Natural wood has long been the favored material for residential landscape fencing. Easy to cut and assemble, widely available, and relatively affordable, wood fencing can be adapted to just about any landscape style and is a relatively easy material for DIYers to work with. Its natural appeal has made wood the first choice for most homeowners for many years.
In recent years, PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic has become more prevalent in the landscaping industry. PVC is a petroleum-based product that has a variety of uses in the building trades, and one of its recent adaptations is for landscape-fencing materials.
Unlike wood fencing, PVC fencing doesn't rot, doesn't warp, and never needs painting. But it does have a few downsides, too: difficult to repair, prominently shows dirt and grime, and limited design choices.
Painted look only
Low upkeep costs
Cannot be refinished
Difficult to repair
Boards do not warp
Easy to clean
Wood or painted look
Some costs for upkeep
Can be refinished
Easy to repair
Boards will warp
More difficult to clean
A point-by-point comparison between PVC and traditional wood will help you decide if PVC is the right option for your fence.
The same plastic that is used in white plastic plumbing pipes, PVC is widely used in fencing materials. Some home centers now stock PVC fencing components as well as preassembled panels in a limited range of colors.
The first PVC fences were simple white plastic panels with shiny surfaces—not very natural looking—but now there are additional colors available, including brown wood tones. Some PVC fencing is now even textured to resemble wood. These days, nearly any fencing style can be constructed in PVC. The material ranges from ranch-style rails to New England pickets or tall solid-panel privacy fences.
With wood fences, the materials are simple and easy to define: wood. Different types of woods are used, often cedar, soft pine, redwood, and cypress.
Most wood used for fences can be left unstained and untreated. Western red cedar, for example, starts out red but quickly weathers to an attractive silver-gray.
Wood can be painted but it's usually best to coat it with a fence preservative. Ranging from solid color to semi-transparent to transparent, fence coatings let the beauty of the real wood show through.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and nowhere is this truer than with landscape fences. Most people will find real wood's warm colors to be more attractive than PVC plastic fencing.
Wood is an adaptable material that can be left to weather naturally, or it can be stained or painted however you want. A wood fence can be custom-built to make it unique to your landscape, and it can readily be adapted to uneven building sites.
Vinyl, on the other hand, tends to look best where it tries to mimic the look of a traditional white-painted fence, but even here it is hard to fully overcome the artificial look. Older vinyl fences and less expensive new products have a shiny surface that looks somewhat artificial.
As PVC fences weather, the shininess may give way to a chalky coating that dulls the look of the fence. PVC fence panels stocked in bulk come in a limited range of options, so you may find yourself disappointed to find that your fence looks exactly like dozens of others in your community. It is hard to get a designer look when building with mass-produced PVC panels.
Pros and Cons of PVC
Doesn't need painting
Will not rot or warp
Uses post-consumer recycled plastics
Few design options
Dirt and grime easily show
Repairs not simple
PVC will not require repainting, as does wood. Except for dirt and moss, white PVC fencing will stay white, year after year. Of course, this can also be a drawback—once you've installed your PVC fence, you are stuck with its appearance and color for its lifetime. Unlike wood, PVC cannot be easily painted a different color if you want to change its appearance.
Some of PVC's liabilities are gradually being removed as manufacturers offer additional colors and have now introduced textures into their products. And add-on features such as lattice panels and shaped post caps are making PVC fences a bit less utilitarian than they once were. Much the way that synthetic decking material gradually became a more premium option, it is likely that PVC fencing will also see improvements in appearance.
Ease of Installation
Both wood and vinyl fences typically come out better when installed by a professional fence company. For any type of fence, digging post holes and setting posts is a very difficult task. Typically, fence posts should be buried to at least one-third of their length (and deeper in some cold-weather climates). After that, the posts must be set in concrete. Multiply this task by 20 fence posts, and you can see why so many homeowners hand this job off to a fencing contractor.
But if you are a dedicated DIYer, vinyl fencing is a bit easier to work with than wood because the posts and panels are considerably lighter than wood posts and panels. Many PVC fence products are designed for easy assembly, with posts that are notched to accept rails and matching panel brackets available.
Remember that both wood and vinyl fencing installations usually call for municipal building permits. Most communities' fence laws tend to treat vinyl and wood equally in terms of installation requirements. But if you live in a housing development controlled by an HOA, you may not be able to install a PVC fence.
Do-it-yourself vinyl fence panels once were considerably more costly than wood panels, but this price difference has narrowed considerably as vinyl fencing panels have become more widely available.
As of 2022, sample prices for preassembled fencing panels at a major big-box home improvement center show that PVC fence panels have a moderate cost when compared to wood.
Maintenance of PVC vs. Wood Fencing
Here is one reported virtue of PVC fencing that holds true: PVC doesn't decay and it doesn't need to be sealed, stained, or painted. Vinyl fencing is largely maintenance-free, which is why so many ranches, farms, and commercial operations opt for vinyl fencing for large installations. Easy maintenance greatly outweighs appearance and other considerations when you have a lot of fencing to maintain.
Properly sealed wood will resist rot for a few seasons but it will always need to be re-sealed eventually. Some fence woods, such as cedar, are naturally oily and are better at resisting decay than other woods. Still, all woods benefit from some type of surface treatment, whether you are sealing or painting. If your only priority is to eliminate fence rot, vinyl fences are the way to go.
Be aware that vinyl fences get dirty—very dirty. Many owners come to regard this as the single worst thing about a vinyl fence. Most vinyl fence owners say that owning a pressure washer is essential if you have a vinyl fence.
Be aware, too, that vinyl fences are more difficult to fix when problems arise—repair is usually a matter of replacing entire panels, not fixing individual elements. If there are cracks in your fence, they'll be easier to repair if it's made of wood. You can use wood filler to fix your wood fence and can likely make it a DIY project.
PVC plastic fencing has made strides in the last few years, with additional colors and even textured surfaces now available. And the price gap between PVC and natural wood has now been reduced, with costs fairly comparable.
Although PVC is very durable and immune to rot, it needs regular cleaning. And even the best PVC fencing products will not be as elegant as natural wood or wood-composite fencing. PVC can be a great choice when your main goal is a long-lasting fence that won't rot or need painting or staining.