Common Rules About Fences

Wherever you live, there are probably regulations about building fences or other barriers on your property. From restrictions on placement, to limits on materials and sizes, to the way property lines interact with everyday use, you need to be aware of the rules governing your fences before you begin construction.

Here are some of the issues you should investigate when you're confirming the legality of your fence project.

Easements

An easement is the right for a third party to use a part of your property for a specific purpose, such as allowing maintenance workers to access your buried power or gas lines, or a neighboring farmer to cross your field with livestock.

Regulations often limit construction on areas with easements, so before you build a fence (or anything else) you should verify from your deed whether your property has provisions for access from another party.

Maximum Height

If you exceed the maximum allowable height of your fence, you could get hit with a substantial fine. Typical maximum heights range from six to eight feet (about two to two and a half meters).

Where properties adjoin a public road or footpath, the maximum is sometimes reduced to as little as three feet (about one meter) to ensure visibility for pedestrians. There is no universal standard for how high a fence should be—each municipality has their own codes.

a tall fence of wooden slats

Neighbor Disputes

Your local government may have rules for the negotiation of any disagreements between neighbors. It's always a good idea to use common courtesy and kindness when considering a project along a shared property line.

No matter how good or bad your relationship is with your neighbor, they deserve to hear about your plans to build a fence. They don’t have to give their approval, as long as the fence doesn’t infringe on their property, but giving them a heads up is the neighborly thing to do.

To avoid confrontations and arguments, it may be preferable not to share specific aesthetic details upfront (unless you're planning something very unusual). On the other hand, if you have a good relationship, you might consider joining forces to build a fence together.

It's a good idea to determine whether you or your neighbor will take on the responsibility for upkeep and maintenance of the side of the fence facing away from your property. Your friends next door may wish to decorate their side, or they may prefer to allow you onto their property to paint, stain, and make repairs when needed.

The face of the fence with the nicer appearance should always face the street or the neighbor’s yard. It's the neighborly thing to do, and in some places it's required by local law.

a woman and a man chatting by a fence

Property Lines

In most places, building a fence directly on a property line is prohibited. Rules usually call for shifting the barrier back at least a few inches inside the line. This will create a small neutral strip between your property and your neighbor’s—maintaining this is still your responsibility, of course.

If the fence is set inside of the property line and your neighbor uses the part of your property left on their side, that part of the property could eventually fall under a prescriptive easement.

While this would not give your neighbor the legal title to that land, it may give them the legal right to use it. If a trespasser has exclusive and continued use of a property for 10, 20 or 30 years, he or she may claim adverse possession and acquire legal ownership of that part of the property.

Plants

Natural fences, trees or shrubs used as a barrier between properties, make the property line rules especially significant, since they will continue to expand as they grow. To be a good neighbor, you should plant your natural fences far enough from the property line that they don’t infringe on the yard next door.

Shrubs and hedges that grow over the line should be maintained by you, though this may be an area where you and your neighbor can collaborate on the details.

Larger trees should be far enough from the line that they won't negatively affect the neighboring property and buildings. When choosing boundary plants, remember to research how large they are likely to grow, and whether they might expand underground, threatening foundations, pavement, or pipes.

Remember, all these rules and regulations are easier to remember when considering the feelings of people living nearby.

If your land borders area owned or controlled by a government, such as a street or a park, the laws are no less important, and they might be more strictly enforced. Make sure you know your way around the rules even if no one is telling you what to do, or you could end up facing heavy fines down the road.