Don't Fence Yourself In

Style and material are just two of the factors involved when planning a fence. Here are other important things to know.
Robert Martin
  • Local building and zoning codes: Most communities have ordinances concerning the height, placement, and setback requirements for fences. Consult your local building authorities prior to installation.
  • Underground utilities: Before digging postholes, verify with utility companies what's under your yard. Repairing a ruptured water main is no picnic.
  • Property lines: There should be no guesswork here. If you're unsure about your yard's boundaries, hire a surveyor to relocate and mark the property lines.

Few images sum up the spirit of the South better than a well-shaded porch surrounded by a white picket fence. Today such enclosures might be made of wood, metal, vinyl, or a host of other materials. So which one's right for you? Here's a lineup of fencing types to help you decide.

  • Chain link and wire mesh: Versatile and easily available, chain link creates a durable barrier at a low cost. While not as attractive as other fencing types, this system is valued more for its air circulation and see-through qualities. Either aluminum coated or galvanized with zinc, the wire mesh and its associated parts can be found at most home-improvement and fence-supply stores. For a sleeker look, vinyl-coated chain link (in basic colors such as black, green, and brown) is also an option. Although more expensive, this type blends in more convincingly with its surroundings.
  • Wood: While the design possibilities may be endless, wood fences are typically constructed with either 4 x 4 or 6 x 6 posts that support 2 x 4 upper and lower horizontal rails. Adding stability and beauty, pickets are attached to the rails in a variety of widths and spacing. Because wood is subject to decay, the choice of species is crucial. Also linked with selection is cost. Species that are naturally decay resistant, such as redwood and red cedar, make for great-looking fences, but the price can be sky high.
 

The most favored option is pressure-treated lumber (precut members that have been soaked in a chemical preservative). Staining, painting, or sealing the wood will add to its longevity. (Tip: Many home-center stores sell preassembled fence panels. These sections are made in stock sizes and can be secured directly to the posts.)

  • Editor's note: Many environmental organizations are calling for a ban on arsenic-based pressure-treated lumber. Look for warning tags, and wear eye and breathing protection when cutting or sanding the wood. The EPA is currently deciding what to do, and lumber manufacturers are looking for an alternate process.
  • Ornamental metal: Homeowners searching for security and permanence often prefer this type of fencing. Handcrafted wrought iron once dominated the field, but now prefabricated steel and aluminum sections are also widely available. Less expensive and easier to install, these panels are made with a durable factory-applied finish. Still, the price tag is higher on ornamental metal than on other options.
  • Plastic and vinyl: Consisting of PVC plastic, vinyl fencing is manufactured in a wide range of styles and patterns. Because the color is continuous throughout the material, it never needs painting. Likewise, vinyl won't peel, rust, or decay.

For do-it-yourselfers, vinyl fencing can be purchased in kits. It is imperative to follow the manufacturer's instructions. Be prepared to pay twice as much for vinyl as wood.

  • Masonry and stone: Consult experienced help for this type of fencing. The complexity of the design is proportional to the cost, yet few materials are more appealing.

Handy Checklist
Unsure about the type and style of enclosure that's right for your home? Then simplify your options by considering the various roles a fence performs.

  • Privacy and protection: Establish what you're aiming to keep in--and what should be kept out.
  • Maintaining boundaries: Knowing where your property ends and your neighbor's begins can make life easier for both parties. Also remember when selecting a fence that you're not the only one who'll see it on a daily basis.
  • Aesthetic needs: If your home represents a particular architectural style, it is important that a new fence reflect this look as well.
  • Other concerns: Factors such as noise control and drainage problems can be successfully handled with the correct choice of fencing.