The Home Guru: Good Fences for Good Neighbors (or for Spite)

Good fences make good neighbors, they say, except when they are erected for spite.

We have all heard the expression “good fences make good neighbors,” not referring literally to the construction of fences between us and our neighbors, but rather to the sentiment that it’s better for people to mind their own business and to respect the privacy of others.  Sometimes fences make that easier to do.

Then again, fences can create problems, depending on how and why they’re used, how they are designed, and how they look to their neighbors.  Community codes have gotten stricter through the years to protect the rights of surrounding residents. We all know about the recent controversy surrounding the construction of a tall fence in front of a property in Bedford, occupied by a restaurant owned by a famous actor.

At one time, homeowners constructed stone walls along their property boundaries to clear the land for farming or to contain livestock. But as our farmland evolved to grow houses instead of vegetables, fruits and grains, fences began to serve different purposes. By Victorian times, wooden or iron fences were designed to ornament a property. By the 20th century, however, when we could look across our own property and see into a neighbor’s windows, fences took on new meaning and purpose.

In the city, neighbors hear each other through apartment walls and see into each other’s windows without giving it a second thought. In the suburbs, privacy and sound abatement call for the use of fencing to assure our separate lives when we choose. 

Sometimes, you don’t know that you have a problem that needs to be fixed with fencing until an issue presents itself. 

When moving to Westchester, my wife and I had only one requirement:  the home we purchased must be an historic one in good condition. When we found the perfect home, it happened to be close to a well-traveled road, as most 18th century homes are, but there was a line of young deciduous trees between us and the passing cars.  It was September when we closed and the leaves were still on the trees, but at the end of October when the leaves fell, we suddenly felt a little more exposed than we wanted to be.  I checked with our town’s code and found that only a four-foot high fence was allowed on the front and sides of a property and it seemed to us that anything short of six feet wouldn’t serve our purposes. I applied for a variance and received it.

Rather than the stockade fencing that was so popular at the time, we remained in keeping with the tone of the home by using flat-board cedar, with gracefully dipping scallops defining each eight-foot panel, with gothic caps on the posts between each. Some neighbors stopped by to tell us how beautiful it was. Only years later did a somewhat crusty woman at the end of the road tell me that she considered it a “spite” fence when it first went up and she disliked us for it until she actually met us.

It is apparent that six-foot fencing has become a necessary part of our lifestyles today.  When considering the design and implementation of our walls of privacy, it’s good to see a guy like Tony Campanella who owns Campanella Fence Company in Mahopac.  Tony knows everything about the product, its installation and the differences in town codes, so he can advise customers on the best product and design for their properties.

When asked about trends in fencing today, Tony states emphatically that “the hottest trend right now is the ‘good neighbor’ fence which looks the same on both sides.”  The issue he brings up is one that has caused homeowners recently to seek redress against neighbors who have placed the “ugly” side of a fence, the one showing all the construction elements, facing away from their properties.

Further, Tony says that in the boom years, only the best would do and money seemed to be no object in securing the best fencing products to enhance a home’s value.  Now people are thinking twice before buying. And while wood was favored over vinyl when the latter was first introduced, vinyl is now almost universally preferred.  “Today low maintenance is the most important factor in selecting materials in fencing,” he says.  While vinyl panels were once much more expensive than wood, they are now comparable, if not cheaper, selling for about $120 per eight-foot panel.

Lately, I’ve become a convert to the use of vinyl but only because its design has toned down the shiny surface of the early products, and now it looks incredibly like wood grain.  And, it lasts and lasts.

The former tradition of four-foot high fencing between properties allowed neighbor to relate to neighbor, and some observers believe that the preferred height of six foot fences today may have become a symbol for the state of too many of our neighborhoods: cold, impersonal and isolating.

A likely compromise to deal with our walled-in bastions of privacy would be to make a conscious effort to live more gregariously within our own neighborhoods.  I for one have taken to walking as exercise once more, so that I’m now out on the street, greeting neighbors personally as I pass their homes, and when I seek privacy, I have that option with fencing that adds, rather than detracts, from the beauty of my home.

Bill Primavera is a residential and commercial Realtor affiliated with Coldwell Banker and specializing in the Westchester and Putnam County markets. For those who have questions about home maintenance or who wish to buy or sell a home, he can be reached at Bill@PrimaveraRealEstate.com or called directly at 914-522-2076.

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