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Privacy fences: Everything you need to know before installing them

We talked to three specialists about permits, materials and installation tips. Here's what they had to say.

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A privacy fence can serve many purposes. It can tie the aesthetic of your yard together, bringing consistency and shape to an amorphous space. It can also prevent kids and pets from straying out of your yard while you're distracted. But a privacy fence primarily offers just that: privacy.

Since installing a fence can be a tremendous undertaking, doing some research is a good idea before diving in headfirst. Our guide will answer the most pressing questions and give you some insight from landscaping pros. 

How do I start?

The first two questions you need to ask yourself are what you want and why. Privacy fences are typically taller than 4 feet and solid. Chain-link fences, by contrast, don't offer much privacy after all. So if you want privacy first and foremost, height and material are central considerations.

Next, do some research on your limitations. If you live in an area with a homeowner's association, or HOA, they might have guidelines on the type of fencing you can install, the height, materials used and more. Some localities also require you to have zoning or building permits before starting construction, especially if you plan to build a fence higher than 6 feet. You can check with your local city hall for any permit requirements that apply to your residence.

Once you have a good idea of what you want in a privacy fence, and what your limitations will be, it's time to start figuring out how the fence will work on your particular property.

Locate your property lines

Knowing where your property ends and the neighbors' begins is crucial when planning to install fencing. If you plan to hire a professional for the job, they will take care of this for you. But if you plan to build the fence yourself, you will need to do the research yourself. Check with your local zoning office, where you can receive the exact dimensions of your land plot, provided your property is less than 100 years old. 

You could also bring in a professional surveyor. They're trained to find property lines and can outline where you can install your privacy fence. Depending on the size of your property, hiring one can cost between several hundred and several thousand dollars

What material can I use for my fence?

When shopping for materials, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with the many possibilities available. To help you, here are some of the most common building materials used for fencing, the benefits they offer, and the challenges they might present.

Cedar: Cedar looks warm and does not warp. However, if you set it in the ground, it can rot after a few years. If you want to use cedar fencing, you'll want to use a concrete base.

Metal: Metal fencing is versatile in that it can match a variety of styles, and it is durable. Most types of metal fencing do not offer much privacy, though. 

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Fence materials can vary widely in pricing.

Thelma Lanteigne/EyeEm/Getty Images

Vinyl: This material looks great and offers excellent durability. The key is to choose the thickest one you can. However, since installation must be precise, you should consult with a pro before installing it. 

Composite: A combination of wood and plastic materials. You gain the benefit of a great looking fence and don't have to worry about rot. Conversely, because it requires meticulous installation, it's another material where you're better off going with pro installers.

Treated wood: It adds some pop to any yard. For budget-conscious shoppers, it's often an appealing material because it can be inexpensive and easy to install. When sourcing your wood, you can also pick out the planks individually, paying close attention to their straightness and grain.

Masonry: Masonry can consist of concrete, brick, stone and other materials. They are perfect for elaborate and classic designs. However, because of their hefty weight, professional installation is recommended to ensure proper structural footing.

How much do privacy fences cost?

There are many factors influencing fencing costs, so it's hard to give a helpful range of potential costs for installing fencing in your yard. Everything from the size and topography of your yard, fencing materials, labor, where you live and more can affect the final price tag. But if you plan to do a professional installation, gathering two or three quotes to find the best offer is a good idea.

During an estimate, the professional will examine your yard, consult with you on designs and materials, then come up with a total cost and estimated time for completion. If you choose to go this route, plan on spending at least a few thousand dollars. And if you have a larger yard, these costs can balloon accordingly.

Can I install fencing?

Installing the fence on your own is worth considering if you need to reduce costs. It may require extra tools, such as an auger for digging holes, and it will certainly require extra labor. But you can find plenty of video tutorials online if you're committed to the process.

To get a few tips on self-installing, I emailed some professionals in the industry, including Josh Bateman, a 15-year landscaping pro who contributes to popular gardening advice resource Prince Gardening; Chris Laan, the founder of Australian outdoor structure manufacturer Designer Sheds; and John Smucker, a fence installation professional in Pennsylvania. Here's what they told me.

Keeping fence posts 8 feet apart or closer "will help the fence last longer and withstand the impact of weather," Smucker said. 

"If you are in the Northern United States that sees regular freeze/thaw cycles fence posts can heave out of the ground in a season or two if they are not below the frost line," Bateman said in an email. "For a 6-foot fence, we like to dig a 3-foot hole with three times the width of the fence post." 

Bateman also suggests leaving a small bottom gap under the fence, so you can weed-wack without having to walk along the outside and inside of the fence.

"Some people use concrete only in corner pieces and use gravel to fill the rest," Laan told me. "It is a mistake because moisture is a fence's worst enemy, particularly if you use wood posts."

Laan suggests using concrete to anchor every fence post. He also said many people use nails to construct their own fences, when screws will last much longer.

Almost everyone I spoke to said it was absolutely essential to call city services before digging, so important pipes or wires aren't damaged in the process.

Overall, installing your fencing can require a lot of work, but it can save you money as well.

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