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Our home is our castle, and most castles have walls. I don’t think I need to invoke Robert Frost to prove that lots of people want to make their own yard a sanctuary from the busy outside world. Privacy fences are our modern castle walls.
There are lots of considerations that go into privacy fencing, some that apply to all privacy fences, some that apply only to specific types. This is a comparison of different types of privacy fences showing their relative cost per foot ($), useful life, attractiveness (on a scale from Michael Moore to Mandy Moore), do-it-yourself difficulty, maintenance, and level of privacy. Plus, I am going to recommend comprehensive how to books and show you a list of materials and tools that you will need if you want to build a privacy fence yourself.
Can you even have a Privacy Fence?
There may be public and private restrictions on building privacy fences on your property. Check the following sources:
Zoning Laws (City or County offices) — Height restrictions, material restrictions, etc.
Building Codes (City or County offices) — Planning, permit and design requirements.
CC&Rs (Home Owner’s Association) — Limitations, aesthetic requirements.
Digging Hotline (811) — Underground electrical, gas, sewer, etc.
Planning your Privacy Fence
You may want to put privacy fencing around your whole yard, or enclose a small section. Pay attention to any sloping areas or funny angles that you want to include in the fenced portion. They may limit or alter how you go about privacy fencing your yard.
Once you have an idea where your privacy fence will go, mark it out with stakes and measure it with a measuring tape to accurately calculate the overall cost of your privacy fencing. Place your privacy fence at least 6 inches inside of the actual property line. This will give you clearance to pour concrete footings that are still on your property. You can also hire a local fence contractor to plan or build any kind of fence for you.
Types of Privacy Fences
Chain Link Privacy Fence Price: $ Life: 20-30 yrs. Attractiveness: Michael Moore for sure DIY: Moderately challenging Maintenance: Almost none Privacy: Very little
Chain Link Privacy Fence Benefits
Chain link privacy fences are the cheapest, easiest to maintain and longest lasting. If there is already a chain link fence in place, privacy fencing slats can be installed very simply. Chain link privacy fences are ideal for fencing large commercial or industrial properties. A chain link fence can also serve as the lattice for other plants and bushes to grow up around it, providing a very attractive privacy fence.
Chain Link Privacy Fence Drawbacks
Chain link privacy fences are the least attractive looking privacy fences. Even the most private slat inserts allow about 2% visibility through the fence so any voyeur who comes up to the fence will be able to peer between the slats. Chain link privacy fences only act as a minor shield to general onlookers unless the fence is covered with thick foliage.
I can’t cover all the many variables that can arise when building a privacy fence here. Get a good reference guide to show you step by step how-to install a privacy fence. Often times the manufacturer of your fencing material will provide instructions for installation.
- Chain link mesh
- Concrete (one bag per fence post)
- Tape measure
- Post-hole digger
- Sledge hammer
- Ratchet tightener
- Crescent wrench
- A friend to help you
Wood Privacy Fence Price: $$$ Life: 15-20 yrs. Attractiveness: Very attractive DIY: Moderate Maintenance: Some Privacy: Very private
Wood Privacy Fence Benefits
Wood is the most common building material for privacy fences so there are many designs to choose from with the fewest restrictions. Types of wood that can be used range from simple fir to more exotic bamboo privacy fencing. Most contractors and DIY are also very comfortable working with wood. The level of privacy, depending on the design of the fence, can be very high. Wood privacy fences are easily adapted to a strongly contoured yard, so even if you have steep slopes you can probably install a wood fence of some kind. Wood fences are ideal for suburban and rural homes.
Wood Privacy Fence Drawbacks
Wood is one of the most expensive options. It also needs to be treated to avoid water or bug damage to extend its useful life. Failure to treat the wood might make it look on the Michael Moore side of attractiveness over time. Because there are natural imperfections in wood, and because the fence will decay over time, wood fences need to be regularly maintained to make sure they are as private as you want them to be.
DIY — Installation
A good book is still the best way to get thorough knowledge of how to install a wood privacy fence. These videos from Home Depot also show in great detail a lot about installing a wood fence.
- Fence posts (suggested 4"X4")
- Rails (suggested 2"X4")
- Wood treatment product
- Screws or nails
- Measuring tape
- Brush, rags or sponge
- Post hole digger
- Wheel barrow
- Hammer or power drill
- Circular saw
Vinyl Privacy Fence Price: $$ Life: 20-30+ yrs. Attractiveness: variable from unattractive to Mandy Moore DIY: Moderately easy Maintenance: Almost none Privacy: Extremely private
Vinyl Privacy Fence Benefits
There are so many styles and costs of vinyl privacy fencing that you will likely be able to find something that you like that is within your budget and meets the needs of your privacy fence. Vinyl is also one of the most private fences because it comes in pre-manufactured sections and will have less places for gaps. Vinyl is light weight and is very easy and quick to install for DIY projects. Vinyl privacy fences are ideal for suburban yards, fencing off portions of land surrounding rural homes, and anywhere in between.
Vinyl Privacy Fence Drawbacks
If your yard has significant slope, prefabricated sections might leave large gaps in your privacy fence. Early vinyl fences were cheap and unattractive so vinyl privacy fences still suffer from that stigma.
A thorough resource can help you with the many possibilities. This video from Home Depot is also very helpful for anyone who is handy.
- Manufacturer provided fence posts
- Fence sections
- Concrete (one bag per fence post)
Privacy Fence: Hedges Price: $$$ Life: As long as the hedge lives Attractiveness: Mandy Moore DIY: Moderately difficult Maintenance: Minimal regular maintenance Privacy: from moderate to extremely private
Privacy Hedge Benefits
Hedges can be very attractive looking and provide excellent privacy because there are fewer restrictions on the height of hedges than there are for the height of fences. They will probably last longer than any other artificial fence and can be combined with another kind of fence to maximize privacy and looks. In cold or windy places, privacy hedges can act as a barrier to the cold winter wind. They are great for larger suburban homes or for use on a portion of rural land.
Privacy Hedge Drawbacks
Hedges are somewhat limited by geography so people in drier climates may have more difficulty or more cost growing satisfactory privacy hedges. The amount of sunlight that the hedge needs and the space needed to grow must also be considered. Hedges require more lifetime maintenance with regular watering and trimming. Also, if the foliage is not thick enough, or if you do not use an evergreen plant as a privacy fence, there will be gaps. There is always a risk that one of the plants will die or be damaged, leaving a gaping hole in our privacy fence. Hedges also take several years to grow after they have been planted to reach a height and density that provides any real privacy.
DIY — Installation
If you have a really green thumb, you can use a professional guide to help you determine which species to choose, how to space and plant the hedges, how to irrigate, and how to trim. A landscaper will be able to professionally install the hedge for you.
There is one other consideration to keep in mind when building your privacy fence, and that is the limit of the constitution. If police see evidence of illegal activity on your property in pain view from outside of your privacy fence where they legitimately have the right to be, they can still enter your property. This means they can use telescopes, helicopters and get down on their hands and knees to peer under the fence to see into your property. To maintain your protection from the plain view doctrine, keep your fence as free of gaps and holes as possible.
Here is a quick chart to compare all of the featured privacy fences. Enjoy the comfort and quiet that they can provide for you and your family.
Reprinted with permission from How to Vanish.
Bill Rounds, J.D. is a California attorney. He holds a degree in Accounting from the University of Utah and a law degree from California Western School of Law. He practices civil litigation, domestic and foreign business entity formation and transactions, criminal defense and privacy law. He is a strong advocate of personal and financial freedom and civil liberties.