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On The Fence : Masonry, wood, chain-link or wrought iron? With so many possibilities available for building a border, there's no reason to feel boxed in when choosing the right one for you.

January 25, 1992|DAN LOGAN | Special to The Times

There's a fence for every purpose, whether you want to keep unwanted visitors and spectators out, keep the kids and dogs in or simply enhance the landscape.

Privacy may be the most common reason for putting up a fence. "In Southern California, everybody is looking for privacy," says Chuck Waite of Jim Jennings Custom Masonry in Costa Mesa. "We'll get a lot of phone calls after a big windstorm. People can't stand to have their fence down."

Because fence costs vary from $5 to as much as $200 a linear foot, homeowners must clearly define their purpose in putting up a fence. Chain-link is generally the least expensive fencing material, in terms of both initial cost and maintenance. Masonry walls are substantially more expensive, while wood fences fall between the other two.

While chain-link fencing has a stark, industrial feel in its natural state, it can serve surprisingly decorative purposes. Because it is transparent, chain-link opens up the landscaping beyond the fence. It can also serve as an inexpensive trellis for climbing plants, and homeowners can grow their own privacy. Chain-link requires little upkeep. Vinyl-coated chain-link is also available in colors.

A 5-foot chain-link fence with a top rail will cost about $5.50 to $7.50 a linear foot.

For homeowners looking for a more ornamental approach in a transparent fence, wrought-iron fences or wrought-iron on top of a short wall is very popular, says landscape architect Frank Radmacher of Radmacher & Associates in Tustin. Wrought-iron fencing will often be found with homes on a slope or terrace. A 4-foot wrought-iron fence atop a 2-foot wall will discourage people from stepping over.

Wrought-iron fencing costs $15 to $20 per linear foot, while wrought-iron on a wall goes for $30 to $40. Wrought-iron requires moderate maintenance.

To block wind or sound while retaining the transparent qualities of metal fencing, 1/4-inch tempered glass can be placed atop a wall for $65 to $75 a foot. Keep in mind, however, that tempered glass will collect dirt like a car windshield and requires frequent washing, especially near the beach, Radmacher says.

The popularity of the wood fence is derived from its mid-range cost (about $7.50 to $8.50 a foot unpainted) and its broad possibilities for decoration and privacy. On the down side, wood fences are susceptible to damage from the elements and require more care than chain-link or masonry.

Wood fences have gone through many style changes over the past 40 years, says Duane Rae of Custom Craft Fences in Garden Grove. Variations on these styles are still used to achieve homeowners' design goals. In the 1950s, decorated panel fences were popular. As fencing prices rose in the early 1960s, basket weave and grape stake fences appeared in less expensive housing tracts. In the late 1960s, the louvered fence offered privacy at affordable prices.

Most Orange County fences are 5 to 6 feet high. Most of Jim Jennings' customers want to go to the 6 feet allowed by most cities, and they'd go higher if they could, Chuck Waite says. Six feet is the usual maximum allowable height in Orange County, although the fence could be placed atop a 2-foot retaining wall and it wouldn't require a variance.

There are also minimum fence heights in certain situations. For example, the county's pool-control ordinance requires a fence of at least 5 feet, Radmacher says.

While height confers privacy, the higher the fence, the more closed in one feels. And a shorter fence allows you to take advantage of your neighbor's landscaping.

While wood fences offer wide possibilities for privacy and decoration, other considerations may come into play. The lifetime of a wood fence will vary considerably, depending on the weather. Wood fences last eight to 10 years, Waite estimates.

But if moisture reaches the fence posts set in concrete, rot can set in. And the wind can wreak havoc with wood fences. Rae has seen cedar posts snapped off by the wind within three to five years of being built. Redwood tends to last much longer; Rae recently replaced a fence in Tustin he put up 24 years ago.

Many wood fences are left unpainted. "There's not really a lot of preservatives in the paint today," Rae says. "You put a water-based paint and you don't know what the moisture is going to do when it comes out."

At the upper end of the price scale are the many varieties of masonry walls. Masonry walls offer maximum privacy and a long life with moderate maintenance. They're also good for sound attenuation, and they can add quite a bit of value to the home, Waite says.

While fences and walls of all types provide a measure of security, they serve mainly to discourage casual entry. Fences only keep honest people honest, Rae says.

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