Build a Privacy Fence

Tips for planning, designing and constructing a wood privacy fence.

Make sure a privacy fence actually delivers privacy

You may build a 6-ft. high privacy fence only to find that the next-door neighbors can easily see over when they're lounging on their deck. Or you may find that your 6-ft. tall privacy fence only needed to be 4 ft. tall because surrounding areas slope away from your yard. Either way, you're wasting materials, money and time building a fence that doesn't suit your yard.

To determine how high a privacy fence needs to be, have a helper walk around the perimeter with a cardboard screen cut to the height of your proposed fence. Sitting and standing, follow the view above the cardboard as it's moved to determine the amount of privacy your fence will actually provide.

You can quickly decide how high your fence needs to be or whether it's impractical to build a fence high enough to screen your yard. Then consider alternatives such as fast growing dense trees or bushes that aren't subject to the same height restrictions as fences. Or, if you have a patio or spa you'd like to seclude, build a privacy screen just around that area.

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Space your post just under 8 ft. apart

Fewer posts will save you some digging, but in the long run, wind and gravity will make you pay for it.

The more posts you have, the stronger your fence will be. A good rule of thumb is to space posts just under 8 ft. apart to make sure your fence doesn't sag. That'll also give the fence enough strength to stand up to wind, and you'll be able to use 8-ft. rail material economically. The best way to lay out the posts is to drive stakes to mark hole locations exactly 8 ft. apart. The post thicknesses will give you the few inches of fudge factor you need to allow for variations when you're building the panels in between the posts.

Plan on at least three horizontal 2x4s or two 2x6s to support the weight of each fence panel. Scrimp on horizontal material and you may wind up with panels that sag even if they span less than 8 ft. between each post.

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Apply for a fence-building permit and learn local rules

There's more than one reason to get a fence-building permit from city hall. Build it in the wrong place or too high and you may wind up being forced to tear it down. And fences are so prominent that if you build without a permit, chances are you'll get caught and will have to buy one anyway—and pay a fine. When you apply for a fence permit you'll get a copy of the rules that apply to fences in your area. It'll include required setbacks from property lines, sidewalks and roads, as well as allowable heights, which will usually vary from front to back yards.

If you live in a development that has its own private regulations, check with the association or planning committee too. Its rules may be even more stringent than the town's or city's rules. Some regulations even include color or material selections. You may have to provide a sketch for design approval.

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Find the property lines before you build

Guessing at your property lines is taking a huge risk. Get it wrong and you may wind up tearing down a costly fence to move it off someone else's property.

Begin with a plot plan to help you home in on the property stakes that mark the corners of your yard. You can generally go to city hall and buy a photocopy of your plot plan if you don't already have one. Don't assume your lot is perfectly square or rectangular, either. Lots can be wedge shaped or have unusual jogs, especially in newer developments. Anywhere your property lines make a change in direction, there will be a property stake to mark that point.

Rent a metal detector to help you find the exact location of your iron property stakes. They’ll be buried up to several inches below grade, so if the detector beeps in different areas surrounding the suspected stake location, it’s a good idea to do a little excavation to make sure you’ve found the stake and not a lost quarter. As you find the iron stakes, pound wooden stakes directly over them. Then use the stakes to lay out the fence line at the proper setback.

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Plan at least two gates and make them extra wide

Ever live in a house where the gates were too small or in the wrong place? Then you know what a hassle it is walking around half your property to access the yard or shoehorning wheelbarrows or whatever through too-small gates. Spend some time thinking about access to your yard. If you have a neighbor you like to visit, would like to access your back yard from both sides of your house, or would like easier access to the park behind the house, it's worth adding more gates.

Pedestrian access can be handled with 3-ft.wide gates. But lawn tractors, wheelbarrows and garden carts call for more spacious 4-ft.wide gates or even double 3-ft.gates for a full 6 ft. of access.

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Make one entire panel removable

As a contractor, I can't tell you how many times I've had to take down a section of fence for delivery of materials or for heavy equipment. When possible, we'd hoist stuff over the fence, but it was always difficult and sometimes we ended up damaging the fence, the materials or even some back muscles.

One thing's for sure. At some point you're going to need to get something really big into your yard. Perhaps it's heavy equipment to move soil around or dig a pool. Maybe a couple of times a year you'll want to deliver a load of firewood or mulch with the pickup. Be prepared. Plan on having a removable panel in the area of the yard that's most accessible from the road or alley.

You can make a removable panel by simply toe screwing the rails to the adjacent posts. But for panels that'll be removed frequently, small joist hangers or pockets made from angle iron will be more convenient.

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Vary the design to suit different needs

A solid, high fence may wall off prying eyes, but it also walls you in. And such a boring, monolithic and material-intensive design may not be all that necessary. Your fence doesn't have to be one continuous design, height or even material. For example, if your yard abuts a wooded area, perhaps an inexpensive, low chain-link fence will do the job so you can keep the dog in but enjoy a view of the woods. Perhaps on either side of the house facing the street a nicely designed, handsome fence with a welcoming gate is called for. And on the side of the yard facing the neighbor you're not too fond of, a 6-ft. high, low-cost, utilitarian privacy fence will do the job.

Altering fence styles or configurations to match different parts of your yard can be a successful strategy to keep down the cost of materials and lighten the labor load. It can even make the yard more interesting. Plan on higher fences to guard privacy and lower ones to keep the price down and improve the view.

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