Maintenance-Free Fencing

Weigh your options and select the best fence for your yard

Learn the pros, cons and relative costs of low-maintenance exterior fences made from vinyl, steel, aluminum and composite materials, along with tips for buying and installation.

(Photo courtesy of Delgard)

By the DIY experts of The Family Handyman Magazine

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Overview

A good fence may make a good neighbor, but not if it fades, warps and becomes an eyesore. That's why attractive, low-maintenance fences—made of vinyl, aluminum, steel and composites—have become so popular.

Aside from an occasional washing, these fences require no upkeep—that means no scraping, painting or staining. Once you install the fence, it'll last for decades. And you'll have plenty of colors, styles and designs to choose from.

In the following pages, we'll tell you about the best low-maintenance fence options, give you an idea of what they look like, and list their pros and cons. We'll also give you an overview of installation to help you decide whether to do it yourself. Professional installation typically costs about $10 – $12 per linear foot.

Vinyl offers the widest range of styles

Vinyl fences are made of the same plastic as vinyl siding. The surface is smooth and shiny or has a wood grain texture. The fencing consists of posts, rails that fit between the posts, and boards that slide into the rails. In general, higher-quality fencing is thicker, stiffer and easier to assemble. Some versions offer removable posts and railings, so you can easily take down a section of fence to drive a vehicle through, then put it back up. White is the most common color, but tan and gray are also available.

Pros

  • Both privacy and open-picket designs are available
  • Dirt and debris are easy to rinse off with water
  • Never needs painting or touch-up
  • Best option for hilly yards; some styles can angle or “rack” up to 2 ft. over an 8-ft. span

Cons

  • Vinyl scratches easily, dulling the sheen
  • Panels can crack if hit by a hard blow (such as from a baseball bat)
  • Rust, tar and other stains may be hard to remove

What to look for
Choose a vinyl fence that has a metal-reinforced bottom rail. It'll support the weight of the panels without sagging. We recommend 100 percent pure vinyl (called “virgin vinyl”). Vinyl fences containing recycled materials are usually less expensive, but they're a lower-grade vinyl that may fade (or turn yellow), crack in cold weather and sag.

Price
When buying vinyl, you're paying for thickness. The thicker (and therefore stronger!) the vinyl, the more you'll pay.

Aluminum corrals kids and pets without blocking your view

Aluminum fencing is designed to mimic the decorative iron fencing used years ago, but unlike iron, it won't rust. It's made from durable yet lightweight hollow tubing. Most styles are a variation of narrow pickets with horizontal rails and can be customized with decorative ball caps and scrolls. The fences can angle up moderate hills; most can rack 12 in. per 8 ft. Aluminum fencing is almost always coated with a high-quality, baked-on finish. Black is the most common color; white, green, beige and bronze colors are also available.

Pros

  • Won't rust like steel or iron
  • Easiest low-maintenance fence to install
  • Decorative look of wrought iron without the high cost

Cons

  • No privacy option and limited styles
  • Coating can scratch and require touch-up
  • Rails dent and bend under impact (baseball bats, lawn mowers, golf balls)

What to look for
Some fences are made with thinner aluminum than others. Save yourself money and go with the thinner material. It's lighter weight, but strong enough for residential use. Choose a baked-on powder coating rather than paint. A powder coating won't blister, peel or fade. Choose a fence that snaps together or has hidden fasteners for a smooth, clean look.

Shopping Tips

Most home centers sell fencing, but the selections are usually limited. So visit fence showrooms to see and touch different materials. Fence builders and retailers (look in the yellow pages under “Fence” or search online) often have showrooms where you can see the latest styles and compare pricing. Ask dealers if they can quickly get parts if you come up short and if they offer technical advice on installation.

Pros charge about $10 per ft. to install aluminum and steel fences, and $10 and up for vinyl and composites, depending on the style (privacy fences start at $12 per ft. because they require more assembly).

Steel provides extra strength for security and longevity

Like aluminum fences, steel fences usually mimic the look of classic wrought iron. The main difference is that steel is stronger. Whether solid or tubular, steel is tough, making it a good choice if you want a heavy-duty security fence and your yard is relatively flat. The different styles all start with the basic design of thin pickets inserted into railings that are connected to posts. Most are black, although gray, green, white and brown are available.

Pros

  • The toughest fence available; very hard to dent or bend
  • Classic decorative appearance
  • Best fence for security

Cons

  • Scratches must be touched up with paint right away to prevent rust
  • No privacy option
  • Can't angle to suit hilly terrain

What to look for
Choose a powder-coated finish, which holds up better than paint. Don't spend extra for a stronger commercial-grade fence. Residential grade fences have adequate strength for home security.

Handling Slopes

You can deal with slopes in one of two ways: “rack” the fence or “step” it down in sections. Racking allows the fence to follow the ground's contours. Stepping keeps each section level but leaves gaps along the bottom.

When buying the fence, ask how much it will rack. Vinyl racks the most—up to 24 in. over an 8-ft. span. Racking may change the spacing between posts, so determine this before digging your postholes. To mark the post locations, use a railing section that's racked to match the grade.

Stepping the fence keeps the top of each section straight (horizontal) and parallel to the rest of the fence. Stepping is fine for gradual slopes (12 in. per 8 ft.), but looks awkward on steeper slopes because it creates large gaps.

Racking fence
Stepping fence

Composites mimic the look of wood or metal

Most composite fencing is made of recycled plastic mixed with wood fiber—the same material used for low-maintenance decking. Other versions are made from polypropylene, plastic or fiberglass. Some systems consist of two parts: preassembled railings that slide into or are attached to the posts. Other systems consist of three parts: horizontal rails that fit between the posts, and vertical pickets or slats that fit between the rails. Brown, tan, black and white are the typical colors.

Pros

  • Wood fiber fences look like wood; other models mimic the look of metal
  • Privacy version and other styles available
  • Rougher, duller surface than regular vinyl; hides scratches better

Cons

  • Quality and ease of construction vary by manufacturer
  • Limited availability in many areas

What to look for
Look for a solid or reinforced bottom rail to prevent sagging. Composite fences are relatively new and the quality is uneven. Some versions are so poorly designed that rails sag, and posts snap off in heavy winds. We recommend that you choose a fence from a well-established manufacturer.

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • Hammer
  • Clamps
  • Miter saw
  • Cordless drill
  • Tape measure
  • Circular saw
  • Line level
  • Level
  • Drill bit set
  • Framing square
  • Hacksaw
  • Jigsaw
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Posthole digger
  • Safety glasses
  • Spade

Required Materials for this Project

Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here's a list.

  • Fencing
  • Concrete
  • Fasteners

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