Wood vs. Vinyl Fences: Which Is Better for You?

White Vinyl Fence
This White Full Panel Vinyl Fence Skirts Along a Retaining Wall. Gregory Horne/Getty Images

Natural wood, long the favored material for fencing, has been getting a run for its money lately. The contender is a petroleum-based product that claims it never fades, rots, or needs replacing, and its name is PVC, short for polyvinyl chloride. Are any of these claims true? How do wood and vinyl fencing stack up against each other?

Appearance

The eye of the beholder ultimately determines which type of fencing looks best.

Vinyl is the best choice for that traditional white-painted look. Except for dirt and moss, white PVC fencing will stay white year in and year out.

Otherwise, real wood beats vinyl hands down because its appearance is flexible. Wood can range the spectrum, from a natural sealed wood look to a solid painted look. Vinyl fencing excels when you want a fence that looks like a white-painted picket or ranch fence. Solid-panel vinyl privacy fences can look especially plastic, though it helps to add features like a lattice top and post caps.

Installation

Both wood and vinyl fences typically come out better when installed by a professional fence company. The hardest part is digging fence post holes, which usually need to be one-third as deep as the length of the fence post. After that, the post must be set in concrete. Multiply this by 20 fence posts and it can be a job that exceeds the strength and skills of many homeowners.

However, many homeowners do install their own fencing. One trick is to consider it a season-long project, working in discrete stages, and going about it slowly and methodically. 

Do it yourself installation of vinyl fencing tends to go easier because both the posts and panels are significantly lighter than wood posts and panels.

Both vinyl and wood fences tend to require municipal building permits. Most communities' fence laws tend to treat vinyl and wood equally. 

Cost

Do it yourself vinyl fence panels tend to cost twice as much as cedar fence panels and about one-third of the cost of composite wood panels.

Maintenance

Wood rots, vinyl doesn't. While true, this does not describe all of the maintenance issues with wood and vinyl fences.

Between the two, vinyl fences are the most maintenance-free, as PVC will not rot. Ranch and farm owners go for vinyl fences because the reduction of maintenance is far more important to them than other factors. Properly sealed wood will resist rot for a few seasons but will always need to be re-sealed. Some fence woods, like 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. That's the talking point that vinyl fence (PVC) manufacturers and retailers hit on so much, and it happens to be true. For the residential fence buyer, other issues such as appearance come into play. Cleaning tends to dog vinyl fence owners more than wood fence owners.

Vinyl fences are difficult to fix; it's a matter of replacing entire parts more than repairing individual elements.

Painting

Vinyl doesn't need to be painted or sealed, while wood (nearly always) does. This advantage is also vinyl's disadvantage because you can never change its appearance.

Distilling fence maintenance down to "wood rots, PVC doesn't" is a simplification. While true, it ignores the fact that your fence's appearance can never be changed. Vinyl does not take paint well, if ever.

Cleaning

Owners of vinyl fences report that they are exceptionally hard to keep clean. Wood fences get equally dirty, but the dirt is less apparent.

Most vinyl fence owners say that owning a pressure washer is part and parcel of owning a vinyl fence. At least once a year, vinyl fences need a thorough power washing to remove dirt that splashes onto the lower section from rain, as well as fungus, mildew, and moss.

Wood fences get just as dirty, but the dirt is better hidden.  

Finish

Most vinyl fences have a glossy glare, which belies their true nature. Wood fences can have any finish you choose, but they lean toward rougher finishes.

Any PVC fence that you buy at Home Depot, Lowe's, or another home improvement store will most likely have a glossy sheen. It's possible to purchase higher quality vinyl fences that have a matte finish. Wood can take on a glossy painted finish, but more often it has a rougher finish.

Glossy vinyl fences have the advantage of being simpler to clean, as dirt slides off more easily than with textured surfaces.