Do I Need a Building Permit for a Fence?

Mina Legend/flickrWhile fences are comparatively simple landscaping projects, in many communities, you’ll need to pull a permit before you can build one. That means designing the fence to comply with zoning ordinances, neighborhood covenants and possibly even the whims of a homeowners association (HOA).

Fences provide a combination of security, practicality and aesthetics. In a small rural community, you might find very few restrictions on what type of fence you can build, but if you live in a new housing development or in your town’s historic district, getting a permit to build the fence you want can be a lot like pulling teeth. To avoid being forced to remove your fence once it’s up, the best practice is to go step by step through the permissions process, as follows. 

Negotiating with Building Committees and HOAs

The intent of a homeowners association is to preserve uniformity and to protect property values through adherence to design standards. Because an HOA board is comprised of a few select homeowners, however, dominant personalities can lead to uncompromising regulations.

The best way to deal with an HOA, or a building committee, is to attend one of their meetings and ask for a comprehensive list of what you must do in order to build your fence. You will probably be required to submit a sketch of the fence, a description of the proposed method of construction, and a list of materials. Follow all guidelines to the letter. Most of an HOA’s focus is on how well your fence will blend into the existing neighborhood theme. Look around. Should you see only wrought iron fencing, the HOA is unlikely to approve a cedar fence.

Fencing in the Zone

If you aren’t subject to neighborhood covenants or an HOA, head down to your local zoning department. Here, you can find out what types of fences are permissible, how high you can build your fence, and other relevant ordinances.

In a bustling metropolitan area, it’s unlikely that the zoning board will allow you to put up a barbed wire or electric fence. They will examine your fence sketch to make sure the fence won’t be too close to the street, that it’s not too tall, and that it won’t interfere with access to easements by utility or emergency vehicles. If your home is on a corner lot, you might not be able to erect a fence that will hinder traffic view from a side street.

Easement Risks

Easements are sections of your yard that others have a legal right to use. Although you typically have to maintain any easements that cross your property (by keeping the grass watered and mowed), you might not be able to build your fence in an easement. If you do, it must be with the understanding that should a utility company needs to excavate their buried service lines, they have the right to tear out your fence, and they won’t rebuild it or pay you for any damages.

Pulling the Permit

By now, you might be wishing you’d never started on this idea of building a fence but take heart -- you’re in the home stretch. After clearance by neighborhood committees and the zoning board, all that’s left is to visit your local building authority with your sketch, the clearance documents, and your checkbook in hand. You’ll be asked once more what type of fence you intend to build and exactly where you intend to build it. The information will be recorded on the lot plat and, as long as you agree to meet minimum fence building codes (if any), you’ll probably get your permit. The building authority might present you with a spec sheet that tells you how deep you must set the fence posts or how much concrete is necessary to stabilize them. If there are requirements, the City Inspector will come out and check the ongoing project to ensure you follow the rules.

Avoiding Neighborhood Strife

Putting your fence, even an inch or two, on your neighbor’s property, won’t win you any friends and your neighbor can probably make you move it if he has a mind to do so. Wrongly assuming that you know where the property lines are can start a Hatfield-McCoy battle. Your best bet is to locate the property pins, which are typically located on the front and back side property lines. The pins, unfortunately, are often just below ground level, so a little sleuthing is in order. Common pin location indicators include a change in the sidewalk’s texture or tone. You can also find the pins, which are made of steel, with a metal detector. Backyard pins are more difficult to locate, and if you can’t find them, you might have to pay the city or a surveying company to locate and flag them.

Before Breaking Ground

Once you get your fence permit, you’re free to start building, but before you do – phone a few days in advance about utility locations. Most utility companies come out free of charge and mark the location of their underground lines so you don’t sever one with your posthole digger, which could end up costing you a lot more than the cost of the fence. Anywhere in North America, you can call (811) for a list of all national utility companies, or (888) 258-0808, a one-call service that contacts all the utility companies in your community.

If all this sounds like way too much hassle, find a reliable fencing professional, to not only install your fence, but take care of the permitting process as well.

Glenda Taylor writes for Networx.com.

Updated March 13, 2018.

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