Fence Building Law: Cost Sharing, Notifications, and Code

Fence Building
Fence Building. Getty / Corey Jenkins

No one today questions that a good fence is essential to a newly built or remodeled home.  Gone are the days of interconnected backyards.  Urban density and legal liability have taken care of that.

You may want to build any kind of fence, but you cannot. Laws are enacted* to protect the visual texture of your area and to prevent neighbors from warring.

Do I Have To Notify My Neighbor Before Installing a Fence?

Maybe.

 Traditionally, notice has not been required.  But the trend is for communities to require neighbor notification.

One example of this trend is California's Good Neighbor Fence Law.  It requires 30 days' written notice, along with details about proposed building and maintenance cost, timeline, and design.

Whatever you do, it is always good etiquette to speak to your neighbor first.

Can I Make My Neighbor Share Half of the Fence Building Expenses?

Most likely yes.  Local fence laws assume that boundary fences benefit both homeowners, and so both owners must pay for the fence.  The same holds true for fence maintenance and repairs.

For example, Washington State law states that "[the neighbor] shall pay the owner of such fence already erected one-half of the value...as serves for a partition fence between them" (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.60.020).

In other words, both landowners must equally share the cost of a partition fence 

In many areas, state-level fence law dates back to the 19th century and mainly addresses issues of grazing animals.  Beyond the general edict that fence costs must be shared, details are left open-ended. 

Unless state laws such as California's or local ordinances firm up those details, the matter is left in the hands of the two property owners.

 Should that fail, the only recourse is court.

Do I Need To Order a Land Survey Before Building a Fence?

No.  In most places, you are not required to survey the property line in question before building the fence.

My Neighbor Built an Ugly Fence?  Can I Make Him Remove It?

Two types of fences tend not to be allowed by most cities:  barbed wire and electrified fences.

Beyond that, your neighbor is allowed to build that ugly chainlink, vinyl, or concrete block wall.  

If you live in a neighborhood controlled by a homeowner's association (HOA), all bets are off.  The HOA may not just exclude fences but require certain types, such as natural cedar wood with a certain stain.

Can I Plant Shrubs and Evade Fence Restrictions?

No.  Wise to such evasions, local lawmakers may include vegetation as a form of fence.  

However, because it is difficult to keep foliage at precisely 6 feet or less, laws for natural fences may provide for a higher natural fence.

What Are the Rules About Height?

6 feet is the maximum height anywhere on the property, except for:

  • Within 15 feet of a street line or street curb.
  • In the front yard.
  • When traffic sight distances are impaired.

In the case of the exceptions noted above, the fence can be no higher than 3.5 to 4 feet.

Can I Build a Fence On an Easement That Runs Through My Property?

Yes.  However, the dominant estate (for example, the utility company) may need to take down the portion of the fence that runs over the easement for a certain activity, such as repairing the sewer main.  They are allowed to do this.

Can I Evade Restrictions By Installing a Fence on My Own Property, Not on the Boundary Line?

No.  In most cases, a fence on your own property that is close to the boundary line is still subject to fence laws.  Most courts would recognize that you are flouting the law if you build a 20 foot high fence just inches from the boundary line.

Consider, too, that if you abandon the boundary line fence, your neighbor may eventually legally gain that thin strip of land through adverse possession after a substantial period of time, such as 10 years.

Will Anyone Notice or Do Anything About My Non Code-Compliant Fence?

Yes to both.  Neighbors and passersby take sharp notice of fences.  Local planning and permitting departments receive daily anonymous complaints about fences.  Cities typically will not do anything until a complaint is received.

If you are in violation, the city will issue a written notice of non-conformance, along with a requirement that the fence be lowered or set back.  You will have a certain amount of time to do so, such as within 30 days.

* Disclaimer

Every state, city and, county is different, which means that laws are different.  Above are basics you might expect in most areas.

To determine if these laws apply to you, start at the city or county level with the planning and permitting department.