Fence Building Law Basics for Homeowners

Man building a fence
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Fences are essential to protecting privacy in your backyard, keeping pets safely in, and establishing property lines. Few people today question that a good fence is essential to a newly built or remodeled home. Gone are the days of vast, interconnected backyards. Urban density and legal liability have taken care of that.

Even though you may want to build any kind of fence anywhere, at any height, and at any position to the property line, chances are good that in your area you cannot do this. Laws are enacted to protect the visual texture of your area and to keep neighbors in a civil and neighborly mood with each other.

Fence Building Laws and Your Home

To keep peace, fence building laws have been around in society for thousands of years. Every state, city, and county is different, which means that laws are different. These fence laws are only 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.  While fence-related laws, regulations, and zoning are different from one area to the next, there are a few common themes: notification, expenses, position and placement, and fence height and type.

Fence Distance From the Property Line

How close can you build the fence to the property line? In many cases, you can build the fence directly on a property line that is shared with someone else. If you shared a property line with a public entity, you may not be able to build directly on the line. You may need to step back the fence.

Notifying Neighbors Before Building a Fence

If you want to build a fence on the property line, are you required by law or any other regulation to notify your neighbor? Yes, you might be required to do so.

Traditionally, notice has not been required, but the trend is for communities to require neighbor notification. One example of this is California's Good Neighbor Fence Law. It requires 30 days' advance written notice, along with details about the proposed building, maintenance cost, timeline, and design. Whatever you do, it is always good etiquette to speak to your neighbor first.

Can Your Neighbor Build a Fence on the Property Line?

You wake up one Saturday morning to the roar of gas-powered earth augers drilling holes precisely on your property line for a new fence. Can your neighbor do this?

From the standpoint of informal neighborly relations, the answer is always no. If that neighbor can discuss this with you ahead of time, it is always best for them to do this.

From a purely legal standpoint, the neighbor, in most circumstances, can build that fence and even can ask you to pay 50-percent of the cost of the fence. Their sudden fence project may hinge more on the issue of notice than anything else. If you live in a jurisdiction where the neighbor must serve you notice before embarking on the fence project, then that neighbor is indeed unable to build and still remain within the laws of your area.

If the neighbor is building the fence with the express intention of malice, annoying, or harassing you, this may be what is often termed a spite fence. Your local statutes may allow a court to halt the construction of a spite fence.

Sharing Fence Building Expenses With Neighbors

If you intend to build a fence on a property line and wish to pay for the fence, you are not required to seek compensation from your neighbor. At the same time, shouldering the cost of building a fence does not entitle you to special privileges over your neighbor's desires.

If your neighbor initiates the fence-building project, are you required to pay for half of the costs? 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 (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 16.60.020) 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." In other words, both landowners must equally share the cost of a partition fence 

In many areas, state-level fence law dates back centuries 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.

Getting a Land Survey Before Building a Fence

Since partition fences mark divisions between properties, it would seem logical to assume that a survey is required before building a fence.

Actually, this is not the case. In most places, you are not required to survey the property line in question before building the fence, though you may still want to do so. It is expensive to order up a true property line survey, but this is the only way to know for certain where property lines fall.

Forcing a Neighbor to Remove an Ugly Fence

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 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.

Planting Shrubs to Evade Fence Restrictions

You might have a real need for a fence that is taller than normal: traffic noise, an adjacent industrial area or multi-level structures. Can you plant shrubs in place of a fence and grow those shrubs super-high?

Probably not. Wise to such evasions, local lawmakers often 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 top.

Fence Height Rules

Often, 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 1/2 to 4 feet.

Building a Fence on an Easement

Easements on personal property can go unnoticed and remain trouble-free for a long time. Sometimes, a homeowner may own a house for decades with no issues coming up with regard to the easement. This usually happens if the dominant estate issues notice that they need to work on the easement. But what if the homeowner wants to take action with the easement, such as erecting a fence on or near it?

In most cases, you can build a fence on an easement that runs through your property. 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 You Install a Fence Just Inside a Property Line?

Installing a fence directly on a shared property line opens up a new set of complications. For one, it can be awkward to approach a neighbor who you like and propose a fence. It's even more awkward to approach a troublesome neighbor about a fence.

Can you bypass these issues by installing the fence just inside of your property?

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 (or even a few feet) 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.

Reporting a Non-Code-Compliant Fence

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

If you are in violation, the city typically will issue a written notice of non-conformance, along with a requirement that the fence be lowered or set back. Usually, you will have a certain amount of time to do so. The time allotment tends to be short: in the range of 30 or 60 days, rather than in months or years.