Your fence has become old and crumbling in places. The next gust might leave your house naked from the streets. If it is not the next gust, it might be the rot at the bottom of those fence posts.
Note: I am talking specifically about wood fence.
I was confronted with this issue as my fence was blown away due to wind. So the novice that I was, I called up a few companies from Yellow Pages and got the one whose website looked professional enough. (Sounds like a good criteria to select a fence company eh?). Unfortunately that was indeed the criteria I used. My theory going in was – “let me get the first vendor to come and give me a quote. I will ask some standard questions – like warranty, what kinda wood they use, how long it will take, how much it would cost” and in the process learn a few things about the fence business, so when I call the second company, I look like the know-it-all. This is a standard trick I use with any new area where I need to deal with vendors. Learn on their dime (or complimentary quote).
So I called four of them and got quotes. I did beat up (not literally) the second one to bring his price down closer to the first one, used some “fence world” jargons based on what I learnt from first company. Not sure it worked or not, I got the price down and also learnt a few new/more things.
Despite that stunt, I did not know everything and was bound to make some mistakes and so I did. In the next couple of years of “owning” the fence all those mistakes stare in my face so I am making a list here hoping someone else will benefit from my mistakes.
Here are some recommendations and lessons learnt for anyone who is in the market for a fence
- Insurance? What Insurance?: First of, you might have home insurance and you might be thinking let me cash out from policy since the fence fell due to natural acts (wind, rain). Before you call your insurance company, let me tell you it is not worth it. They will tell you that your fence died of natural causes and cannot be paid for. The only exception is if your fence was relatively new and tree fell on it or something. The downside of calling them, even if they don’t pay you, the mere fact you called them will be logged in your name as a claim filed. That will cause your insurance premium in future to be impacted. If this sounds like fiction, it is not. It is exactly what happened with me.
- Your City: Before you call a fence company, call your city (or visit their website) and get the Residential Fence Regulation. Here is a sample from my city Fremont CA – https://www.fremont.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/419. It will tell you what is allowed, the permit requirements, the inspection requirements etc. If your house happens to be a corner house, you might have additional constraints on what you can and cannot do. The permit cost is based on the overall project cost. Read that document, start to finish and you will feel like an “expert” already.
- Money: Depending on the size of your yard and how many sides you need fence, a rough single family home fence would run you anywhere from $3k to 8K. Per the city rules, if you share a fence with your neighbor and needs to replaced, then your neighbor is required by law to share costs. So if this is true in your case, you are well off discussing this with your neighbor and setting some parameters upfront on the budget, type of fence etc so your neighbor can (afford to) chip in with their share of the cost.
- What: Now once you are equipped with that information, next thing you want to decide is what kind of wood you would like for the fence, the structure and design.
- Wood – If you are going with wood I recommend Pressure-Treated Redwood. (You could also choose to go with Chainlink, Composite, Vinyl fences but this article is specifically focused on wood fence)
- Structure – height, lattice/no-lattice (My recommendation: go with lattice)
- Design – Flat Nailed-in, Overlapping Boards, Tongue-and-Groove (in the order of sturdiness and cost)
- Standard Due Diligence: Once you have come up with your consideration set of fencing companies – look up their license number (should be prominently displayed on their website) or BBB/Yelp etc. For good measure ask your friends in Facebook if someone has used the one you have a good feeling about going with.
- References: If you don’t get any one in your network who can vouch for the fence company you have shortlisted no worries. When the fence company comes to your place to give you a price quote ask them for references, specifically ask for someone in your neck of the woods. They usually give 2-3 of them. Tell the vendor that you will drive by and talk to them soon after you get the quote. This will also allow the fence company to call the home owner and let them know to expect a call. Remember the quote is valid for a few days so you can do this drive-by check or call the references before you sign on the dotted line.
- Contingency: Make sure the contractor will get inspection done by the city or you insist on getting it done. Make the payment contingent on the inspection and sign off by the city inspector. If not you will be on the hook for anything that is not up to code, if the city comes asking.
- Be there for your fence: With the price quote and the fencing company finalized, your role in this process is not complete. One of the biggest mistake people make while getting fence done is not being around when the work is actually done. You might ask – since I am getting inspection done at the end what is the point of my being around? It has a big part in ensuring you get a good fence and here is why – the fence company hires people who do this day-in-day-out. So for them your house is no special than the house down the road. It is just a routine that they need to finish by the stipulated time. Just so you safeguard your interests here are some things you should make sure they do right
- Not skimp on posts – Most fence companies do a good job with making sure enough posts are put and at appropriate distance. But where they cut corners (no pun intended) is when they have to dig and install the post. A typical fence would be anywhere around 6′ in height (before lattice). So a post that is at at least 6′ above the ground should have at least 1.5-2′ inside the soil for it to hold the post strong for a long time. Without that the post will start to wobble and it will be the beginning of the end for your fence. Most fence companies skimp on this and end up putting the post only 6 inches deep in the soil. So make sure you have them put at least 1′ if not 1.5′ deep in the soil. Also make sure the posts are pressure treated lumber.
- Avoid the knots – While not completely avoidable make sure your fence company does not fill your fence with planks that are knotted. The knots that might look like a nice design when the fence planks are fresh will become a see-through hole on your fence when the planks start drying up. God forbid you end up having multiple holes on a single plank. As the fencing company offloads the planks that will go into your fence, start marking planks that have excessive knots with a sharpie and ask them to exclude them. They might resist but you insist on having them excluded.
- Account for the Warp – Try as much as you can to avoid it, the planks in your fence will have warp over time – more so as the planks start drying. To avoid planks bending and eventually cracking (not to mention exposing view into your yard), ask your fence company to use this pattern from the inside. It is worth spending that extra money the fence company might charge to add this extra horizontal frame to hold the planks from bending out or in. It will buy you a few more years of lifetime for the fence.
- Paint/Stain the Fence – Plan to paint/stain your fence latest by a month after it is installed. The reason to leave the fence to dry a little bit is just in case the wood used is raw and it will give it an opportunity to dry. Staining a fence easily buys you 3 years of extended life of the fence. It might also hold off the aforementioned knots from drying up and creating peep holes.
- Warranty – Most fence companies provide a warranty. At a minimum they should be 5 years. If you bargain hard you might get 10 years of warranty. It is important to ensure the warranty includes unlimited fixes during the warranty period. In most cases, the fence posts, or gates will have some issues as fresh wood gets exposed to the elements. Most fence companies of decent reputation will just come and fix the fence no questions asked if something happens during warranty period.
This should give you a good checklist of things to keep in mind if you are in the market to get a new fence for your house.