Tired of kids short-cutting through your carefully cultivated landscape? Or are you just burning to sunbathe in a Speedo without fear that the neighbors are sizing you up? Whether you want to deter intruders, safeguard your privacy, corral pets or simply decorate your lot line, a fence is the obvious solution. But deciding to build one opens the gate to a herd of decisions: Which style to choose? What material to use? Who will do the work?
Rounding up answers to these questions means doing some research. But instead of heading for your local library, you might want to head for the hills.
Take a drive. Look around. In newer communities you may not see many fences, but older neighborhoods often feature a variety of styles. One street may showcase stately brick structures that promise formidable mansions within. Another could be home to frail pickets sprinkled in front of a row of quaint Cape Cods. A little sightseeing will open your eyes to the variety of options you can choose from; then you’ll be prepared to explore what will work best for your property.
To help narrow your selection, you’ll first need to determine what you want a fence to accomplish. Consider these four basic purposes
1. They help to define space.
2. They provide privacy.
3. They increase security.
4. They enhance curb appeal.
The goals you have in mind will somewhat dictate the fence’s size and design and the materials you choose.
Once you’ve decided what type of fence to build, you need to investigate the materials that are available locally. No matter how much you like a certain kind of fence, keep in mind that if the materials aren’t sold near where you live, shipping costs will be high. Typical fencing materials include:
- Masonry — Years ago, masonry products such as fieldstone and brick were very popular because of their strength, durability and beauty. Unfortunately, they’ve since become cost-prohibitive for many homeowners. According to the current R.S. Means Exterior Home Improvement Costs estimator, a 4-ft.-high x 45-ft.-long dry stone wall would cost about $12,000 installed. A pressure-treated wood fence of the same height and length would cost about $1,000. That’s a big difference, especially when you consider that 45 ft. of fencing isn’t very much. Surrounding a quarter-acre lot would cost about $115,000 — not including any shipping charges.
- Chain link — A utilitarian alternative, chain-link fencing is typically not many homeowners’ first choice because of its industrial look. However, it is quick to install and relatively inexpensive: At the home improvement store my area, a 50-ft. roll of 6-ft.-high galvanized fencing (excluding the posts and rails) costs about $85. It serves to define property boundaries and offers security — although a 16-year-old could easily climb it, if you give a 40-year-old would-be intruder the option of scaling a fence or moving on to the next house, chances are he’ll choose an easier target.
Today’s basic chain-link fencing made of galvanized steel looks much the same as the material that was sold 50 years ago, but now consumers can choose vinyl-coated material in colors (green, brown and black) to blend in with the surrounding landscape. And modern post designs come in square shapes with caps, balls or finials on top.
- Wood — This is a very popular fencing material because it is easy to work with, doesn’t require special tools and is relatively affordable: I found 6-in.-wide x 6-ft.-high pressure-treated fencing boards for about $1.50 each. The boards (excluding posts and rails) for a 50-ft.-long fence would cost about $150. Of course, cedar, which is naturally rot-resistant, would cost more. And redwood, another rot-resistant species, would be even more expensive — if you could get it. Wood can be left unfinished (but its life will be shorter), coated with transparent sealer or opaque stain or painted just about any color.
- Vinyl — Years ago when vinyl siding was in its adolescence, one manufacturer promoted it with the slogan “Vinyl is final.” Although this claim was a bit overstated, compared with other fencing materials vinyl is resilient, suffering through weather extremes unscathed and remaining impervious to insects. When properly installed, a vinyl fence can last indefinitely. These attributes come at a price: My local home store sells vinyl privacy fencing in 6-ft.-wide x 6-ft.-high panels for about $70 (excluding posts and hardware). For a 50-ft. fence the panels alone would cost about $575. Though most vinyl fencing is made from white PVC, some other colors (tan, gray, black and green) are available.
- Metal — Years ago wrought iron and steel fencing were very popular, especially in urban areas. These materials could be fabricated into beautiful designs and were often the first choice for garden gates, porch trellises and protective barriers around roof parapets. Unfortunately, they had one big drawback: rust.
These days, wrought iron and steel have been largely replaced with aluminum and steel coated with heavy-duty rust inhibitors. Both materials come in similar designs with similar price tags. A typical 3-ft.-long steel section with an attractive (but not intricate) design costs about $17 at my local home center. A 50-ft.-long fence would cost about $290 for just the panels, excluding posts, mounting hardware and installation.
- Composite and plastic — Already popular for decking and deck railings, composite and plastic are the newest fence options. Their longevity, durability, insect- and moisture-resistance and low maintenance requirements make both materials good options for fencing.
- Trees and shrubs — Many of the functions fences serve can be performed just as well by trees and shrubs, often for less money. According to R.S. Means, a 50-ft. border created by six 5-ft.-tall Norway spruce trees would cost about $500 installed. Of course, trees and shrubs don’t offer much security, and until they fill out they can’t provide the same level of privacy as a high, solid fence. But for defining space and enhancing curb appeal, they’re hard to beat.
Designs and plans
Once you’ve settled on the type of fence you want, you can decide whether you will do the work or hire a contractor. As with many DIY projects, a fence installation is often more time-consuming and energy-taxing than it might seem. Of course, the job’s complexity will depend on factors such as the type of fence (whether it requires a lot of construction labor, for example), the distance you need to cover and the physical demand (the weight of the materials, the depth of the holes and the type of soil you have to dig into).
Next, you need to create a drawing so you can develop a materials list or obtain bids from prospective contractors. (For more information on dealing with these professionals, see Web Extra, “Hiring — and Getting Along With — a Contractor.”) You can create a workable drawing with graph paper, a ruler and a pencil, but if you’re artistically challenged, other options are available. Some lumberyards and home centers offer reasonably priced design services that will produce a basic rendering.
Another option is fence-design software that lets you explore ideas without generating a pile of eraser crumbs. One program, “Do-It-Yourself Fence Designer” from The Home Depot (about $15), yields a plan printout and a shopping list with the store’s bar codes imbedded so you can easily calculate the total cost of materials at current prices.
Rules and regulations
Besides the basic rendering, you’ll also need a final plan to obtain a building permit. Although your contractor may be willing to run interference with local authorities, it’s a good idea to handle these chores yourself to ensure all of the necessary paperwork is completed. If you don’t secure a permit or follow the plans, the building inspector can make you tear down the structure and start over.
The approval and inspection process may be casual in rural areas, but in cities, rules tend to be more rigid. There are usually setback requirements that dictate how close to the property line you can build. Some municipalities also have posthole-depth requirements and require approval over the type of materials you use. The height of the fence may also be an issue.
In addition to securing code authorities’ approval, you must contact local utility companies to mark the locations of any water, gas, electrical, phone and cable lines running through the area where you want to build. This service is usually free and may be handled by one agency (such as a “One-Call” program) for all utilities. If you fail to check for these lines and something gets damaged during construction, you’ll have to pay for repairs. It’s also helpful to let your neighbors know your plans.
Finally, before construction begins you’ll need to mark the exact borders of your property line. The corners of most properties are defined by steel stakes driven into ground; if you can find them, you could use them as a reference. But the safest option is to hire a surveyor to ensure that your finished fence becomes a welcome addition to your landscape rather than the basis of a property dispute.
Regardless of the fence you choose, proper installation of the posts is essential to long-term performance. It’s never a good idea to look over your contractor’s shoulder as the work is being done, but you can unobtrusively monitor this important step.
Although there’s no firm consensus on the best approach to post installation, there is general agreement on how deep the holes need to be: 6 in. below your zone’s frost line, or if you live in a warm climate with a shallow frost line, half as deep as the fence is high. This means that for a 6-ft.-high fence, you would set 9-ft. posts into 3-ft.-deep holes.
Opinions differ on how to best anchor the posts in the holes. Most sources say to dig a few inches below the frost line and pour 6 in. of gravel in the hole. Slide in a ressure-treated post, brace it so it’s plumb in both directions and fill the hole with concrete (A). Others contend that the concrete provides extra grip when the soil around the post heaves with the frost, increasing the chance that the post will move up. Advocates of this point of view think you should fill the bottom half of the hole around the post with concrete, and once the concrete has cured, fill the rest of the hole with soil that’s tamped firmly in place (B).
These differing views may turn out to be moot if your local building department has set post-installation standards. Unless you are prepared for a fight, follow the local requirements.
If you’ve decided to use cedar or redwood posts, omit the concrete to prevent premature rotting. To improve drainage, the American Fence Association recommends placing posts in the holes and then backfilling with alternating 4-in. layers of gravel and soil securely tamped in place (C). In all cases, the mounted top layer directs runoff away from the post.
Fences and Neighbors
When poet Robert Frost wrote “Good fences make good neighbors,” he wasn’t living in suburbia.
Although erecting a perimeter fence seldom causes problems among residents of spacious properties, building one in a neighborhood with quarter-acre lots can alter the view enough to irk other homeowners.
Involving neighbors in your fencing project can help you to maintain a good relationship. Begin by explaining why you want to build a fence; then show them what you have in mind and ask for their input. Reassure them that the structure will meet local building requirements and conform to property line setbacks and other construction restrictions (such as height and proper depth of postholes). Demonstrating that you have taken the project seriously and formulated a well-thought-out plan can reduce the chances that neighbors will try to talk you out of pursuing it.
It’s also a good idea to be flexible about the design. Even staunch fence haters will usually concede that some fences are beautiful from both sides. Try to agree on a style that appeals to all parties.