Fences 101

Fences can help to define and enhance our outdoor spaces, and provide us with security, privacy, and peace of mind. Here’s a handy-dandy primer to point out the pros and cons of each fence type, and some things to think about when selecting the right fence for you.

You can build fences out of a wide variety of materials, but the following options are among the most commonly used.

Wooden Fences

Among the best choices for privacy, wooden fences can come in a wide range of styles, and at a much lower price than brick or stone. Perhaps the most configurable type of fence material, wooden fences can run the gamut from simple rail fences for borders, to classic white picket fences, to imposing stockade walls. Remember that wood used in exterior applications should always be treated against rot, especially wooden posts that go into the earth.

Chain Link Fences

Inexpensive, easy to install, long lasting, and adaptable to uneven terrain, chain link fences are a great choice, particularly when security is a primary concern. They are strong, provide great flow of air and light, and are far less expensive than wrought iron. Also, vinyl-coated versions of chain link fences are virtually maintenance-free. If a chain link fence makes you feel too exposed, you can purchase plastic strips to thread through the links to add privacy. Be sure to use galvanized steel posts to prevent rust and decay.

Vinyl Fences

Vinyl fences are low maintenance, as they require no repainting, and are not susceptible to rot. And, they have an attractive appearance reminiscent of classic wood fences—from a distance. If you squint. In a fog. They do have a downside, however, as they are more expensive initially, burn intensely if they catch fire, and can become brittle in cold weather. They make up for these deficiencies with their convenience, and lower costs over time compared to wood fences that need more long-term care and upkeep.

Brick and Mortar Fences

These are the most expensive, but are by far the longest lasting option. They are also the most efficient at reducing noise, and provide exceptional privacy.

Wrought Iron and Aluminum

These two have many of the applications and attributes of chain link fencing, with a decidedly more upscale feel. Wrought iron particularly can convey a sense of history and permanence, offer a clear view of a property, and discourage unwanted visitors all at the same time. All of this comes at a high price however, and it remains one of the pricier options available.

Before you Build

Once you’ve settled on the fence of your dreams, there are a few legal and logistical things to consider.

Contact your residential association or city government office to find out if there are any restrictions on fence construction in your area. Your community may be particular about the height, type of fence material used, or the distance that your fence is set back from the street.

Also, before you start, be absolutely sure of the location of your property line. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a professional surveyor confirm the location of your lot line before you start digging. If you encroach just an inch onto your neighbor’s property, you might be required to pull your fence down and rebuild it properly.

Contact your utility company and ask them to mark the location of buried power cables with spray paint. Most utility companies do it for free, and you won’t ruin your fence building experience by splitting a buried power cable with a shovel and lighting up like a Christmas tree. Additionally, take into account any buried water lines to swimming pools, low-voltage lines for decorative lighting, sprinkler systems, and tree roots—you don’t want any injury stemming from building your fence.

Lastly, talk to your neighbors about your fence. Informing them of your plans is just common courtesy, as you are about to plop a construction zone on their border.

Hire a Pro, or Go Solo?

Many types of fences can be constructed by the average weekend warrior, and many don’t require any special permits. However, if you don’t have the time, or don’t feel confident in doing the work yourself, you should hire a contractor to build for you.

Once you’ve settled on what you want, consult with several contractors to get a range of estimates. Make absolutely certain that all candidates up for the job are licensed, bonded, and insured. Ask for references and follow up on them. They should be able to show you examples of their work as well.

A Fence is a Design Element

There, I said it. Certain fences look more appropriate with certain types of homes. For example, if you have a cute little starter home on a small lot, erecting a massive wall made of fieldstone might look ridiculous. Similarly, if you are the proud owner of a 3-story vintage brownstone, installing a homey, little, 30-inch tall white picket fence could attract the attention of concerned mental health professionals. Choose a fence style that won’t disrupt the aesthetic unity of your home and yard.

Good Reasons to Build a Fence

Here are some smart reasons to build a fence, and recommendations for specific types of fencing:

  • Block off an Unwanted View

If you have an unfortunate view that ruins your otherwise idyllic environment, erecting a fence to block out that view is a dandy idea. You should go with a solid fence, or if you are concerned about light and airflow—or plain old aesthetics—consider a combination of a solid wall topped with latticework, to add visual interest.

  • Increase Privacy

For privacy you want a solid fence, such as a brick or wooden fence, at least 6 ft. high to shield your yard from prying eyes, and to cut down on intrusive noise.

  • Keep Pets and Kids In

Dogs have been known to dig under fences, and children love to climb just about anything. Whatever type of fence you choose, make sure that you have a barrier that extends at least 6 inches into the ground. If you have intrepid toddlers, make sure there are no handholds, such as horizontal rails.

  • Security

When it comes to security, fences are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they present a conspicuous barrier to thieves. But on the other, fences can also shield a thief from view, and offer them a chance to work with less fear of discovery.

Your best fence bet for security is a chain link fence, at least 6 ft. tall, to effectively keep out intruders. A brick wall or wooden fence provides added privacy, but the open design of a chain link fence allows better air flow, provides better light for plants, offers no hiding places for intruders, and their somewhat harsh appearance can be softened with trailing vines and other plants.

  • Add Visual Appeal

A well-designed fence,thoughtfully placed, can add definition to your landscape, and unify your home and yard like nothing else. You might want to keep in mind that the general etiquette for building fences is to keep the best face toward the public. The only recommendation to make here is to let your home’s design and natural setting function as the guiding influence in determining which fence is best.

Fences Built With Good Intentions

Sometimes putting in a fence is not the best idea. Say, for example, somehow you and your neighbor got ticked off at each other and now you’re toying with building a high fence just to block the sun, killing his hydrangea bushes. Unfortunately, if you are building a fence for malicious reasons to annoy people on adjoining property, it’s considered a private nuisance. That’s against the law, and you could be compelled to pull it down. And possibly be the recipient of glares.

But, if your intentions are true—and surely they are—putting in a new fence might be the perfect accessory to your home and garden.


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Author: Robert Bundy