Dear PoP – Friday Question of the Day – Cost of Fences?

Backyard Fence, originally uploaded by Prince of Petworth.

A little over two years ago I asked if good fences make good neighbors? This week a reader wrote:

“Dear PoP,

When some of our friends heard we were putting up a fence, they asked us whether we had asked our neighbors to “chip” in for it, since, in theory, they would benefit from the addition. This hadn’t occurred to us at all, but our friends told us that it was what people did when they put up fences….Well, we ended up dancing around the subject with one of the neighbors before giving up, and with the other one, we didn’t even bother. So what are your thoughts on this? Should neighbors offer to pitch in for their neighbor’s fences when they benefit from it? Should neighbors expect to be asked to chip in? Also, with something like a privacy (wooden) fence, are you supposed to put the “nice” side out, or in?”

It’s an interesting question. My neighbors, with whom I have a very good relationship, are currently putting up a fence. As for whether I would chip in the answer is – absolutely not. Quality privacy fences are rather expensive. While I will ostensibly benefit from the fence, I didn’t ask for it. Because I have a good relationship with my neighbors, if they asked me to chip in, I’m sure we would have had a very civil conversation about it. In this case they did not ask me. Do you guys think the neighbors should chip in?

As for where does the good side go? I’d say, since I’m (the neighbor) is not paying for it, the “nice” side should go wherever the one paying for it wants it.

Like I said, I have a great relationship with my neighbors. Not only are they super nice, but they have shoveled my walk, mowed my yard, brought in my garbage cans… I swear I’m not that lazy! One of my finest memories was when another neighbor and I were sitting on the porch and this neighbor said, “hey would you guys like a glass of whiskey?”. She then brought us out two glasses of whiskey and went back inside. Truly a beautiful neighbor. I preface this because I’d like to revisit the message that a privacy fence sends. In this case my neighbors have two dogs and it’s clearly not an insult to me or the neighbor on the other side. But in general, I’m curious what you think the message of a privacy fence sends, if it’s not just facing the alley but in between homes as well?

32 Comment

  • Many fencing companies make fences with nice sides on both sides specifically for such applications.

    I do think fences make good neighbors, as long as you talk about it. Shading out somebodies garden, blocking their views from windows etc are not nice. I sometimes thing lower fences, are better. They reduce some of the annoying things, allow you to still talk over the fence and in those locations you want it higher, say by your adult playroom window, you can make it higher or bolster it with dense evergreen bushes/trees.

  • I do not know what is the law in DC. But in some places — including Virginia — your neighbor *must* pay half the cost of the fence. Even if the neighbor does not *want* any fence. There was a story a few years ago, in one of the VA counties well outside the Beltway, where two neighbors developed a feud over one of them being forced to pay half of a very expensive fence. The feud ended when one of the neighbors (the one who put up the fence) shot the other one to death, I believe with a shotgun. Just saying. You can look it up on the Post’s archives.

  • Regardless of the law, I think you have to ask yourself how you would like to be treated by your neighbor. Morally I cannot ask my neighbor to pay for half a fence that was my idea and they may not be able to afford (as in the case AJS sited.) When I put my fence up because I wanted somewhere for my dog to run, I asked the neighbor’s opinion but never asked for them to pay. As for the “nice” side, there are some other things to consider. Our 7′ privacy fence has horizontal supports, I asked that they be on the inside (my side) so that they would not make easy footholds for someone to to climb over it.

  • My neighbor asked me if I was interested in replacing my side of our fence and, as I had just moved in 6 months earlier, I said no. A few months later he re-did his entire backyard. I thought it was nice that he checked in with me, but I would have also liked to have known what his plans were at the time we were discussing it. Anyway, even it I was interested I doubt we could have agreed on the style — very different tastes, but that’s another story.

  • I believe we are required to submit a permit request for the fences, and the form has a section where neighbors have to concur. So, who knows a good fence contractor who would install a low aluminum ornamental fence?

  • So many possible issues here. Firstly, it should be noted that you need a permit to build a fence in DC. This is in part to make sure people don’t build on the wrong side of the property line or build something dangerous. I question the usefulness of many of the permits DCRA asks for (hanging a ceiling fan?!) but this one is one that I can see some value in. At the least, it means that soemone has put some thought and planning into the fence… because once you have a bad fence, you have a long lasting problem.

    But to the sharing question: In our old house, a townhouse, we had a double fence on one side. Our previous owner had built a fence (nice side in) on our side and the neighbor did the same. As a result, two fences sat back to back and trees grew in the few inches between them. It wasted space and created hassles for both sides. Where the two neighbors can collaborate, putting the fence up together, choosing the style and cost together, you know you’ll get more satisfaction from both sides. When this fails, the fence builder becomes the real winner.

    Another consideration is the property line. There is an awful but utilitarian chain link between me and one of my neighbors. It’s gawd-awful ugly and matches the disrepair of the neighbor’s lot, so I assumed it was his fence. Turns out that actually, a previous owner of my house put it there as a cheap protection against the neighbor and that my property line is a solid foot on the other side of the fence. Hmmm…. What to do? Do I hop the fence and weedwack the jungle back to protect the fence and my property now that I know? Tear out the fence and replace it with something nicer closer to the correct line? I would have preferred the two neighbors at the time had collaborated so the fence would be on the line and maybe not so fugly. Yeah I know, no guarantee but I’m annoyed to now be the one responsible for the the ugly out back.

  • Re: permits. Do you need a permit to replace an existing fence as well? Or just to put one in where it wasn’t before?

  • Many cities require you to put the nice side out, does DC comment on that?

  • Personally, I think if you want to put a fense up then its your responsiblity to make sure both sides look good, and since you’re the one who wants it you should pay for it. You can ask you neighbor but even if they say they don’t want to pay for it both sides shoud look good. That being, I custom built my fence so it would look good from my neighbors yard, the alley, and my yard; but its only 2 years and the wood has warped and it doesn’t look very good from either side anymore so I need to figure out what to do to make it look good again…

  • mmm Says:

    April 24th, 2009 at 8:44 am
    Re: permits. Do you need a permit to replace an existing fence as well? Or just to put one in where it wasn’t before?

    You do not need a permit for repair to an existing fence, only putting up a new one. In fact, repairing a fence can be replacing the entire thing section by section as long as you do not tear the whole thing down and then put up a new one. I had a conversation with an inspector about this when I did my fence, as I replaced a chain link with wood so it didn’t really qualify

  • Thanks Cliff! All, do check with DCRA though. The fines can be debilitating.

  • Our neighbors on both sides had fences – we didn’t. They built their fences so close to the alley that they no longer had room for their 3 giant garbage cans. Their solution was to place them IN OUR YARD. I would regularly have temper tantrums, “hulk out” and toss their cans down the alley. I’m not proud of that. They finally moved to Pittsburgh, so the problem went away – but having a good relationship with your neighbors would/might prevent something like that. Also, if you are building a fence along an alley – please consider the garbage can situation.

    We found that a good, neighbor-friendly and less-expensive option was to plant a low hedge on the alley line. Sure, it ate up a foot and a half of our yard space but it’s nice and green, marks the property boundary, keeps the garbage from blowing through, keeps hobos from wandering into the yard to masturbate/have oral sex/shoot up (this actually used to happen).

    It’s great!

  • first, there’s a design called “the good neighbor fence”: about 6′ high with slats on each side alternating, so the fence looks the same on both sides. i think it’s kind of ugly. otherwise i’d put the nice side of the fence out to preserve your property values and keep the baddies from crawling over.

    second, i think it’s kind of absurd to ask a neighbor to pay to fence in one side of their yard. that’s like me saying – hey, i’m painting my house and would you like to pay for the paint facing your home, since you’ll look at it more than me?

  • It never even dawned on me to ask the neighbor to help with the cost of putting up a fence. We wanted the fence so no need to ask neighbor to help pay for it. Also, our wooden fence ran right beside the neighbor’s exisitng chain link fence so the fence was not actually on the property line, but inside of it. Permit – what permit?

  • Classic free rider problem, like cleaning up the environment or national defense. That’s why I think the government should pay for privacy fences. I’m sure there’s stimulus money out there for this, right?

  • My neighbor took down his privacy fence, but left the posts up for a later replacement. Our yards are 5′ apart vertically — a retaining wall makes up the grade — so it’s kind of weird to be eye level with his lawn. It’s not so much that I mind his yard, but I would prefer to block out the ugly backsides of the houses on the next street. Also, the 5′ wall plus the old 6′ privacy fence made our backyard a nice little alcove.

    Anyway, it’s been two years, and I periodically offer to chip in as an incentive, but so far he hasn’t taken the bait. Far from resenting being asked, I’m offering time and labor to get it done.

  • A very tricky question, especially with the attached rowhomes in DC, particularly in CH. My backyard neighbors (there is no alley) live on another street, and it’s not as if I EVER see them coming and going — only in the rare occasions when we’re both out back at the same time are we even aware of each other. It’s very different than the neighbors to my sides, who I know. Anyway, I’ve thought about replacing the ratty chain-link fence between my backyard and the guy on the next street over, whose backyard frankly is an overgrown dump and eyesore, and even sought a non-commital blessing from him, but given the lack of relationship never would consider asking him to chip in, despite the fact that it greatly would improve his own backyard. I basically look at it as an unavoidable free-rider problem. Just being cynical, I’d advise the reader to ask permission from DCRA, not the neighbor, and do on his property what he wants. Especially if the relationship with the neighbor isn’t rock solid.

    Oh, and my old neighbor to the side did put up a fence, of his own construction. Loved the guy, and it was pretty good work, but he put nice side in (bad-side to me) and then didn’t finish it all the way on my side — there still are horizontal supports that weren’t nailed in. Of course, he then sold the place and I had no recourse — no opportunity to give him the “Hey, I’ve noticed you forgot a few nails over here … what say you come on over Saturday and we finish that off?”

  • Hey look, it’s our fence again!

    We had to put a proper wooden fence up because when we bought the house, the existing fence was a rusted chain link job with gaps and holes all over. The door was off it’s hinges and everything. It was not fixable. Plus, we have two small dogs.

    So we upgraded to a wooden fence b/c we thought it looked better (“nice” side OUT, for our neighbors) and b/c our dogs bark at EVERYTHING that comes down the alley, so for everyone’s sanity blocking their view of a few people/cars was beneficial.

    Before we did a single thing, we asked each of our neighbors if they were okay with it. One side was extremely excited about getting rid of the chain link, but the other house was not occupied and it was very hard to reach the landlord. When we finally got her, she wasn’t sure. So we left her chain link and w/in the regulations built about 6 inches inside of her chain link. The other neighbor signed the permit, per regulations.

    We didn’t ask anyone to chip in. It never crossed my mind and seems kind of presumptuous/rude to do so.

    We have great relationships with our neighbors on each side even with the fence.

  • Did ours 7 feet tall, nice side in, didn’t tell the neighbors we were doing it. But then again, the neighbor on one side liked to pee in his yard and shake his dick and laugh at people in my yard, and the neighbor on the other side had month-old dog shit in about thirty piles all over her back patio, so I figured I could go forward.

  • Sigh. I wish I could have a nice high wooden fence like that. I don’t even really have neighbors to contend with since I’m on the corner, but alas the CHRS won’t allow it. I’m jealous of all of your pretty wood fences. Instead I’m relegated to a short (aprox 2.5 ft – I can step over it) iron fence, which looks nice, but still needs to be replaced because the bars are wide enough for my dog to slip through if she really wants to. Not that she wanders anywhere, she just likes to greet other canine passersby. I believe the limit in my neck o’ the woods is 4.5 ft – which still won’t deter anyone from coming on my patio and stealing chair cushions like they did last year. (They stole 2 – and of course, not the 2 that match on the set of side chairs – the stole 2 from the set of 4, so that everything was all mismatched. Luckily, I found the same ones online, so there was no need to replace all 4 this year.) Sorry, tangent. I’m just jealous of your fences.

  • Anonymous 10:47 – just to let you know -the dog poop is a issue that you could possbily take up with the Department of Health. Rats eat dog poop. Now there’s an image you all wanted at 11:00 in the morning 🙂

  • Presuming that a neighbor will benefit from your fence is preposterous. Not everyone wants a fence. Certainly not everyone wants a 7′ high barricade all around them. They may not have the money for a fence, they many not need to keep anything in or out, they may like daylight and may not want their backyard to turn into mud because of the lack of daylight needed for plantlife to grow.

    I also think it is quite humorous how many people insist that it is their neighbors’ yards that are trashed, not their own. From the number of posts on here one would expect DC to be a lush garden of eden. And yet I’ve not seen a single well-landscaped property in DC.

  • “And yet I’ve not seen a single well-landscaped property in DC.”

    Really? Do you not notice the posts on this blog with photos of people in DC with really nice yards?

    Kay, thank you, mercifully, the dog either died or ran away last year, so the problem solved itself.

    I agree we probably should have asked, but since we put it up, both neighbors have commented on how much they like the fence, and we have the nicest fence and yard on the block. Everyone gets plenty of sun, fence or not.

  • When bought my rowhouse, neighbors on both sides asked if I was going to put up a fence and that they really hoped I would (not because my yard is bad – in fact it’s nicely planted and mowed with non-motorized push mower) to provide privacy for them as well. We all have the chain link and have a very busy alley intersection with folks looking in.

  • Speaking of fences, anyone have a good recommendation for a contractor to do wood fence repair?

  • Anyone know what the fine is replacing a current fence without a permit? Or putting up a new one all together?

  • Quincy St Neighbor

    an interesting and timely discussion as the days get warmer and we start to spend more time outdoors.

    i have had a dilemma re: party fences but more so from the question of whether to fence vs not having one. 2 years ago we had a micro-burst of a storm in petworth and my fence blew down. it was a 6 ft high wooden picket variety that the previous owner had put up.

    i haven’t had the inclination to replace it as i’ve enjoyed the spirit of openness it promotes, or at least that is what i’d like it to promote. i kinda like how the open space between our houses makes it seem like we have a double wide yard. also my neighbor is actually a landlord who bought the house next to me to rent out. i’ve never met him so it has been difficult to track him down to get his approval on my replacing my fence, much less chipping in for it.

    now there’s a band of 20-something progressive young adults living there. one of them asked me, when he first moved in, how i felt about bbq-ing and how we should organize a joint backyard bbq. and i was like HAYELLL YEAH!

    luckily i don’t have a dog – and i would never keep him in the back if i did – and i haven’t had any security concerns to warrant replacing the fence. instead i’m looking forward to joint backyard parties and making maximal use of the backyard spaces communally.

    as a single person i’ve got my work cut out for me just managing the house and the front yard. by opening the backyard up for more people to enjoy, the better the use of the space. we would benefit from its collective use more than if each of us had our own share of a meager ration.

    the neighbors asked me recently to offer my advise on how they can set up a backyard garden which i gladly offered both my limited expertise and tools. when there was a fence between the two properties, the two backyards laid unused and unremarkable. now with this wide open joint space we’re going to have vibrant gardens and more social activities ahead! what was that saying about the whole being more than just the sum of its parts???

    I’m digging this spirit of openness!

  • To fence or not to fence — really depends on your neighbors, eh? In some cases, good fences really do make good neighbors. In others, not so much. The safe play is the fence. You always got sitting on the stoop out front if you want to be sociable with the block.

  • sophiagrrl: you’ll want to take care of that piece of land on the other side of your fence… google “adverse possession”.

    Kay: rats do not regularly dine on dog turds. That’s a popular argument from people who oppose dog parks, but in a city STREWN WITH TRASH do you really think the first option on the rat a la carte menu is poop? This is not to say that leaving doo-doo around isn’t a don’t-don’t, just that hysteria about rats eating dog patties is not a realistic concern — in a city STREWN WITH TRASH.

  • What companies did you use and how much did it cost to pay to put up the fence?

  • I used Long Fence for a 6 foot pressure treated pine fence in my last house and Accokeek Fence for the same type of fence at my present house. Recommend Accokeek. Long Fence is terrible. It was several thousand but don’t remember exactly.

  • I like that we don’t have a fence between us an our neighbors on one side. I agree that it feels more open and neighborly. As for the neighbors on our other side, the rusty chain-link fence was so god awful that we planted flowering vines to hide it. If we had been forced to help pay for that thing, I would accidentally drive my car into it everyday in an effort to get rid of it.

    I definitely think there is a difference between front yards and back yards, though. I think front yard fences are fine if they are low fences, not more than 2 1/2 – 4 feet tall which seems to be the norm. Is there a regulation requiring that already? I hope so, otherwise, our streets will get very ugly very quickly.

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