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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Maintenance-Free Fencing 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, like a steel fence.
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.
Most vinyl fences snap together without fasteners, although privacy fences like this one require screwing U-channel to the posts to hide the picket and lattice edges. You slide the railings into holes in the posts. Locking tabs keep them from sliding back out. The pickets and lattice fit between the rails. You can cut parts with a circular saw for short sections.
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.
Vinyl Fencing 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
Vinyl Fencing 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 in vinyl fencing 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.
Vinyl Fence 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 metal yard fence
Aluminum fences provide security and keep pets and kids from wandering—and they’re more decorative than chain-link fencing and other types of metal fencing.
Photo courtesy of Delgard
Rails and pickets come preassembled in sections 6 to 8 ft. long that slide into the posts (most versions without fasteners). Set a post in concrete, slide a rail section into the holes, then install the next post over the other end of the railing. Cut railings with a hacksaw to shorten sections.
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.
Aluminum Fence Pros
Won’t rust like steel or iron
Easiest low-maintenance fence to install
Decorative look of wrought iron without the high cost
Aluminum Fence 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 with aluminum fences 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.
Fence Shopping Tips
Most home centers sell fencing, but the selections are usually limited. So visit fence showrooms to see different types of metal fencing 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 fencing provides extra strength for security and longevity
Steel fences have a rail and picket design and often other decorative post and picket caps.
Steel fence construction details
Steel fences come in preassembled sections, just like aluminum—but they weigh a heck of a lot more. Brackets are attached to the posts, so once you set the posts in concrete, you attach the railing sections, bolts and nuts. The wire in the railings adjusts the pickets to keep them straight. Be careful not to scratch off the paint during installation or the steel can rust (if you do scratch it, touch it up with paint). The heavy weight and only 1 in. of flexibility per 8-ft. section make steel fences harder to install than others. For short sections, cut the railing with a hacksaw.
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.
Steel Fence Pros
The toughest fence available; very hard to dent or bend
Classic decorative appearance
Best fence for security
Steel Fence 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 in steel fences 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.
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.
Composites mimic the look of wood or metal
Composite fencing looks similar to wood or metal, but it doesn’t need staining or sealing, and it won’t rot or rust.
Photo courtesy of Fibertech Polymers
Composite Fence Close-up
Composites are available in different wood-look colors
Photo courtesy of Fibertech Polymers
Other types of composite fencing
Not all composites look like wood. This rail and picket fence is a composite made from plastic and fiberglass.
Photo courtesy of CertainTeed
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.
Composite Fence 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
Composite Fence Cons
Quality and ease of construction vary by manufacturer
Limited availability in many areas
What to look for in composite fences 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 Maintenance-Free Fencing Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
Drill bit set
Required Materials for this Maintenance-Free Fencing Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.