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Are there laws that govern fences?

Fences And Neighbors

Howard Gould (Neighbor Law Expert, Finestone & Richter) gives expert video advice on: What if my neighbor refuses to help me fix the fence?; Can I build a fence any way I choose on my property?; Can I sue to have my neighbor's fence removed? and more...

Are there laws that govern fences?

Obviously you can't be using your neighbor's property without their permission. So if you put a fence up on the neighbor's property, they're going to be able to force you to take that fence down because you're violating their property rights. You're basically trespassing on their property. So the law of trespass would apply to that situation. If you put the fence up on your property or along the boundary line, there's still usually local ordinances that limit what you can do. For example, you can't put up a twenty foot high fence. Usually on a side yard, backyard, you're going to be limited to six feet, and on a front yard probably three or four feet. Sometimes you can go to the city and seek a variance to allow you to go beyond their normal height limit and, at the discretion of the city, they may or may not allow you to do that. You're going to have to give your neighbors notice and they'll have a right to come and speak at whatever public hearing is held to discuss whether or not you're going to be able to get the variance.

Who owns the fence between my neighbor's property and mine?

If it's truly on the boundary line, then you're both going to own that fence and you're both going to have obligations to keep that fence up.

What if my neighbor refuses to help me fix the fence?

It may be that you're going to have to go to court and either get an order that they assist in doing something, or if you've paid to do it you can go to court and try to get the court's assistance to have them share the expense, depending again on what your local laws allow you to do.

What is a "spite fence"?

Sometimes neighbors put up fences not so much for their own benefit, but for the detriment of their neighbor and when they do that, we call it a spite fence. They might be trying to block the neighbors' view, or maybe their neighbors' dog is occasionally coming on their property and they hate the dog or maybe the neighbor has been using their property as a footpath because its a much shorter way of getting to the public park. They might have allowed the neighbor to do it with consent for years and years but now there has been some dispute, maybe over nothing to do with the property, but they put that fence up because they're unhappy with the neighbor for some other reason. You might refer to that as a spite fence. You may find some legal cases that talk about them, its not really something you're going to find in a statute, its not a technical, legal term although it is something that lawyers and courts use to describe a particular fence where the motivation was not something we might consider admirable.

I just found out my almost-completed fence is illegal. What can I do?

If you have just found out that your almost-completed fence is illegal, the action you take is going to depend on how it's illegal. For example if it's too high. Maybe you put up a 7-foot fence instead of a 6-foot fence, and you don't want the cost of changing it. You may just want to go to the neighbor next door and ask if they mind. They may not mind, even though it technically violates a city ordinance, and it might be that the city's never really going to give you a citation or ask you to change it, because the only person who's really affected is the neighbor next to you. They may even prefer that it be that extra foot higher, to give them a little more privacy, a little more of a shield from the noise coming from your property. So the first thing to do if you are worried about your illegal almost-completed fence is talk to the neighbor involved and make sure that they're not really going to complain about it and cause you the expense of having to cut a foot off that illegal almost-completed fence or possibly even putting up a complete new fence.

What is a "variance"?

A variance is a request made to a governmental organization, usually a city, to allow you to put up some structure, or to keep some structure that you've already put up in place. This techincally violates the city's laws. It may be that you've put up a fence or that you have a hedge that's more than the allowed height. If it's 6 foot, maybe you have an 8 foot hedge or an 8 foot fence, and you want to maintain that, you go to the city and ask them to give you a variance. There's a procedure that you'll have to go through. Your neighbors will have the opportunity to come to a public hearing and comment about that, and you may or may not be allowed the variance that you're seeking.

Can I build a fence any way I choose on my property?

You aren't limited as to where you put fences up on your own property other than these issues of height or if somehow there might be an easement on your property and you're blocking an easement that someone else has a right to they might be able to complain successfully about where you put the fence up. But in general, there's no limitations on putting fences up on your own property.

Can I sue to have my neighbor's fence removed?

It's certainly possible to do that. For example, if they put their fence on your property - you can certainly sue them to remove that fence. If they put the fence up in a manner that isn't allowed by the law then you could sue to have that law enforced against them, so that they can form to whatever the law may be. There may be some other circumstances in which you can bring an action against them depending on what the particular circumstances are.

When is a fence considered "blighted property"?

Usually a city is going to have some kind of statute that requires people to keep their property up to certain standards. They're usually only applied to certain types of issues. The standards may not be particularly high standards, but there often are ordinances that make some minimum requirements as to how you keep your property up.

Who is responsible for the maintenance of a fence?

Whoever the owner may be, is responsible for the maintenance of a fence. It depends on whose property the fence is located, and if it's on a boundary line then it's the obligation of the two adjacent owners together.