What to Know Before You Build a Fence

There are a lot of factors to consider when a fence is constructed, regardless of which side of it you're on. Trevor Jones/Shutterstock

Good fences may make good neighbors, but only if you keep your neighbors in mind when you build one.

That's because there's more to putting up a fence than just figuring out the material you'll use and how you want it to look. There's the nature of the property lines, local regulations and possibly even requirements from a homeowners association (HOA) that should be considered as well.

So if you're thinking about putting up a fence, or your neighbor has broken out the measuring tape and and hasn't spoken to you, here are some items to add to your to-do list before the first post goes into the ground.

What happens before a fence goes up

1. Have your land surveyed by a professional licensed surveyor. You may think your know where your property line is, and so may the neighbors, but having the lines checked before anyone breaks ground is the smart move. A few hundred dollars up front could save many more dollars in legal fees later. This can also help you avoid planting a fence near or on buried utility lines.

2. Check with local ordinances and HOA requirements regarding fences. These will, naturally, vary by where you live, so checking city and county laws are a must. Additional stipulations outlined by a HOA need to be considered as well. These requirements will entail how tall a fence can be (this can vary based on where the fence will be located), what the fence is made of, which side of the fence faces out and so on. The fence builder may also need a permit from the city.

A staggered fence in a lawn
Consider not only your property but the surroundings ones when preparing to construct a fence. William McKeehan/Flickr

3. Talk with neighbors about the fence. The fence puts a barrier between neighbors, but building one in the first place requires communication. People may have thoughts on the nature of the fence, the type of materials used, how it will impact shade or even where along the property line the fence is placed. Regardless of who is building the fence, outlining everything in writing will also help both parties avoid confusion should matters escalate to litigation.

Talking with neighbors before building a fence may also result in a fence friendship: A neighbor may be willing to assist in construction and maintenance, easing the financial and labor burden. This will be especially important if the fence is built on the property line since the fence will legally belong to both neighbors when both "use" it. "Use" is, naturally, defined differently depending on where you are, so check the law.

4. Consider the properties. Avoiding the property line, allowing for what's called a setback, will put the fence a few feet onto the fence builder's property. This may result in some of that property being on the neighbor's side of the fence. According to Nolo.com, this may grant the neighbor an inadvertent license to use the property as they see fit, despite the fence builder still owning the property. Working out a written agreement regarding land use on the other side of the fence is important in this situation, and even more so if you decided to simply forego having the property line checked.

What happens after the fence goes up

An ugly, uneven fence
What can you do about a bad fence?. Sarnia/Shutterstock

The fence is constructed and it's ... not right. (Let's be polite and just call it imperfect.) What is your recourse as a neighbor?

1. The fence is ugly or violates local/HOA regulations. Depending on the HOA or local regulations around fences, you may have some avenues open to you in remedying an ugly fence. Notifying the fence owner first is the best way to solve the issue. Let them know about the violation and see if they resolve it on their own. If they don't fix the fence in accordance with the laws or rules of the area, then you can notify the HOA or the city about the violation. This may result in a suit against the fence owner if they still refuse to conform, according to FindLaw.com. You could also sue the fence owner, provided you can prove that the fence has somehow caused you to suffer a loss of enjoyment of your property.

2. The neighbor built a spite fence. Instead of just a regular face, a neighbor has constructed a spite fence. These are fences that exist only to irritate the neighbors. They can be especially ugly or excessively tall. Spite fences stem from an issue between neighbors, not a lack of knowledge about fence regulations, and so the way of dealing with the fence may be to talk with the neighbor and work out what issues surround the construction of the fence. Nolo.com recommends mediation as a first step, using a neutral third party to work out the issues around the fence's existence.

Should this not work, and depending on the state in which you live, a "private nuisance" suit can be filed against the fence owner. You will have to prove the malicious intent of such a fence, including how it impairs your ability to enjoy your property or a timeline of the fence's construction.