Who Pays for a Backyard Fence?

Your neighbor does. Just kidding. Unless they volunteer, of course; send them a pack of beer already! The reality is that things don’t usually go that smoothly. Nobody wants to be stuck with a bill for a fence that costs thousands of dollars, especially if it isn’t their responsibility.

So who’s supposed to pay for the fence? It depends. Most cities, counties, or states have fence laws that tell you who’s responsible for construction, repairs, and replacement, and we’re going to share what many authorities say. But your local laws may differ so consider contacting someone in your area for precise information.

Joint Custody

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that many local laws require you and your neighbors to share responsibility for your child, err, fence. Especially fences that sit on the property line and physically mark the location where your property ends and your neighbor’s property begins. These fences are sometimes called “division fences”.

As an example, the California Civil Code 841 (better known as the Good Neighbor Fence Act) says that you and your neighbors are “equally responsible for the reasonable costs of construction, maintenance, or necessary replacement of the fence.”

It’s presumed that you and your neighbors benefit equally from a division fence. So you and your neighbors should be equally responsible. Fair enough, right?

Sole Custody

Here’s the kicker: it’s not always true that a division fence is a shared responsibility. Here are a few scenarios that would put the responsibility on a single landowner.

Claiming Ownership

Maybe you’re feeling extra generous. You go to your neighbor and tell them you’re going to pay the full amount for the division fence. Perhaps you want to pick a certain fence material, and your neighbor agrees as long as you pay.

That’s not a problem. You can simply put in writing that every neighbor agrees to a material of your choice, and you will assume full responsibility for the costs of that fence. In other words, you can claim sole responsibility of a division fence. Your neighbor too, if they’re the ones feeling extra generous.

In Your Yard

Another scenario where one neighbor would have sole responsibility for a fence is when that fence is built entirely on one’s property, rather than straddling the property line. There’s no rule that says you can’t put a fence in your own yard. But of course, a fence that you put in your yard is your responsibility alone.

You may even be required to put a fence in your property. That’s because some places have what’s called “setback distance”. Setback distance – usually implemented for safety reasons – is how far a fence must be from the property line, street, or sidewalk. It’s usually at least half a foot and would, in effect, put a fence in someone’s property rather than on neutral ground.

The Deed Says So

Maybe it was the previous owner who built the existing fence. If a fence was there before you moved in, you may want to check property records at your local city hall or county courthouse to find out if you have ownership and therefore responsibility of the fence.

Fancy Fences

Let’s say you want to replace an old wooden fence with a fancier vinyl fence. Do you and your neighbors split the bill equally? The answer is no, unless – you know the drill – all your neighbors agree.

Most fence laws say that if one neighbor has “needs” that go above and beyond a basic fence, then that neighbor should pay the additional cost for it.

As a reminder, California’s Good Neighbor Fence Act states that landowners are equally responsible for the reasonable costs of a fence. So what’s considered reasonable and basic, and not above and beyond? Many fence laws use a 4-foot tall chain link fence as the standard. You and your neighbors are required to pay at minimum an equal share of this basic fence.

The best outcome is to have everyone agree on a fence and share the cost equally. But the reality is that everyone has different architectural tastes and priorities. If you’re the one that wants a fancier fence, be prepared to fork out the extra money for it.

Damaged Fences

You break it you buy it. This statement applies to fences too. If your neighbor broke a fence that belongs to either you or the both of you, they should be responsible for the costs of repair.

Trees can fall on fences and damage them too. If a healthy tree falls and damages your fence, you may be able to recover the costs of repairs from your homeowners insurance. But if a tree had been overlooked for maintenance and disease, and falls and damages your fence, then whoever owned the tree would be responsible for the costs of repairs.

A Word of Advice

Fences are not unknown for creating unnecessary friction between neighbors. Sometimes, it’s not that your neighbors don’t want to pitch in, but they simply can’t for financial reasons.

Talk to your neighbors and tell them about your plans, calmly and respectfully. If, for some reason, they are unwilling to pay for their share of the fence, you may decide it’s not worth losing sleep, time, or more money over the matter.

Go ahead and pick the fence that you want, and go enjoy your yard!

Have Fun Out There!