- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Scott Bowen of Huntingtown, Md., says he has enough work to do landscaping and cutting the grass on his 4-acre yard without having to take care of the fence around the backyard swimming pool.

A year ago, Mr. Bowen, 38, and his wife, Amanda Bowen, hired Better Than Wood, a Clinton, Md., company that builds fences, decks and porches, to build a 150-foot vinyl picket fence around their recently installed pool. The Bowens chose vinyl, a virtually maintenance-free material that, when dirty, can be rinsed with water or, if needed, pressure washed to keep clean.

“It’s still in as good a shape as when we put it in,” Mr. Bowen says.

Homeowners like Mr. Bowen have a choice of materials and styles when installing a yard fence, whether they are doing the work as a do-it-yourselfer or hiring a contractor. Their choice depends, in part, on the purpose for the installation: to provide privacy, security or safety; to establish a boundary; or to improve the aesthetics of their property.

The four most common fencing materials are vinyl, wood, iron and aluminum, says Raymond “Ray” Michael, co-owner and general manager of the sales force and installation crews at Better Than Wood.

Wood, typically the least expensive of the four materials, needs to be treated and stained, and power-washed annually to prevent it from turning gray and warping, Mr. Michael says. Vinyl, on the other hand, is a long-lasting material that does not require any maintenance work, he says.

“The nice thing about a vinyl fence is you can neglect it. You can leave it,” Mr. Michael says. “It can get dirty like anything else … [but] you’re not ruining vinyl if you’re not washing it.”

Wood that is pressure treated, however, does not require as much maintenance as does natural wood, says Robert Carr, assistant store manager at the Home Depot store in Silver Spring. Pressure-treated wood can last eight to 15 years and requires maintenance cleaning every two to three years, he says.

“The purpose of pressure treating is to prevent rot, decay and insect manifestation,” Mr. Carr says.

Another material used for fencing is chain-link, but the material has an industrial look not favored in new developments and has become a dying market, says Jim McQuary, residential sales manager of Long Fence Co., a fence, deck and patio company headquartered in Chantilly.

“Your choice of material is going to be dictated by your homeowner association, if you have one, the purpose in your fencing and the aesthetic that you’re trying to achieve,” Mr. McQuary says.

Another determinate of that choice is cost.

Vinyl typically costs 20 percent to 40 percent more than wood, says Leon Ram, supervisor for contractor sales at the Silver Spring Home Depot.

“It’s more of a high-market fence,” Mr. Ram says.

At Home Depot, pre-built panels of fencing cost a minimum of $50 for vinyl and a maximum of $40 for wood, excluding special orders, Mr. Ram says. Most panels are 8 feet long; some are 6 feet, he says.

A wood panel at Lowe’s Inc. costs about $50, and vinyl costs from $60 to $100, the price depending on design and height, says Pasquale “Pat” D’Eramo Jr., division director for installed sales for Lowe’s Northeastern region.

Fences come in different styles, including privacy — to prevent seeing into or out of a yard — and the more open styles of picket and rail. Rail has parallel, evenly spaced rails. Fences can be one- or two-sided, providing a finished look on one or both sides. They can be plain or decorative with decorative panels, a lattice top or a scalloped top that swoops lower in the middle between posts.

Homeowners should, before choosing the material, style and height of fence, find out about any homeowner association (HOA) and historical district requirements, municipal regulations, and whether a building permit is required, as recommended by those in the fencing industry.

HOAs trend toward requiring open-style fences 48 inches in height to give a development a more open, friendly look, Mr. McQuary says, adding that fences can range from 30 to 72 inches in height. Fences around swimming pools are required, in the metropolitan area, to be a minimum of 48 inches of unclimbable material, and gates must be self-closing, self-latching and open outward, he says.

State law for the metropolitan area requires Miss Utility, which locates and marks public underground utilities, to be notified at least 72 hours before excavation begins to install the fence. An iron pipe survey also is recommended to determine, if not known, the exact location of the property line. The survey marks the corners of the property with pipes set into the ground.

“Once you’re ready to go, it’s blood and sweat,” Mr. McQuary says. “It’s construction-type work.”

A do-it-yourselfer will need a few tools for the project, Mr. Michael says. The tools include a posthole digger or auger to dig holes for the posts, a level to make sure the posts are level, and a string line, a piece of string used to stake out the perimeter of the fence and to provide a reference point for each section, he says.

The first step, Mr. Michael says, is putting down a string line along the border where the fence will be installed.

The four corner posts and gateposts are installed first, then the remaining posts are installed according to the length of the panels or sections of fence, Mr. D’Eramo says. Posts made of wood should be set in the ground 30 to 36 inches and 24 to 36 inches for most other materials, Mr. McQuary says.

“You want to get the fence down below the frost line and to get enough length in the ground to support it above ground,” he says, adding that a rule of thumb is to install the fence posts below ground a third of the height that the fence rises above ground.

Concrete can be used to stabilize the posts and keep them rigidly in place. Vinyl, iron and chain-link fences require wet-poured concrete, while wood, which is a porous material, needs dry concrete mixed with the ground soil to help with drainage, Mr. McQuary says.

Once the posts are in place, the panels or individual pieces of material can be installed, using either hammer and nails or a drill and screws.

“There’s not many steps,” Mr. Michael says. “The hard part is digging holes and getting the posts level.”

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