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Building a Fence? Do These 5 Things First

Author:Terry Baldwin
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closeup of man building a fence
Updated March 23, 2020

So maybe you’ve decided your high-jumping dog needs some boundaries, and you need to fence your backyard. Or your house would look cooler with a picket fence in front. Whatever the reason, you want to build a fence. But before you start bribing your friends to help, stop and do your fence homework.

A new fence should add value to your home, not cause disputes with neighbors and city code inspectors. Don’t worry—we’ve got your back. Before you dig that first post hole, follow these steps to prevent fence feuds.

5 steps to take before you install a fence

1. Have your property surveyed.

Your neighbors won’t like it if your fence creeps onto their yard—that could create legal trouble for you. First thing you need? A land survey to make sure that you build your fence on your own property. Boundary surveys are usually done each time a house is sold.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, an old survey won’t reflect changes that could have happened to and around the property over time. If your property survey is more than 5 years old (or you didn’t get one when you bought your home), you should have a new one done.

Don't rely on your neighbor’s memory or what the guy across the street said, because your neighbor could move and the new people could have the boundary surveyed and find out that your fence is actually 15 feet inside THEIR property line and then you have a problem and the guy across the street grabs some popcorn and a lawn chair.

2. Learn your local fence rules.

white picket fence in back yard with flowering trees an green grass

Your city/township/village likely has fence ordinances on the books. You may need to follow additional rules if you live in a historic district or in a neighborhood governed by a homeowners association (your fence design might even require committee approval).

Learn these rules before designing your fence. Find out, for example, if there are height, location, and material requirements. Where I live (Grand Rapids, Michigan), zoning ordinances forbid chain link fencing in front yards. Fences must be a minimum 30 inches tall and no taller than 6 feet. And in the historic district, front yard fence designs must be consistent with historic fencing. Ignore your local rules at your fence’s peril, my friend.

3. Give the neighbors a heads up (Fence Etiquette, Part 1)

After you've had your land surveyed and learned your local fence laws, have that conversation. Let the neighbors know you plan to build a fence—after all, your fence will change how their property looks. Most people are decent and will be cool with it (since it won’t encroach on their property because you’ve done Step 1). Maybe they'll love the idea and offer to help pay for it (but please don’t expect them to). If they don’t love it, you can try to work things out or just proceed with your plans—it’s your land and you aren’t breaking any laws (because fence homework).

4. Give your neighbors the good side (Fence Etiquette, Part 2)

Yep. Some cities (like mine) require it. Even if they don’t, it’s the way to go. Your fence will look better from the street (yay property values), and your neighbors might even invite you over for a glass of wine. If you don’t want the icky side facing your yard, that’s easily solved. Choose a good-neighbor fence that looks the same on both sides.

5. Plan to maintain (Fence Etiquette, Part 3)

After your fence is installed, you’ll need to maintain it (both sides). So keep this in mind as you choose your fence material. Think about your lifestyle. Do you have kids who play soccer Every. Single. Weekend? Then you might not want a wooden fence that requires repainting or staining. A low-maintenance material like vinyl is probably a better choice. Or plant shrubs. Or maybe a fence isn’t for you, after all.

That’s it! Building a fence begins with arming yourself with the right information. Be a good neighbor and do your homework before purchasing materials, and your project will be off to a great start.

Thinking about installing a new fence? Get some ideas here.