Dear PoP – Do bad fences make bad neighbors?


“Dear PoP,

Attached is a photo of the fence behind our house. As you can clearly see, it is not in the best of conditions. When we moved in this summer, there were hornets nesting in the “gate” and I had to soak the wood with bug killer to make it safe to go on the patio. It could give the leaning tower of Pisa a run for its money. It’s at the point where several of the holes in the fence are big enough for my two dogs to fit through if there was something (a squirrel perhaps) worth chasing. It needs to be fixed. The awkward part is that we are renting the house (SE DC Capitol Hill) and the owners/landlords have told us it’s not their fence, it’s the neighbors’. I have asked the landlords to address this issue with the neighbors but they live down in Maryland (like two hours away) and trying to find time for them to visit to address home issues is tough. I’m the kind of person that wants to walk over, knock on their door, and ask them to repair it because it’s becoming unsafe and obviously unsightly. We shouldn’t be able to not enjoy our patio because of the neighbors’ negligence although I also know fences are not inexpensive. Suggestions? Are there any codes that cover fences in DC? Do we suck it up and deal until we have to go knock on their door to liberate our dogs from their yard?”

A couple years ago I asked if good fences made good neighbors?. This is a slightly different scenario. What would you guys recommend in this situation? I’d think that the landlord should approach the owners of the fence. Since they live far away, perhaps they could call the owners of the fence? What do you guys think?

28 Comment

  • I think its your landlord that needs a wake up call more so than your neighbor. Also if this is your neighbors fence why on earth is there a gate with a latch/Handle on your side?

  • Your easiest solution is to buy 2-3 sections of prefab fencing at home depot and nail them to your side of the posts. Or gripe for a year until you move.

  • The usual custom is for the “finished” side of one’s fence to face outward, toward the neighbors. Assuming the photo is from your yard, and custom was followed, the fence might actually be your landlord’s.

  • I do not believe the landlord is legally required to provide tenants with a physical separation between adjacent properties, however I do think dog owners are legally required to ensure their dogs are secured properly.

    tread carefully!

  • Whats wrong with that fence?

  • One thing that has been kinda alluded to here is that your property needs to be fenced too! It seems redundant, but a lot of property owners have 2 fences on one property boundary. If you don’t like his fence, then you should build your own fence abutting it.

    Now of course you’re a renter, so you’d have to work something out with your landlord. Since he/she was cool with pets (and not all are) you might want to check out the price for cheap fencing like Pennywise said above and just put it up. At the very least, you could probably attach chickenwire to your neighbor’s fence. If your landlord has a problem with it cause it’s ugly, maybe they’ll pop for a better fence?

  • Fix the fence – go to the hardware store and buy a couple of metal straps (small pieces of metal that can be used to join the wood fence together. Screww them with one side to the gate cross pieces of the gate and one side to cross pieces of the fence – 4 total. You won’t be able to go through the gate, but if it goes into the neighbors yard that is weird anyway. Not a hard fix – although not perfect at leaset you dogs will be secure and the fence will stand upright.

  • But yeah, looking again at the photo that totally looks like it’s your Landlord’s fence.

    BUT… if you look closer – on the other side of the yard they seem to have the same fence – AND it is also facing inside. I guess they thought the exterior side looked better so they put it inward.

    So, just work something out with the landlord or do it yourself (it won’t be that hard!)

  • I agree with the cautionary notes here — the writer doesn’t own anything, and unless there’s a clause in his lease about providing a fully-fenced backyard, there’s really not any recourse for him against either landlord or neighbor, short of a far-fetched nuisance suit. I’d say the best bet is to go knock on the neighbor’s door and ask about cleaning it up, or at least patching the holes/securing the gate, and volunteer to help with the work. Your dogs aren’t his responsibility, however. I’d stay away from that argument.

    Just from a homeowner’s perspective, I have to say that it’s tricky. In a typical 3-sided backyard for an attached rowhome, you’re dealing w/ 3 different neighbors, and possibly 3 different fence ownerships. What you really want/need before you invest in good fencing is everybody to get on board with one plan. I’m trying to sort out a fence issue right now: side A was erected by a neighbor to prepare for the sale of his house. He built it “ugly side out” and didn’t finish it on my side, then moved. I’d now like to have sides B and C built to match, but I can’t get a response from side C’s owner, despite essentially offering him a new privacy fence and removal of existing nasty chain link at my expense, and side B’s owner has already hinted that he feels he has some aesthetic say in what I build because of the unwritten code of fence building that @ Bloomingdale mentions. It ain’t as easy as it seems is all I’m saying.

  • Have you tried talking to your neighbor about your concerns? If not, obviously that’s where you need to start. You’d be amazed how helpful people can be if you just speak to them once in a while. Instead of walking over, knocking on the door and, …”ask[ing] them to repair it because it’s becoming unsafe and obviously unsightly,” why don’t you make an effort at getting to know them and have a civil conversation about how you can work on a solution together. This doesn’t have to be a hand-wringing confrontation.

  • Have you tried talking to your neighbor about your concerns? If not, obviously that’s where you need to start. You’d be amazed how helpful people can be if you just speak to them once in a while. Instead of walking over, knocking on the door and, …”ask[ing] them to repair it because it’s becoming unsafe and obviously unsightly,” why don’t you make an effort at getting to know them and have a civil conversation about how you can work on a solution together. This doesn’t have to be a hand-wringing, angst-inducing confrontation.

  • Looks to me like nothing a couple of treated 2 X 4s wouldn’t take care of. If it were me, I’d shell out for an 8 ft. 2 X 4 and some braces at Home Depot (total, less than $15) and turn that gate into just another fence panel.

  • I thought that a built fence on a property line became a “party line fence” and, in essence, was co-owned by the adjoining property owners.

  • Thanks for the responses. It’s definitely not our landlord’s fence as it does go around the entirety of the neighbor’s yard. Don’t know why there’s a gate but there’s also a small one you can’t see that goes into the yard of our neighbors to the right. Maybe at one point you could cross through all the backyards?

    The landlord has sent a letter to the neighbors. He tried their door several times when he last visited to no avail. I have a copy and he was very nice, polite, and stated quite clearly it was a safety issue.

    I’m a total do-it-yourself-er when I can but I’ve also been burned in the past with spending money and time to fix stuff and not getting reimbursed. If it was my house I’d totally put up a nicer section of fence. It’s killing me to sit back and let it be taken care of by others, but in this situation, I feel it’s the best to do. Besides, with the condition of the wood (rotting) and the leaning of the fence into our yard, I’m not sure attaching anything to what’s already there would be a good idea.

  • If you don’t need the gate to be operable you can fix it with a couple of pieces of scrap 2′ x 4′ and some 10 penny nails. Just extend from where those two 2′ x 4′ horizontal braces currently are – across the gap – and nail the gate to the new braces.

  • @GiantSquid, I’m still confused about why you haven’t talked to your neighbors yourself. It seems like, by not doing that first, you’re setting yourself up for a contentious relationship with them that will only make this situation worse.

  • Just ask your neighbors if they mind if you make some basic repairs to stabilize the fence. it doesn’t look like it would take more than few bucks and a trip to home depot. yes, it probably shouldn’t be your responsibility as a renter, but i think that is the easiest way to get it resolved.

  • Isn’t the person suggesting that it’s hard to talk to the neighbors or they aren’t often around?

    I worked on a neighborhood issue and I was surprised that there were several neighbors who wouldn’t open their door to me. Two families wouldn’t open the door several times and wouldn’t call me after I left a note asking them to do so.

  • I join the just fix it chorus. Those 8 foot panels are cheap, and you can use screws if need be so someone can undo it. It’s a cheap fix, with a big payoff.

    If your neighbor complains, or comes out to inspect, you might actually enjoy meeting him. You can always blame the issue on your no-good landlord.

  • @MPHS: as my landlord is a friend, and far from being “no-good” or delinquent, I have no desire to paint them as such.

  • if the fence is all on the neighbors property just build a new one on your side. You know whats easier than building a fence? Nothing. Building fences is the easeist thing there is. Also it looks like the gate is leaning over onto your property. I happen to be a dick so I would probably have just undone the yellow rope that is holding the gate up and pushed it over onto their side. Maybe they would get the point after that.

  • You don’t really have any recourse that I am aware of.

    If the fence is your neighbor’s, as the landlord says, then the property owner could build their own fence but that’s it. You can’t make your neighbor fix something on their property.

    If the fence is your landlord’s, then it’s his responsibility, but unless the terms of your lease specify that you shall have a fenced in yard that’s dog proof, it is what it is. He can just say tough luck, I’m not fixing it if you even get him to admit it’s his, or I’m not building another fence if its not.

    There’s no rule that says anyone’s yard has to be fenced in at all.

    If you want the fence to work just fix it yourself. Sorry that you probably won’t get reimbursed for the $20 or so a couple hinges and screws would cost to make it serviceable but it doesn’t seem like a lot to pay to get what you want in this situation.

  • Actually, maybe you could engineer a collapse of the gate, pin yourself under it, and sue sue sue your way to wealth!!! Gimme the address, I’ll be there post haste. Of course, I’d sue you too for endangering me 😉

  • … oh and i feel your pain on putting any time into that messed up old fence, but hey, its a rental. Just go find some scrap 2x4s in a dumpster somewhere if you don’t want to buy anything, there is almost certainly stuff to be looted within a 500 foot radius of anyplace in DC. I am sure you could patch that thing up enough to last a year or two without too much effort.

  • I don’t know where on the Hill you are, Giant Squid or how many folks you know over here, but you could try talking to your ANC and/or the Restoration Society, assuming you’re in the historic district.

    You could also complain about it on any number of Hill listservs and hope that they or someone they know reads it. Of course, that’s really passive aggressive, but so is not just going over there and talking to them about it in the first place.

  • Well, actually, DC Municipal Regs Title 14 Chapter 7:

    701.1 All structures located on a premises including, but not limited to, accessory structures (such as walls, garages, fences, and sheds) shall be maintained in a sanitary and structurally sound condition and in good repair.

    According to Title 16, Civil Infractions and Fines, this would likely be a Class 5 infraction (meaning minor), which results in a fine of $20 for the first offense, and doubles for each offense thereafter. But it could take a lot of effort to enforce this regulation for something so minor. Usually they are only enforced when a property owner has committed greater infractions.

    All that said:

    –there is no such thing as a shared property fence. Even if two neighbors share the expense and labor, one of them still owns it.

    –in all the places I’ve lived, I’ve never seen so much involvement over neighbor’s fences. I’ve never lived anywhere (yes, places with rowhomes and narrow properties) where anyone actually thought they had a right to interfere or make demands upon a neighbor regarding their fence.

    –even if the landlord owns this fence, their obligation for its maintenance is to the city, not the tenant.

    –even if the lease allows pets, it is still the tenant’s responsibility to care for it, and that includes controlling it.

    –Pets cost money. Their expenses are not reimbursable. If you can’t handle that, you shouldn’t have a pet.

  • One potential problem with just nailing the fence door shut with a couple 2x4s in a semi permanent fashion would be fire escape. I can’t tell from the pic, but if your neighbor with the functionally challenged fence depends on that as an exit via your backyard to the alley, and has rights of passage then you might have problems.

    or, given the current state of disrepair and lack of attention, probably not…

  • If you want a fence (an not for neighbor to fix his) then you can build what ever you want (if LL oks) within the property line (no specifics on how far in so 1/4 inch could work) you can (again with LL permission) get a plat showing lines form DCRA. If you want to work on shared/line fence you need written permission or proof you tried to get permission (certified mail?) This is also were you get a permit to build (6ft requires).

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