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Separation Anxiety

Building or replacing a fence in L.A. can be a touchy issue--with rules, regulations and the ruffling of neighbors' feathers. Here are some guidelines.


If you have small children, pets or just a desire for a little backyard privacy, you probably agree with poet Robert Frost that "good fences make good neighbors."

And, quite likely, your property is already fenced. "Most homes in the L.A. area have some sort of fencing," said Gil Martinez, co-owner of Affordable Fence Co. in Paramount. "About 75% of our business is replacement fences."

But even if your property was fenced when you bought it, time and the elements take a toll on most fencing materials, so you may be looking at a replacement.

Where to begin? We talked with several experts, and all agreed: When it comes to fences, you can't plan ahead too much or communicate with your neighbors too much.

Here are some tips to get you started:

Building a fence in a new subdivision is usually fairly straightforward, said Cora Jordan, an attorney, professional mediator and author of "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise" (1998; Nolo Press).

"Just follow the rules," she said.

If you live in one of the many planned communities where owners must abide by covenants, conditions and restrictions, "You'll have rules for fences that cover everything from building materials to color to height," Jordan said.

To be safe, Jordan said, talk with the board of the homeowners association to make sure you have copies of all regulations. You don't want to be notified--after the fact--that your new fence is six inches too high and must be shortened.

If you're building a fence on property that isn't covered by covenants, you'll want to follow the advice given below for replacing an existing fence, our experts suggested.

If your home is in a newly developed area, you've already cleared one of the major hurdles in fence building: determining the property line. Simply ask your home builder or homeowners board where you can get a copy of the survey.

Replacing an Old Fence

Replacing an existing fence isn't as simple as tearing it down and putting up a new one on the same spot, Jordan said. "Fences are the No. 2 cause of neighbor disputes, right behind noise," she said. "And there's no such thing as a trivial neighbor problem."

To make the process go more smoothly, you'll want to do your homework.

* Check local laws. Jordan recommended calling your city zoning department or going to the library to check the fencing ordinances before calling a contractor. Ask about permits, which are required in some cities and not in others.

Also inquire about such zoning laws as set-back rules (which determine the minimum distance that must be kept between a house and the property line) and local laws regarding the fence itself. Certain building materials may be prohibited, for example. And height restrictions are common, Jordan said, adding that a 6-foot limit for backyard fences and a 3- to 4-foot limit for frontyard fences are most prevalent.

Your city planning or building department can also offer guidance regarding what to look for in a fencing contractor and can give you a heads-up on soil conditions in your area, which can affect the installation of concrete walls.

* Decide who pays. According to California law, if both your yard and your neighbor's yard are enclosed by a fence, the section of the fence that is used by both families is owned and maintained jointly, Jordan explained.

However, she noted, neighborhood custom sometimes rules in these matters. Before assuming that your fence is owned by both you and your neighbor, ask a local Realtor or talk with several neighbors to find out how things are generally done in your area, Jordan suggested, noting that it pays to keep neighborhood feathers unruffled.

If you do indeed share fence ownership with your neighbor, "you are both responsible for half of the 'reasonable' cost of repairing or replacing the fence," Jordan said. But what if your neighbor envisions spending that money on a trip to Hawaii rather than on a new fence? You may have a problem.

Communication is critical, and how you approach your neighbor sets the tone for the entire transaction, Jordan said.

"Go over to your neighbor's house and say, 'Have you noticed the fence? It's falling down. Let's go look at it. What do you think we should do about it?' "

If your neighbor has no interest in splitting the cost, "After you fix or replace the fence, you can send a bill with a demand letter by certified mail," she added, noting that suing in Small Claims Court may be the only way to get the money.

If you decide to go this route, it's helpful to take before-and-after pictures to show to the judge.

* Avoid (or mediate) disputes. Before resorting to legal action, however, take a moment to look at the big picture, Jordan said. "You really don't want to sue your neighbor. A good neighbor relationship is in your own best interests. And sometimes that may cost you some money."

A dispute-resolution center or a professional mediator can help take the heat out of a disagreement over fences. A mediator can help you arrange a mutually agreeable payment schedule.

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