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Good fences make good neighbours

Sometimes I entertain the thought of building a fence as big as the Berlin Wall around my house to block out the sound of barking dogs and prevent neighbours from seeing my bad hair days when I'm watering the flowers.

However, not only would the city of London, Ont., not allow a 10-metre concrete wall in a residential suburb, but a fence this size would cost a fortune and take forever to build.

In comparison, London welder Al Cotton took a mere week to build an almost eight-metre long wooden fence in his yard. He believes anyone with a plan and some expert advice can build a fence.

"Ask questions -- if someone has a nice fence, go look at it and ask how they built it. Pick their brains," says Cotton.

A fence, after all, not only borders your home in the aesthetic sense, it also provides security, keeps your pooch from running away and prevents the neighbours from seeing your supper.

We've done our own brain picking and discovered what to tell the neighbours about your plans, how to follow municipal building rules and even how to choose the best screws when building your own fence.

Bylaw considerations
Each municipality has its own rules and restrictions for residential fence building. We checked with four randomly chosen municipalities across the country and discovered that, generally speaking, any fence more than about two metres high requires a permit to build.

"This height seems reasonable; it's not going to have a huge impact on your neighbours," says Ed Thornhill, manager of permits and inspections for the Halifax Regional Municipality.

In Edmonton, fences can reach a maximum height of 1.86 metres in the backyard and one metre in the front yard. According to the city, no permits are granted for fences taller than that. The City of Vancouver also does not require a permit for a fence shorter than two metres. Should a homeowner want to go above that, he must apply to the city for a permit -- a lengthy process that requires a land survey.

So, before you build your fence, check out your area's municipal regulations to see if you need a permit.

Being neighbourly
There are no municipal by-laws that require a homeowner tell his neighbours he's building a fence, as long as it is on his property. But all the same, it's a respectable thing to do, says Thornhill, especially if you build your fence directly on your property line or if it obstructs the neighbour's view in any way.

If you're building a new fence, start by having a surveyor mark your property line. Ideally, the fence should be about a foot into your own property -- that way, if you want to paint or maintain the opposite side of your fence (the side your neighbours see), you don't have to trespass to do so.

Likewise, if you guess at the property line and inadvertently infringe upon the neighbour's lawn, technically the fence is no longer your property and your neighbour now owns your fence, so it pays to choose your location carefully.

Building time
After informing his neighbours of his intentions, Cotton measured his property. His next mission: Visit the experts at a hardware store. Besides having all the materials, hardware stores also have fence blueprints and instructions. After purchasing cement and $1,000 worth of pressure-treated wood and supplies, Cotton was ready to build.

About two-metre intervals, he dug a hole more than a metre deep for the support beams, which were large four-by-fours. He then poured concrete around the beams in the holes, to anchor them, and used cross bars to keep the beams level. "Nothing looks worse than a fence that is crooked," says Cotton.

When the cement was dry, he screwed in two two-by-fours horizontally. Then, he screwed in flat balusters running vertically -- about 15 across in all -- for privacy. He says screws are sturdier than nails, and the galvanized or steel variety won't rust. But not every material is equal, he says.

Fencing supplies
There are three basic residential fence materials: wood, vinyl chain link and PVC. Pressure-treated wood, which repels water, looks good for about 15 years and costs about $100 for two metres. To keep it lasting longer, clean the fence using soap and a pressure washer every year. Pleasant-smelling red cedar, typically twice as expensive as pressure-treated wood, is a more elegant option and last about five years longer.

If you're all thumbs when it comes to construction, a pre-made wood fence is another option. Sections come in cuts two-metres wide. For a fancy lattice top section that's two metres high by two and half metres wide, expect to pay about $100; if you skip the lattice, the price drops to about $80. But beware: The joints are often fastened with cheap staples. It may be convenient in the short run, but it may require some repairs later on.

Vinyl is another easy option: "Itís precut and it snaps together, which makes it easy to install," says Ryan Vickery, a deck design associate for Home Depot in London. For a section that is two and a half metres long by one and half metres high, expect to pay about $100. To increase the privacy of a vinyl fence, as well as its overall appeal, you can buy metal slates for the open sections or let a climbing plant grow on the fence.

PVC is a fire-proof and waterproof material that looks like wood but is a hard, durable plastic. It requires little maintenance and can stand up well to fading and deterioration, lasting just as long as wood. The support beams are installed similar to a wood fence, but the pre-cut sections snap together easily. Its price is cheaper than most materials: $50 for a section that is one and a half metres long and two metres high.

Whichever materials you choose, Cotton suggests you take your time building your fence. Considering a fence can last as many as 20 years, thatís a long time to live with a crooked eyesore.

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer in London, Ontario.

-- Posted: July 19, 2006
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