Neighbor rebuilding shared fence--do I have any responsibility?
April 2, 2013 8:17 AM   Subscribe

My neighbor has expressed a desire to rebuild the wooden fence between our houses. We share one side of the fence with her, and it's definitely in need of repair--warped boards, aging, etc. Should she be fully responsible for paying for the fence, since it was her idea to fix it? Or should we contribute some money since we share one side of the fence?

I want to maintain a kind, neighborly relationship with my neighbor, as we are both likely to live there for a while, but we are by no means chums. I also do not care if we have the "ugly" side of the fence.

Has anyone had experience dealing with shared structures between neighbors? Whose responsibility is the fence? Should the person who wants the "pretty" side of the fence pay for it?
posted by starkraven to Home & Garden (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Surely somebody owns the fence. Whose land is it on? I really doubt this is a "shared structure" even if it looks like one.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:20 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Whose property is the fence actually on?
posted by SeedStitch at 8:21 AM on April 2, 2013

Best answer: Usually, neighbors split the cost. We did this at our old house in Texas and split the fees with the adjoining owner, except that we paid a little more to have the 'nice' side of the fence.
posted by Leezie at 8:21 AM on April 2, 2013 [21 favorites]

Have you ascertained the fence is actually shared? In a lot of places it has to be just a smidge onton one lot's property line and is then considered theirs.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:21 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Whose property is the fence on?

My mom just shared the cost of her fence repair with her neighbors. It's technically her fence, installed by my dad 30 years ago, on her property, but since the neighbors have a shared interest in it they offered to chip in.

If the fence is on her property, you are under no obligation to pay anything, though if the fence is a benefit for you the neighborly thing might be to pay part of the cost of repairing the section that faces your property. Again, though, if she owns the fence you are under no obligation to pay for anything. That's at least how it would be under my town's bylaws.
posted by bondcliff at 8:22 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]

Local zoning and building codes are your guide here.

When I put in a fence around my property in the late 90's, the rule in my county was that you had to inset the fence at least one foot from your property line.

The fence was my responsibility, and as such, I decided what side the "pretty" side went on.

I chose to put the pretty side on the outside, because it made my property look better from the outside. In the areas of the yard I cared what it looked like from the inside, I added panels on that side as well.
posted by tomierna at 8:23 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have no idea as to the laws of your jurisdiction, but in many places the cost allocation on fences are fairly-well laid out, either in local by-laws or at the state/provincial level, particularly if it is a 'line' fence demarcating the property line.

I would definitely check that out. Usually there's a set minimum contribution of a neighbour, say half the cost of a three foot high chainlink fence or such, and anything beyond that being the responsibility of the landowner who actually wants the new fence, but the specifics vary wildly from place to place.

Neighbours are always free to come up with their own cost allocations, of course.

Call your local authorities at city hall to see what the rules are. They've dealt with this a billion times.
posted by Capt. Renault at 8:26 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: If you can afford it, and you are interested in having a good relationship with your neighbor, I suggest you offer to pay half or to pay half up to a set amount.

Good fences make good neighbors.
posted by bq at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2013 [17 favorites]

Legally, you might be able to weasel out of paying if it's entirely on her property, but a) if it turns out to be entirely on your side, that can come back to sting you and b) it won't help your long term relations with the neighbor. If it's definitely in need of repair, and you share that side of the fence, the decent thing to do may be to work with her to pay for half of it.

Of course, if you're paying for half of it, you should then get a fifty percent say in which bid you take from a contractor to rebuild the fence. And if your neighbor wants something more elaborate, you may be able to reasonably insist on capping your contribution art a certain level.

If you're in a tight spot financially, you might investigate whether you or a friend/family member have the means to help build the fence as part of your share of the payment.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:27 AM on April 2, 2013

When our common fence was destroyed by a hurricane, my neighbors and I split the cost of the posts and frame. Since the planks were on their side of the fence, my neighbors paid for them. This is in Texas.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you're able to share the cost of repairing the fence that would be the neighborly thing to do. You could pay a little less than half in return for getting the less desirable side of the fence facing your property.
posted by alms at 8:40 AM on April 2, 2013

On the one hand, you could probably pursue some legalese defining term for whether or not you are, or should be, on the hook for any part of this process.

On the other hand, you've said you want to be on good terms with your neighbor, and a whole legal thing would probably be time-consuming and look like you're sort of trying to weasel out of doing this.

How about instead: let your neighbor know that you wanna help, but a) you're not exactly wealthy and b) you don't care if your side of the fence looks ugly, and so maybe you can work out some kind of agreement that you'll both collaborate on the structural-repair aspects ("that big hole there definitely needs patching") but anything that's cosmetic is up to each of the individuals, so if he wants to paint his side or something that's all on him.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:40 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

I live in a condo, so I have no direct personal experience, but my parents have paid for half of a couple of shared fences. In one case, they paid for half the materials and the neighbor built the new fence himself (he was a carpentry instructor at the local college) and in another case they and the neighbours split the cost of the materials and built the new fence together.

As far as I can tell, sharing the cost of rebuilding a shared fence is pretty much the norm. If the fence is fine, but they want it replaced for purely cosmetic reasons, that might be one thing, but if it's clear that the fence really needs rebuilding, I think paying half is only fair.

Also, there are tons and tons and tons of double-sided fence designs that could be used so no one has to have an ugly side on their side. Shadowbox are probably the most common ones I see, but it can be as simple as using a nicer cross-brace to make the reverse of a regular privacy fence look nice.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:43 AM on April 2, 2013

There are very specific laws about this in DC. You can put your fence 18 inches inside the property line and own it completely, but if your yard is only 13 feet wide (as mine is) that doesn't work out too well. Here, at least, we do have shared-fence laws, and neighbors share maintenance costs. I actually prefer the "bad" side of the fence, as it gives me an extra precious few inches of yard.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:45 AM on April 2, 2013

You should definitely check your jurisdiction's bylaws about exactly where you can put a fence and check exactly where your lot lines are (I only know this because years ago I had a neighbor who had a chain link fence installed on my land, which they refused to remove. In my town, you're allowed to put a fence exactly on the lot line as long as it's less than 6' high. 6' needs to be 6' from the lot line and no fences can be taller than 6' without an approved appeal to the zoning commission.

Please make sure your neighbor knows exactly where they can put the fence and how high it can be. If you can, find out what kind of fence they're installing. You may hate their choice and if it bothers you, you should discuss other designs.

If it's going to be exactly on your lot line, then yes, you should offer to pay a portion. But since it's their idea, I'd ask what they feel is reasonable before offering to pony up half.

And when it's installation time, make sure you're there to ensure the installator knows exactly where to place the fence.
posted by kinetic at 8:49 AM on April 2, 2013

Best answer: In Houston, neighbors usually go in halves on fences. This is absolutely true if you have the "good neighbor" style fence where the "inside" and "outside" alternate every 10 planks or so. Some areas of Houston have very strong HOAs and these details are absolutely spelled out by them. Other areas really don't have much of a HOA and so there's more leeway.

However, I know someone who is taking the approach you are leaning toward, here in Houston with a weak HOA -- the approach of "the person who is bothered by the fence the most is the one who pays for repairs." Their fence finally laid down about 5 years ago. It's still down. They stopped mowing around the downed fence, and of course both households have dogs, who now play "king of the hill" on the wilderness that's grown up around the downed fence. I don't recommend this approach -- kinda trashy.
posted by Houstonian at 8:58 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Have you heard the saying good fences make good neighbors? If you can afford to pitch in then the neighborly thing is to do so. Since it was her idea I would ask her to get a few quotes.
posted by apricot at 9:15 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is no law about this in my city as far as I know, but sharing the cost is the norm around here. In my old neighborhood, I had money and my neighbor had time and skills, so I bought the materials and he put it in; he proposed this split and it seemed fair to me. My other two fence neighbors have refused to talk about maintenance or repair, which means that the fence is about to go but I have shimmed the concrete blocks with wood and when it does it will fall on their land and become their problem. This is less than ideal. If you would like to maintain good relations with your neighbor, help out with this.
posted by charmedimsure at 9:19 AM on April 2, 2013

If your community has an official fence viewer it might be wise to touch base with them.

If no one at the town hall can remember who the current fence viewer is or if they are even still alive, a quick trip by the building department to ask a few questions and look at some plot plans can't hurt. It might be that this fence is entirely on your neighbor's property, or even entirely on your property.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 9:20 AM on April 2, 2013

Around here the fence (even if smack on the line) "belongs" to one person or the other, and anything different is usually documented with the house. It'd be super-weird in my town to offer to pay for half the cost of the fence. But you always agree to allow the workmen access to your yard to work on the fence, and usually offer to let them use your driveway as a parking/staging area, if it's on that side.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2013

Best answer: Good fences make good neighbours. If it's in need of repair and she's offering to arrange for/build the new one, then you should pay half the cost.

Whoever's property it's on, this is a case where good neighbourly relations trumps the actual letter of the law.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:33 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing to keep in mind is that only one person will be allowed to claim the cost of the fence as a capital improvement, so that should be taken into account. If the neighbor owns the fence and plans on claiming the expenses, it wouldn't make sense for you to pay for some of them.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 10:23 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

When my father built a fence on his property he made sure to find out where, exactly, the property lines were and built the fence entirely on his property, though the neighbor's at first disputed the boundary, they later acquiesced in light of evidence. My guess is, most fences are built in such a way and are very unlikely to be shared property.

Find out who owns the fence, then that person pays for the fence improvements. Simple. You wouldn't pay for your neighbor's new windows - no matter how well you got along with them - would you? The same applies to fences.
posted by IvoShandor at 10:28 AM on April 2, 2013

Best answer: I think it will never hurt to volunteer to pay for half the fence if you benefit from it, unless your finances are too dire to absorb it.

I would also go ahead and double-face it--even if you don't care about how it looks, it may help when it comes time to sell your place.
posted by elizeh at 10:35 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: All of this WELL WHOSE LAND IS IT ON stuff is bunk. Do you like your neighbor? Pitch in. Do you want equity in terms of how the fence looks and what its made of? Pitch in.

Do this because you want to be a good neighbor and because you care about the fence, not because you'll get a tax break and improve the value of your home.

If you hate your neighbor or don't care or feel its an undue financial burden, don't.
posted by GilloD at 11:36 AM on April 2, 2013 [3 favorites]

Are you asking what is the "right" thing to do? Or what are your legal requirements? If it's a legal question, check your local zoning, codes, etc.

If you're asking about the right thing to do...
Unless you're truly financially unable to contribute, you should offer to pay half or whatever you can afford. Even though Neighbor thought of it, both you and Neighbor will benefit from replacing the unsightly fence with a shiny new one.

Neighbor probably brought up her idea to confirm you had no issue with the replacement and to give you the chance to offer to pay. Whether or not she pushes it further and asks for you to contribute, she'll probably think you're a little selfish and will think twice about lending a helping hand if you need it.

If you don't decide to pay, you certainly should not complain about the replacement fence (unless it turns out to be clearly on your property, which you should determine before the project starts, or is not compliant with local codes).
posted by jshort at 11:51 AM on April 2, 2013

Our north fence blew down. The professionally built replacement is totally ours because the other house was for sale, and the owner was not interested in investing any more in his property. It is 'inches in' on our property.
The new owner asked to finish the side of the fence facing him, but has not so far.
Our west fence was professionally replaced with a double-sided fence on the lot line, and the cost was shared by that neighbor. I wanted the east fence replaced at the same time, but my husband objected saying it had not fallen down.Yet.
Next big windstorm I will continue this thrilling fence story, but the moral is: co-operate with your neighbors. Fences usually add value to the property when it is sold, and of course the old saying is "good fences make good neighbors".
posted by Cranberry at 12:00 PM on April 2, 2013

Do you want to make decisions about the fence or will you accept whatever happens?

We're paying for our new fence, in part because we need it to be high enough for our (eventual) pool. Our neighbors aren't in love with the fence we picked, but they also aren't footing any of the costs. It was the same thing with tree trimming. We told them we were doing it and they didn't offer to chip in. So we made all the decisions about what got trimmed and how. We tried to accommodate their preferences, but since it's our property and our pocketbook, the final call was ours.
posted by 26.2 at 12:13 PM on April 2, 2013

The fact that your neighbor contacted you before they made a plan means that they're hoping to work with you on this, and hoping that you'll contribute some money to get a fence you're both happy with. If they wanted to get a particular fence on their property, they would have contacted you to tell you what day the workmen would be arriving. But they're telling you they're interested in replacing the fence, which means they are interested in both your opinion and your money.
posted by aimedwander at 12:33 PM on April 2, 2013

I'm not sure what fence ownership laws are in your state/province. I owned a house in Massachusetts; when I bought the house, there were two separate fences on the property line between my house and my next-door neighbor's house. I'll just call them Front Yard Fence and Back Yard Fence for simplicity, since that's roughly how the division went. On the day of closing when I bought the house, I was specifically told that Front Yard Fence was 100% owned by me and was my responsibility, while Back Yard Fence was 100% owned by my neighbor and was his responsibility.

A few years later, my neighbor approached me and stated he was going to replace Back Yard Fence at his expense and asked if I was OK with that. I said yes. At the same time, I noted that Front Yard Fence was rotting and asked if he would mind if I just removed Front Yard Fence and disposed of it without replacement; he agreed. So when I sold the house there was only New Back Yard Fence and I told the buyer it was 100% owned by and the responsibility of his neighbor. Since ownership was made clear in this case, we didn't have to tell each other we were doing it or get permission; it was merely a courtesy.

I am guessing such a clear definition of who owns the fence was not given in your case, and the legal responsibility likely varies from state to state (unless something explicit is said in one of your deeds). In that case, I would suggest that you offer to chip in half, since you both benefit. If that is not financially viable at this time, ask your neighbor if she would be willing to loan you the money for half (paying for the fence entirely up front herself, while you make regular payments -- be sure to write up an agreement for this!). Or, ask if she would be willing to wait until you were financially able to pay for half of the fence cost.
posted by tckma at 12:55 PM on April 2, 2013

Do you want to have a fence that isn't falling apart? Does your neighbour want the same thing? Oh look - a shared interest! That means - shared cost!

Aside from any legal responsibilties, sharing the cost of the repair is the right thing to do, especially if you agree that the fence needs repair. (What kind of rule is "she pays cause she brought it up first"?) These sorts of shared decisions and responsibilities are what makes our society run, without the need for everyone to call a lawyer. You don't have to be best friends with your neighbour to do what's right.
posted by Kololo at 12:58 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Oh, and since you both benefit from this, offering to pay half means you also should get a say on the type/appearance of the fence that is put up -- you and your neighbor need to come to an agreement on that. If she's paying all of it and you're not chipping in, then you get no say.
posted by tckma at 1:06 PM on April 2, 2013

In New South Wales "adjoining owners must share the cost of the fence" by law.

Though I'm guessing you are in the USA otherwise you spelled "neighbours" incorrectly multiple times
posted by trialex at 2:31 PM on April 2, 2013 [6 favorites]

Pitch in, in the name of neighborly relations if nothing else. Be honest from the start about your requirements, financial limitations, and desires to try to stop any misunderstandings early. If you're only prepared to pay up to $X, say so, and your neighbor can understand that she is on the hook for any more of the cost if she wants something special.
posted by zachlipton at 4:13 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing checking your local bylaws.

I ran into a similar situation about 10 years ago when we moved into a new subdivision. The builder didn't support the cost of building fences - that was on the new homeowners. This meant everyone's back yard was exposed to everyone else's back yard. My next door neighbours on either side had build fences along the sides of their yards, so all we needed was to close up the back of our back yard. We decided to approach the neighbour at the back about the fence and whether they wanted to contribute to the cost. NO, they said. They wanted to leave it open (friendly!). Why have it wide open like that, I have no idea. So we ate the cost and built the fence without their help. In our case, the fence was necessary and urgent; They were using the back of their property for a compost heap (!!). Watermelon peels, and pork chop bones...

They were within their right to refuse to contribute, according to the bylaw of our city. I would pitch in, personally, but you may be able to refuse. Check the rules of your city before making any decisions.
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 4:30 PM on April 2, 2013

Our fence is getting to that point now and I am hoping one of the neighbours will decide to deal with it (I think it's technically their fence, since the pretty side faces them). If they do, I have decided I will chip in half the cost, since it will definitely improve our property value. I don't care that this might not be legally required. I like my neighbours and the fence adds value to me. But I am going to expect they deal with the hassle of finding and supervising someone to build it, and then I will feel like I got bonus value anyway.
posted by lollusc at 5:35 PM on April 2, 2013

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