Avoid Neighbor Fence Disputes By Following Fence Etiquette

Author: Eva Bonelli

“Good fences make good neighbors.” – Robert Frost

You want to build a fence between your house and your neighbor’s house. Your desire to install a fence could be for any number of reasons: to demarcate property lines, to gain privacy, to contain pets or kids, or improve curb-side appeal. Whatever your reason, you will need to consider proper fence etiquette before installing your fence. If you follow proper fence etiquette, you will avoid a fence dispute and stay on good terms with your neighbor.

So, before installing a new fence, keep the following tips in mind:

Share Your Plans with Your Neighbor
No one likes surprises. Before installing, save yourself a fence dispute and have a conversation with your neighbor. You do not have to provide your neighbor with a detailed plan. Simply let your neighbor know you will be installing a new fence. You will stay on good terms with your neighbor.

Know Your Property Line
You may install your fence on the property line so long as it does not encroach on your neighbor’s property. Before installing a fence, you should confirm your property line. Many land owners are misinformed about their property lines, so order a new survey from a land surveyor to be sure of boundaries to avoid a potential lawsuit. If you are uncertain about the property line, install the new fence a foot inside the line to be safe. You want to avoid having to tear down your fence because you crossed over the property line.

Know the Applicable Rules
Regulations vary from town-to-town. There are threads that somewhat run through most local laws. Height limits typically are 6 feet for side and back yards; 4 feet for front yards. To avoid disputes, review your local restrictions before choosing and installing a fence.

In addition, you should review any applicable HOA rules/guidelines. You are responsible for knowing your homeowners association do’s and don’ts. Unless you want to suffer committee wrath, and engage in a dispute, follow HOA guidelines. HOAs can dictate style, height, and maintenance. If your HOA wants all structures to match, you won’t have much wiggle room.

No Ugly Materials
A fence adds a high return on investment if you were to sell your house. Be smart and match your design with the predominant look of other fences in the area. If you desire a certain look, consider installing a cedar fence that looks the same on both sides. Once in place, you can decorate your side of the fence however you please.

Put the Best Face Outward
It is common practice to put the more finished side of your fence facing the street and your neighbor’s yard.

Where the property line has a fence between neighbors, California law says each neighbor must pay one half of the cost of maintaining or replacing the fence. See California Civil Code Section 841. Of course, there are exceptions.
If the fence is entirely on your property, it is your obligation to maintain the fence. See California Civil Code Section 840. It’s your responsibility to clean and maintain both sides. If an aging section starts to lean, shore it or replace it.

If there was no fence on the property line when you decide to build a fence, your neighbor doesnot have an obligation to share the cost of the fence. See California Civil Code Section 841. Also keep in mind, your neighbor can object to you installing the fence on the property line. If he or she does so, then you can easily overcome the objection by moving the fence entirely onto your property.

No Spite Fences
In California, spite-fences are illegal. See California Civil Code Section 841.4. In Wilson v. Handley, 97 Cal. App. 4th 1301 (2002), the California Court of Appeals ruled that trees planted parallel to a property line, to purposely block a neighbors’ view, constitutes a spite fence and a private nuisance, and is illegal under California Civil Code Section 841.4. The court further noted that bushes or hedges exceeding 6 feet in height in California (6–10 feet in other states) that block a neighbor’s view are also a “spite fence” and a private nuisance.

Of course, if you have a valid reason for wanting an extra high structure, to block a nasty view or noisy street, apply to your zoning board for a variance. Neighbors can comment on your request during the variance hearing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Eva Bonelli is a 2007 graduate from Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Ms. Bonelli has been with the firm for many years now and specializes in general liability defense, employment, and business litigation. Contact her at ebonelli@tysonmendes.com.

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