How to Avoid Neighbor Conflicts When It’s Time for a New Fence

Being a homeowner has a lot of responsibilities that renters never have to deal with. Many of the responsibilities are no big deal; others can be extremely unpleasant. One of the most painful homeowner tasks is dealing with the neighbors when a boundary fence needs to be built or replaced.

Over the years I have personally talked to several friends of mine who told me they would rather spend a couple hours in the dentist chair having their wisdom teeth removed than deal with multiple neighbors again on another fence project.

So perhaps you can understand why I was a bit apprehensive when I finally came to the conclusion that after 12 years of wind, rain, and incessant sun-exposure, my wood fence was nearing the end of its useful life. In fact, one portion of my fence was so bad that it had a couple of sections where the wooden posts had rotted so completely that several panels now rocked freely to and fro at the mercy of the autumn wind.

Those nasty winds were the main reason the Honeybee and I ultimately decided that a sturdier block wall was the logical replacement for our dilapidated wood fence.

The rub, of course, was that our fence straddled property boundary lines, meaning that erecting a new fence would require the consultation and agreement of my two affected neighbors.

At the time, I had no way of knowing whether each of my neighbors might have their own conflicting ideas with respect to the type of fence, how much to spend, and when to spend it. Oftentimes, neighbors will even disagree on whether the fence needs to be built or replaced at all. But as far as I was concerned, something had to be done soon.

Based upon those earlier warnings from my friends, I realized that the quest before me was not going to be an easy one. And although I briefly considered it, I also knew that it would not be in my long-term interest to simply attack the fence problem like an episode of Survivor, playing hardball and hoping to ruthlessly outwit, outplay, and outlast my neighbors until they reluctantly caved in to my wishes.

The best solution, of course, was finding a way to get some kind of mutual agreement that was satisfactory to everyone involved.

With that in mind, I crafted a seven-step plan to minimize the potential neighbor conflicts that might arise during the implementation of the fence project. In the end, this plan went a long way towards minimizing conflicts with my neighbors and overcoming the hurdles that we encountered along the way.

Here is a summary of that plan. At the end of each step I have included a brief summary of how these steps specifically related to my personal fence project experience.

1. Anticipate

If you have an existing fence, you should pay attention to its condition so you can make an educated prediction regarding its remaining useful life. Remember, the sooner you can anticipate, the more time you will have to save the cash you’ll need for the fence or wall. This is the time you should also be researching and deciding what type of replacement fence or wall you’ll want, be it wood, chain link, block, vinyl or some other option.

My Experience: In our case, we realized that our fence was going to need replacing two years in advance. At that point we immediately set about doing some research on our available options. As I previously noted, block walls are weather proof, sturdy, aesthetically pleasing, and can last well over 50 years with little or no maintenance. The downside, though, is that they can be up to ten times more expensive than a wood fence. The nagging problem with a wooden fence, however, is that they have a limited life time of roughly 10 years, assuming they are maintained on an annual basis. They also tend to be less resistant to heavy winds and they are susceptible to broken slats and water damage.

Once we decided that a block wall made the most sense we made a very rough estimate of what the new wall would cost and then drew up a savings plan for dutifully putting money aside each month in anticipation for the big day.

2. Communicate

Communication is the best way to avoid conflict down the road. Therefore, once you anticipate you will need a new fence, it is extremely important that you talk to your neighbors. Don’t procrastinate. The sooner you talk to your neighbors the easier this discussion will be and the more time they will have to start saving money for the future project.

If you have properly anticipated the need for a fence down the road, you don’t have to solve all the questions the first time you talk to the neighbors — instead, you can gradually work out the details over time.

Try and seek agreement on the easiest points first and then work the more contentious issues later. First, try and establish your neighbors’ opinion on the need for a replacement fence or wall and, once that is done, attempt to zero in on an approximate start time for the project (e.g., two years from now, next summer, etc.) Once that is done, you can focus on trying to get agreement on the type of wall or fence.

My Experience: In our case, I broached the topic of a new fence two years in advance with both of my neighbors, and I indirectly suggested they start saving up by telling them that I had started my own fence replacement savings account.

3. Cooperate

Once the communication process is opened up between you and your neighbors it is very important to cooperate with each other. This means, unless you are willing to foot the entire cost of the fence, you may have to compromise on some of your desires when it comes to the type of wall to be constructed.

You’ll also have to be cognizant of such items as your neighbors’ schedules, the height of the fence, and other options. In some cases you can try to resolve conflicts by presenting to your neighbor(s) the advantages and disadvantages of all the alternatives in order to get to a satisfactory resolution.

If you have a completely uncooperative/uninterested neighbor you will eventually have to decide whether it is in your best interest to just move on and build the wall without him or her.

My Experience: Generally speaking, neither of my neighbors took a hard line on their positions and they were both willing to compromise for the greater good. That didn’t mean that things always flowed smoothly during this phase. Although one of my neighbors was in complete agreement with my recommendation to go with a block wall, the other neighbor wanted a wrought iron fence. Over the following couple of months, I would have occasional friendly conversations with the dissenting neighbor describing several reasons why I didn’t like his desired option and the benefits of block. In the end, I think he appreciated my relaxed no-pressure approach and eventually I was able to convince him to go with the block wall.

In my next post I will discuss the final four steps that you need to implement to minimize conflicts with your neighbors and ensure your boundary fence project runs as smoothly as possible. I’ll cover the remaining steps in Part Two.

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