FAQ: Install a Fence *and* Keep Your Neighbors Happy

Fotorus/flickrBorder disputes have been the trigger for many a ferocious battle among nations. And installing a fence has, unfortunately, soured many a previously friendly relationship between neighbors, or heated up an existing cold war to the boiling point. Before you go ahead and hire a fencing contractor, read through these 7 FAQs on proper fence installation etiquette.

Q. Do my neighbors have to approve my planned-for fencing?

A. No, but it is advisable (not to mention courteous) to discuss your plans with them in advance. This will give you an initial idea of where the property line is and whether there is any dispute. Pay attention to all reasonable requests. For example, they may want some time to move plantings that are close to the site, or they may request that you install a wooden fence or other upscale style -- and be willing to share in the costs with you.

Q. How do I determine the exact property line?

A. Hire a licensed surveyor to map it out if you don’t already have a “plat” (an official diagram showing your property boundaries). Standard practice is to allow for a setback -- in other words, to install your fence a foot or two inside your property line. Be warned: if you construct a fence outside of the boundaries of your property, you may eventually be forced, by court order, to take it down.

Q. Are there any legal requirements governing fence installation?

A. Yes, a building permit will be necessary to install a fence. In most localities, zoning ordinances limit the height of fences in residential areas to a maximum of 4 feet at the front of a property and 6 feet in the back. You may petition for a variance if your would like to build higher. Your HOA is also likely to have stipulations regarding permitted fence color and other characteristics. Some municipalities require you to construct your fence so that its most attractive side faces the public, either the next yard or the sidewalk.

Q. How do I choose a fencing material?

A. Select an attractive, practical material that will fit in with the character of the area where you live. You may wish to order a half-height or picket fence to minimize blockage of sunlight and views. All of these measures will tend to keep your neighbors happy and as a fringe benefit, also increase the curb appeal of your home.

Q. Who is responsible for fence repair and maintenance?

A. In general, you are, as the fence owner. You will need to make sure that the fence is kept clean and in good shape, and does not pose any physical hazard.

Q. What if your neighbors damage your fence?

A. If a fence you own is damaged by your neighbors (for example, their tree fell on it during a storm or their dogs chewed through the fencing), you may be entitled to compensation from them. Your best bet: try to settle the matter in an amicable way. If that doesn’t work, or if the neighbors are deliberately harming your fence (perhaps by piling heavy items against or on top of it), you may be able to sue for damages in small claims court. Photograph the damage and document any requests you’ve made for compensation.

Q. Are there any other important fence etiquette tips?

A. Yes. While this is not directly related to fence installation itself, remember one final point of neighborly etiquette. Do not leave your dog unattended in a fenced yard for long periods of time. This will encourage certain antisocial behaviors, such as incessant barking or digging, that will not be appreciated by even the most easygoing neighbor.

Laura Firszt writes for networx.com.

Updated February 26, 2018.

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