More than 95 million U.S. households last year made a Christmas tree the centerpiece of their holiday celebration. However, finding the “perfect” tree is no longer as simple as driving to the neighborhood tree lot. Consumers have more choices than ever, given the wide variety of fresh-cut trees transported from farms in one part of the country to sales lots in another and artificial trees that look so lifelike you would swear they’re the real deal.

Tim O’Connor, executive director National Christmas Tree Association, a trade association for tree farms, calls buying a real tree “a magical experience and a way to build memories.” Mac Harman, chief executive of Balsam Hill, the leading brand of artificial trees sold directly to consumers, counters that for some consumers, a real tree isn’t an option or requires too much effort to bring home, care for, string lights on and dispose of. He started Balsam Hill because his brother-in-law was severely allergic to live trees.

There is no right or wrong choice. It all comes down to personal taste, regional availability and budget. Consumers paid an average of $78 for a live tree in 2018. A quality artificial tree will run you $300 to $800 but last 10 to 20 years; some 82 percent of trees displayed last year were artificial, according to the American Christmas Tree Association. Here are some tips for finding the Christmas tree that’s right for you.

Artificial trees

Decide on materials

According to Harman, you’ll find two types of plastic needles — injection-molded PE needles that mimic their living counterparts or PVC needles — which are sometimes referred to as “shredded paper on a stick” because they are flat and papery. For a long-lasting tree, look for one described as “true needle” or “real feel.” PVC has a shorter life span, as it can get crushed or mangled and won’t spring back to life year after year. If you want a tree to use for only a few years, you’ll spend less on one with PVC needles. Some of these trees cost as little as $40. Whatever the material, make sure your tree is labeled “fire retardant.”

Look it over

Eyeball the product. How well is it made? Do the branches look real? How good are the lights? On a pre-lit tree, the general ratio of lights to tree is 100 lights per foot. So a 7.5-foot tree should have at least 750 lights on it. On a high-end artisan tree, the wires will be attached so they are hidden from the trunk to the branch end. Buying online? Make sure you are getting a good representation of the product. Look for large, quality photos and customer reviews. Some sellers will even send you sample branches.

Smaller, apartment-sized artifical trees are now more widely available.(Getty Images)
Smaller, apartment-sized artifical trees are now more widely available.(Getty Images)

Choose your shape and branch style

Tree designs can be full, narrow or slim/pencil in varying widths. Slim/pencil is the narrowest of the three. For really tight spaces, such as an apartment, you can buy a three-quarter (flatback) tree that can be pushed up against a wall but still provides the illusion of a full tree. Hooked branches must be attached to a specific spot on the trunk. Hinged branches are permanently fastened and simply fan out and in for setup or storage. Typically, better artificial trees come with hinged branches.

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Perfection is not required

Slightly asymmetrical trees that mimic fir and spruce are gaining in popularity. They have a natural look and/or are sparse by design for showing off ornaments.

Consider the weight

More branches and lights equals a heavier tree. Some seven-footers weigh from 20 to 60 pounds, though the artificial tree industry is making it easier for consumers. Balsam Hill sells a “flip tree.” You wheel it out, remove it from its storage bag, flip the tree over and all the branches unhinge. Then, you fluff it out and add the top section.

Expect it to last

Harman, who estimates about 100 million artificial trees remain in circulation, says a quality artificial tree will last for decades. “We find that when customers dispose of an artificial tree, they either give it to a family member or donate to a charity. Rarely does it go to a landfill.”

Real trees

Know the differences

You don’t have to become a certified arborist, but there are some basic attributes to note, Harmon says. Fraser firs are known for their needle retention. Douglas firs offer that unbeatable holiday aroma but may drop needles within two to three weeks. Noble firs are strong, with excellent needle retention and best for heavy ornaments. Scotch pine gets knotty, so may have some curve to the stem, and the boughs of white pine aren’t quite as stiff as some of their counterparts. According to O’Connor, the more budget-minded shopper might want to opt for pine instead of fir.

Size up your tree

You’ve heard the expression “measure twice, cut once.” Make it your mantra. Most of us buy too big a tree. Note the height of your ceiling. In rooms that aren’t vaulted, this is usually eight feet. Be sure to take any tree topper, such as an angel or star, into account. Also, measure the width of the space where you plan to put the tree. Typically, Christmas trees are marked and priced by height, but pack a tape measure in case you need to check the width.

Casey Grogan, owner of Silver Bells Tree Farm and president of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, trims a noble fir at his 400-acre Christmas tree farm in Silverton, Oregon in 2018. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)
Casey Grogan, owner of Silver Bells Tree Farm and president of the Pacific Northwest Christmas Tree Association, trims a noble fir at his 400-acre Christmas tree farm in Silverton, Oregon in 2018. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

Give it the eye

The greener the tree, the better, says F.J. Trzuskowski, vice president of sales for Continental Floral Greens in Belfair, Washington, which harvests more than seven million pounds of Noble fir annually for its fresh wreaths and expects to sell about 20,000 fresh-cut Christmas trees this season. Is the tree dense with branches or open — and which will better accommodate your ornaments? If the lot is outdoors are trees baking in the sun all day, remember that fresh-cut trees are more likely to last if they have been stored in the shade or under a tent, especially in warmer climates.

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Take a hands-on approach

“Touch the tree. Are the needles soft and pliable? Run your hands down the branch. The needles shouldn’t fall off,” O’Connor says. “And if you can, bounce it. Only a few needles should drop.” Adds Trzuskowski: “Grab some needles and tug them. They shouldn’t come off without resistance.” Check the branches. If they are wiggly, heavy ornaments will drag them down.

For the freshest tree, cut it yourself

Visit a tree farm that lets you cut a tree yourself (with a little help from the operator). To really save money, look to government land. A handful of national forests in Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming allow the public to cut their own Christmas trees; permits cost $5 to $20. You can find instructions, rules and guidelines on the U.S. Forest Service website. Also check with your state’s parks agency. Some issue permits for cutting trees to help thin overgrown forests.

For the best price, wait

Black Friday and the following weekend are when most Christmas trees are sold, O’Connor says. If you are willing to wait until Christmas Eve or even a few days before, you may find a deal.

Keep your tree cool

Heat is the enemy. Keep your tree away from heat sources such as a floor vent or fireplace so as not to dry out. If you are still using those older incandescent bulbs, now might be the time to switch to LED bulbs — they last longer, save on electricity and don’t radiate heat.

Keep your tree hydrated

Think of your tree like a fresh-cut flower. As soon as you get it home, cut one-inch off the stump (using a handsaw or chain saw) so the veins reopen and put it in water. Watch it carefully and never let it run dry until it stabilizes. Don’t be surprised if for the first seven to 10 days, it drinks up to one gallon a day. If you aren’t going to decorate your tree right away, simply store it in a large bucket. No additives are needed.

Give it new purpose

With Christmas a mere four weeks after Thanksgiving this year your tree should last well into the New Year if you do everything to ensure it stays fresh. When its days are numbered, look for recycling options. Most commonly, cities turn Christmas trees into mulch, which consumers can buy come spring. Ask your local solid waste department if there is a recycling program in place.