When you choose a tree, you are making a decision that will have consequences for decades. That tiny sugar maple you just planted will be towering over your house when you're long gone. That cottonwood you just planted will grow rapidly to an impressive size, but will break easily in a storm; it's also a messy tree, leaving a lot of seeds in your yard to clean up.
Trees, for the most part, aren't expensive to buy. You can order a young cottonwood for $10. Sugar maples are more expensive, though you can find them as cheap as $13 online.
The high cost of trees comes years later, when they fall on your house, create a constant mess in your yard or inconveniently die, creating a gaping hole in your landscaping.
A good starting point for picking a tree is the Arbor Day Foundation's website. You can look up hundreds of trees, finding out in which climate zones they are suitable, if they are drought or insect tolerant, even which birds and animals they attract.
Another good resource is your local agricultural extension. Most areas have them. Even if you live in urban Los Angeles County (which was a farming mecca a century ago before all the houses arrived), you can get gardening answers from the University of California agricultural extension. Experts at agricultural extensions are fonts of information about fruit trees and the diseases that plague them. They know about other trees as well, and which ones thrive in your region.
Never forget that there are gorgeous trees that will break your heart, like the aspen, which is prone to fungal problems. And plain trees like the live oak that will earn your love by surviving the heat and drought and ferocious thunderstorms of Texas.
Five trees to avoid
--Bradford pear ($20 to $80)
This fast-growing ornamental tree is used extensively for landscaping. The problem is that it's brittle, easily damaged in storms and short-lived.
--Black walnut ($10 to $30)