8 steps to building a good fence

Iris Price | Improvement Center Columnist | May 31, 2016

fenced yard

You may have heard the often-quoted line "Good fences make good neighbors" from Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Fences." Its message, though open to interpretation, is actually a proverb common to many world cultures besides Frost's American New England. One way to look at it: Fences define boundaries between homesteads, thereby helping to maintain your sense of privacy and personal freedom from prying eyes.

Aside from the poetic or perceived value of good fences, they also serve a practical purpose in today's litigious society. Maintained in good condition, a properly built fence can protect pets and tots from wandering onto or off of your premises where they could get hurt or cause damage resulting in a possible lawsuit.

To balance the good fence/good neighbor equation, follow these eight planning steps before replacing or building a new fence:

  1. Survey and mark the property lines before measuring for your fence. If you don't have access to a plat map, you may have to hire a surveyor before you can determine where your property lines are. This could be expensive, but so could finding out from your neighbors they are suing you because the new fence you just finished building is on their property. Also, keep in mind that you are responsible for doing maintenance on both sides of your fence unless it's a common fence, i.e. one shared by both neighbors. Positioning your fence a foot or more inside of your property line allows you to do work on the fence without encroaching on your neighbor's yard.
  2. Follow building codes, HOA guidelines and obtain any necessary permits. If you are part of a homeowners association, you may need their approval of your design plans first. Some localities require permits for new fences to ensure compliance with building codes and architectural design standards, like fence height, materials, or style.
  3. Study various designs to comply with community guidelines and good taste. Keep in mind that the side of your fence the neighbors see is considered the front side. Give them a well-maintained, attractively designed fence to look at, and they might enjoy it as much as you do. It should err on the side of conformity. You can add any personal touches to the side you'll enjoy when you're in your own yard.
  4. Choose your materials based on your main objective. You can construct a fence from a variety of traditional materials including wood, galvanized-steel chain link, wrought iron, or vinyl. Wood, hedges, masonry such as stone and brick, and man-made designer products like Trex and simulated stone all provide good choices for visual privacy. Choose economical chain link fence for security: its unobstructed view leaves intruders with nowhere to hide. For upscale properties, decorative iron fences offer the same benefit. You can build decorative picket fences from wood or vinyl products. Most fence materials are available now in panels, making construction and repair quick and convenient for DIY fence projects.
  5. Prevent wood fence posts from rotting. Basic wood fence construction starts with posts to which you attach top and bottom rails and nail the pickets or panels to the rails. If you install your fence posts properly, there is less likelihood of them rotting and undermining the structure of your fence. To keep wood fence posts from rotting, choose dark heartwood, treated with wood preservative. To further protect your posts, fill the postholes with about six inches of aggregate into which you insert the posts. Pour concrete into the holes until it's above soil level and slope the wet concrete away from the post so that when it sets, water cannot pool around it. Then, seal the gap between the post and concrete with exterior acrylic latex caulk.
  6. Consider your material's maintenance requirements. Wood fences require periodic maintenance to protect them from the elements. Ornamental iron fences must be coated to prevent rust. For low maintenance, consider products made from vinyl or Trex.
  7. Select appropriate weatherproofing finishes. If you decide to go with wood fencing, you can paint or stain it, but even the most weather-resistant woods such as cedar need to at least be coated periodically with a product such as Thomson's Waterseal. Some of the new ornamental iron fences come already coated and may be warrantied for many years before they require further maintenance.
  8. Add aesthetic and artistic touches to your side of the fence. The fence is all about your sense of privacy and personal space. If you have a fence that blocks your neighbors' view into your yard, allow the side you see from inside your property to reflect your unique sense of aesthetics. You could, for example, plan to add artistic flourishes that please your own tastes. If you want to paint a mural of purple unicorns, or install your version of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, have at it.
About the Author

Iris Price is a single Baby Boomer whose antidote to a lack of retirement funds was to launch a long-delayed career as a writer. While others her age concoct bucket lists and travel the world, she bought a new-construction home and obsessively creates lists of must-have home improvements and personal realization goals. She specializes in writing about home services and self-motivation.