy One? The Pros & Cons of Pre-Lit Christmas Trees
Another significant aspect of style is your tree’s lighting.
In general, pre-lit artificial trees tend to be more popular than non-lighted ones. Just keep in mind that if you buy an unlit tree, you’ll need to factor in additional money for separate light strands.
Artificial trees can feature clear, multi-colored or combination lighting—some even use fiber optics! But if you’re interested in a pre-lit tree, try searching for those with lights spaced 8-10 inches apart. This not only provides a more balanced look but also is indicative of quality (generally, the farther apart the lights are, the higher their quality).
Like unlit artificial trees, pre-lit Christmas trees come in just about every imaginable style to fit your needs and personal preferences.
So, what is a “balanced” look? SantasTown.com recommends, “The best way to determine how well a tree is lit is to stand about 10 feet away and squint your eyes, so the lights go out of focus. This will make any dark areas on the tree stand out.”
Another suggestion from artificial tree manufacturer Balsam Hill is to look for “at least 100 lights per foot of the tree.” So, if you have a 7.5-foot tree, you’ll ideally be looking at around 750 lights.
With these fundamentals in mind, let’s quickly take a look at some of the key pros and cons regarding pre-lit Christmas trees.
Pre-Lit Tree Pros:
Less work and convenience. Since stringing lights are arguably the most labor-intensive part of the process, pre-lit trees involve less work to get your home ready for the Holiday season, while also reducing time and effort when removing the lights after Christmas (more soon).
And let’s face it: The Holidays are already busy enough, so not having to string your tree lights removes one more thing off your lengthy to-do list.
Improved efficiency and safety. With the advent of cooler, more energy efficient LED lighting, along with the fact that artificial trees don’t dry out and subsequently present a fire hazard, pre-lit Christmas trees can offer a nice balance between convenience, safety, and energy efficiency.
Pro tip: Regarding this last point, make sure that your tree is UL approved/listed, which references its safety. If you don’t see this designation, you’ll want to explore other options before making a final decision.
Pre-Lit Christmas Tree Cons:
Higher price. As we discussed earlier, artificial trees are more expensive than natural ones. And among artificial trees, pre-lit options will almost always be some of the most expensive.
The problem of burned-out bulbs. Speaking of cost, it’s important to note that not all pre-lit bulbs are created equal. In less expensive models, if one bulb breaks, it could short out all the remaining lights, leaving you with a dull-looking tree. To avoid this, look for the phrases “continuous on” or “with burn-out protection” on the label.
Lack of decorating versatility. With most pre-lit trees, you’re stuck with the lighting scheme until replacing your tree, which can limit your decorating options.
As you can see, whether or not you should buy a pre-lit Christmas tree largely depends on your unique situation, along with your personal preferences. If you’ve decided that one is right for you, though, where should you turn?
Where’s the Best Place to Buy a Pre-Lit Christmas Tree?
Just as the decision to buy a pre-lit Christmas tree is based on many unique factors, so is the decision about where it should be purchased.
The good news is that just about any retailer selling artificial trees should have at least a couple pre-lit options to choose from, including national chains like Walmart, Home Depot, Lowes, Target, Hobby Lobby, and Costco.
And then there are popular online outlets like Amazon and Wayfair, as well as specific manufacturers like Balsam Hill, Bronner’s, and more.
Just keep in mind that, while online options can be less expensive than in-store ones, you’ll have to tack on shipping to your order—which probably won’t be cheap for a large, bulky artificial Christmas tree.
All Good Things Must Come to an End: Storing Your Artificial Tree Once the Season’s Over
Once your artificial tree is finished for the season, you can certainly store it in its original box, although this might un-fluff the tips and could damage the lights (if pre-lighted).
Instead, you might want to consider purchasing a fabric or heavy-duty canvas container from a specialty retailer for easy, damage-free storage during the off-season. Remember, though: This will add to your expenses, so be sure to include it in your original budget.
Do you have any tips for buying an artificial Christmas tree? Want to share your experience buying or maintaining one? Whatever it is, be sure to pass along the gift of knowledge by leaving a comment below!
For more holiday tips and guides, head over to our 2016 Holiday Shopping Guide.
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