Defining property boundaries is the original role of fencing. If that is your first priority, the style you decide to build will depend on whether you are planning a front yard fence or a backyard fence.

Front Yard Fences

Front yard fences traditionally define the extent of the property and provide some (but not complete) security. Front yard fences usually aren’t required to provide much privacy; if anything their role is to be inviting. The best fences emphasize particular features of the house or landscape to enhance the home and its neighborhood.

Front yard fences usually are shorter than those around backyards—3 to 4 feet is typical—but you often can produce a striking effect by building a taller or lower one. Or a fence can carry the color of the house or a design feature into the yard.

Defining a space may require only erecting a low or open fence. Where security, privacy, or containment is not a priority, rail fences are good for the front edge of the yard. Rail fences— even those that look hand-hewn and rustic—go well with most houses. To accent the yard boundary or call attention to a corner planting bed, build a simple corner rail.

Picket, chain-link, and ornamental metal fences are common lot line fences for homeowners who want more containment and security. They can help prevent children and animals from running into or out of the yard and lend some additional security. Solid board fences provide the most security, but a tall board fence around the front yard can be severe; keep the height low. You can use any fencing suitable for installations 3 to 4 feet high.

Backyard Fences

In backyards, boundary marking takes on a different look because a fence needs to function as a lot line marker and provide security and privacy as well. In many neighborhoods you won’t need to be as concerned with neighborhood styles in back as in your front yard.

A board fence, in any of its numerous styles and variations, is the right choice for many backyards.


Before you build a fence along your lot line, make sure you know exactly where the line is—along its entire length and on all sides of your property. Locating the lot line markers may take a little detective work.

Start by looking for metal spikes or stakes. They may be buried—if they ever have been put in. If they’re not visible rent a metal detector to try to find them.

When you locate them replace each one with a 2-foot length of 1-inch galvanized pipe driven to within 1 inch of grade. This way you can see them later and the mower blade won’t hit them. Locate all the stakes; don’t assume your lot lines are laid out in straight lines or right angles. A misplaced fence section invites trouble with neighbors and could lead to legal action.

If you can’t find the lot line markers, hire a surveyor. It will cost a few hundred dollars, but you’ll avoid conflict with your neighbors and save the additional money you might have to spend to relocate the fence.

Board fences, along with paling, stake, and siding fences, work well to combine lot line definition with security and privacy. Combine any of these materials with lattice or louver panels—either as infill, as a top panel, or both—to keep the fence from being too confining.

Separating Areas

Lot lines aren’t the only boundaries that need definition. Areas inside your yard often need to be separated. Fences can keep work areas from visually spilling into recreation areas; they can separate storage space from relaxation retreats, entertainment areas from garden plots.

Small versions of the rail fence, for example, will separate your garden from other areas of your yard. If you build a low fence with benches, you’ll make your gardening more convenient and comfortable. Low fences should be between 12 and 24 inches high.

Tall screens built from stakes, lattice, and other materials with open patterns are effective at hiding unattractive items—garbage cans or an unsightly metal storage shed. Or you can conceal them behind a vine-covered trellis— a fence like structure.

Lath or lattice panels 3 to 4 feet tall can screen the garden in the winter and provide a year-round accent. Wire-bound slat fencing doesn’t have to be permanent. Roll it and wire it to metal posts so it’s out of the way during the planting and growing seasons. Unroll it in the winter.


Before you start your fence planning—or at least early in the process—visit your local building department to find out about local regulations that govern fences. You’re likely to run into one or more of the following:

  • Building Codes: Almost all communities establish local codes that govern how residential structures should be built. These codes set standards for safety regarding materials and construction methods. Some building codes specify the materials that you can use to build residential fences.
  • Zoning Ordinances: Zoning ordinances govern the use of property and establish maximum heights for structures (including fences) as well as how far they can be located from other properties (a distance called the setback). In many communities zoning laws may prohibit certain materials and fence heights at the setback line but allow the same materials farther in from the property line.
  • Covenants and Deed Restrictions: Communities and neighborhoods may set restrictions in property deeds to maintain neighborhood property values or to preserve specific architectural and historical styles. Such covenants may limit fence materials and locations.

Most municipalities have appeal procedures for codes, ordinances, and covenants. These procedures won’t guarantee you’ll be granted an exception (a variance), but they ensure that your request will be heard. After you’ve researched the restrictions that will affect your fence, incorporate them into your planning.

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