Fences FAQ

Do good fences really make good neighbors? These frequently asked questions may help you decide.

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How high can I build a fence on my property?

My neighbor is building a fence that violates the local fence law, but nothing's happening. How can I get the law enforced?

My neighbor's fence is hideous. Can I do anything about it?

The fence on the line between my land and my neighbor's is in bad shape. Can I fix it or tear it down?

Where can I find more information about fences?

How high can I build a fence on my property?

In residential areas, local rules commonly restrict artificial (constructed) backyard fences to a height of six feet. In front yards, the limit is often four feet.

Height restrictions may also apply to natural fences -- fences of bushes or trees -- if they meet the ordinance's general definition of fences. Trees that are planted in a row and grow together to form a barrier are usually considered a fence. When natural fences are specifically mentioned in the laws, the height restrictions commonly range from five to eight feet.

If, however, you have a good reason (for example, you need to screen your house from a noisy or unsightly neighboring use, such as a gas station), you can ask the city for a one-time exception to the fence law, called a variance. Talk to the neighbors before you make your request, to explain your problem and get them on your side.

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My neighbor is building a fence that violates the local fence law, but nothing's happening. How can I get the law enforced?

Cities are not in the business of sending around fence inspection teams, and as long as no one complains, a nonconforming fence may stand forever.

Tell the neighbor about the law as soon as possible. She probably doesn't know what the law is, and if the fence is still being built, may be able to modify it at a low cost. If she suggests that you mind your own business, alert the city. All it takes in most circumstances is a phone call to the planning or zoning department or the city attorney's office. The neighbor will be ordered to conform; if she doesn't, the city can fine her and even sue.

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My neighbor's fence is hideous. Can I do anything about it?

As long as a fence doesn't pose a threat of harm to neighbors or those passing by, it probably doesn't violate any law just because it's ugly. Occasionally, however, a town or subdivision allows only certain types of new fences -- such as board fences -- in an attempt to create a harmonious architectural look. Some towns also prohibit certain materials -- for example, electrically charged or barbed wire fences.

Even without such a specific law, if a fence is so poorly constructed that it is an eyesore or a danger, it may be prohibited by another law, such as a blighted property ordinance. And if the fence was erected just for meanness -- it's high, ugly and has no reasonable use to the owner -- it may be a "spite fence," and you can sue the neighbor to get it torn down.

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The fence on the line between my land and my neighbor's is in bad shape. Can I fix it or tear it down?

Unless the property owners agree otherwise, fences on a boundary line belong to both owners when both are using the fence. Both owners are responsible for keeping the fence in good repair, and neither may remove it without the other's permission.

A few states have harsh penalties for refusing to chip in for maintenance after a reasonable request from the other owner. Connecticut, for example, allows one neighbor to go ahead and repair, and then sue the other owner for double the cost.

Of course, it's rare that a landowner needs to resort to a lawsuit. Your first step should be to talk to the neighbor about how to tackle the problem. Your neighbor will probably be delighted that you're taking the initiative to fix a fence that's already an eyesore and might deteriorate into a real danger.

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Where can I find more information about fences?

You can research your state's fence laws, either online or in your local public law library. You may also want to check your city or town's laws. Finally, Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise contains more specific information on landowners' rights and responsibilities with regard to fences.

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