- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

‘Good fences make good neighbors,” poet Robert Frost concluded in “Mending Wall.” I’m sure he didn’t think it would have as much a modern connection as it does with today’s fence-patched subdivisions.

We spend more than $1.6 billion per year on fences, according to the American Fence Association, which represents 2,000 fence companies with 85,000 employees. If you look out at your back yard, though, whose fence are you viewing? If it’s like my back yard, you inherited the fencing from previous owners — who probably inherited it from the owners before them.

Good fences truly make for good neighbors. However, what do you do when the fence needs mending? Whose job and responsibility is it to care for the fence?

If your neighbor put up a fence many years ago and now it’s dilapidated, is it up to them to keep it repaired or can you intervene?

The lots in my community are cut in such a way that I can see five neighbors’ yards from my patio. In those yards, I see five different fence types — all wood, but varying styles.

Just last fall, my good neighbor behind me replaced his whole fence and asked if I would assist in financing the section that sits between our lots. Because my dog had been slipping through the old fence and marking his yard — and because I wanted a newer fence — I agreed. And now I have a fantastic new fence on the back that doesn’t quite match the weathered fencing on the three other sides of the yard.

Actually, I wasn’t sure if those fences were mine when I first arrived. When it wasn’t being maintained by the other neighbors, I decided to purchase the required planks and fencing to mend a few spots.

When I started tacking up one of the areas, my other neighbor came by and apologized for the condition of her fence. So I dug out the survey to see who really owned what and for what I was responsible.

Right there in teeny-weeny hash marks was the fencing inside my property line. As you can see, what we assume many times can cause confusion.

Considering what this would mean financially, it made me wonder: “What if I had not liked the style of fence my neighbor had selected, or what if the portion of the cost assessed me was for a more luxurious fence than what I would have constructed? Why should I pay for a third of a fence I don’t like?”

Many community associations have created rules governing fencing, requiring photos of the desired fence, permission from the neighbor who would be affected by the fence and other qualifications.

Some towns have even put together “fence regulations.” The town of Ajax, Ontario, includes pretty good common-sense approaches to fencing your yard, such as first talking with your neighbor before repairing or putting up a fence.

Also, this town defines what the “basic fence” would entail, so that a neighbor with simpler tastes is not required to split the cost 50-50 for a more extravagant construction.

Here are some of Ajax’s regulations, which could be used as rules of thumb in planning your own fence project.

• Talk to your neighbor before repairing or putting up a fence. You may be able to agree on the details and cost sharing.

• The costs include total cost of the construction, reconstruction, maintenance or repair as well as the value of the labor if someone is hired to do the work.

• The cost is assumed to be for a “basic” 4-foot-high chain-link fence with concrete footings.

• The cost division should be 50 percent — half to each owner — of the actual cost of the work, unless the owner and neighbor agree to a different cost sharing.

• If they cannot agree, the neighbor shall pay 50 percent of the cost of a “basic” fence, or 50 percent of the actual cost, whichever is less.

The owner pays the rest. So if the owner wants a more expensive fence than a “basic” fence, the owner must pay the extra cost.

Other issues to consider:

• Be sure to install the fence according to the limits of your property line (look over the survey), and do not build on common property.

Just because you’re part-owner in common of this property doesn’t give you a right to build on it.

• Check homeowners association rules for stylistic and physical limitations. You don’t want to invest in a bright white picket fence and find out all fences must be a natural color.

m Check with the local building codes to ensure you don’t violate any county or city zoning regulations.

• Pay for all building permits necessary to construct the fence. You could get a visit from the local inspector with a summons in hand, along with fines and penalties for not abiding by the rules.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 15 years. Reach him by e-mail ([email protected]).

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