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Separation Anxiety

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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* 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.

“Or they might suggest trading a service with your neighbor instead of payment, such as providing fruit from the neighbor’s fruit tree or something else you both agree on,” she added.

The advantage of mediation is that it considers everyone’s needs and helps neighbors arrive at a decision both sides will willingly accept, with minimal hard feelings.

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According to Carol Gulyas, director of Beach Cities Mediation Services in Redondo Beach, private mediators generally charge $150 to $200 per hour. That can be a bargain when compared with the cost of litigation.

“Plus, if you go to court, you lose control of the situation,” Gulyas added. “A judge will make the decision for you, resulting in one party winning and one party losing. It’s much better to have a collaborative decision.”

Free mediation services are available to all Los Angeles County residents through the Dispute Resolution Program of the Los Angeles city attorney’s office.

“Our volunteer mediators receive 140 hours of training,” said program administrator Avis Ridley-Thomas. “And after the Northridge earthquake, we got a lot of experience in resolving fence disputes.”

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For a free “Mediate, Don’t Litigate” brochure, which describes the program, or for more information, call (213) 485-8324 or (213) 485-8334 TDD.

The bottom line? Even if you just sit down with your neighbor over a cup of coffee to discuss your plans, put all agreements in writing.

* Determine your property line. In California, unlike many other states, a survey is not required when a property is sold, Jordan said. As a result, many homeowners don’t know exactly where their property ends.

If neighbors concur, they can draft a written agreement stating that they are unsure of the boundary but have both agreed on the placement of the fence and have both agreed that if one of them is inadvertently using the other’s property, it is with permission, she added.

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A more formal agreement, such as a quitclaim deed, can be created to grant property rights to a neighbor in case the fence is inadvertently placed incorrectly, Jordan added. Caution is advised here, she said, because some mortgage companies will not allow a homeowner to do this.

What if your neighbor isn’t agreeable about property lines? In that case, a professional survey might be a good investment, according to Dorothy LaRose, a broker with Shorewood Realtors in Manhattan Beach.

“More and more people are suing these days,” she said. “Fences aren’t cheap, and if you inadvertently place your fence on your neighbor’s property, you could be made to take it down.”

A survey can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, according to local surveyors, depending on the degree of difficulty, the degree of access to the property and variables such as whether the property is on a hillside.

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The California State Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors offers a free “Consumer Guide to Professional Engineering and Land Surveying.” Call (916) 263-2230.

Affordable Fence’s Martinez said, however, that only about 1% of his customers order a professional survey before adding or replacing a fence.

“Homeowners can get a plot plan from their city at no cost,” he said. “It gives the dimensions of all the lots on that block. We can usually find a plot pin from a nearby house that has been previously surveyed, and then we use the plot plan to calculate the distance to the customer’s property line.”

Choosing Materials

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Once you’ve determined the boundary and talked with your neighbor, you’ll want to look at fencing materials.

It’s important to consider curb appeal and resale value, LaRose suggested. “Aesthetics are important,” she said, noting that the right fencing “makes the home look like a finished product.”

Backyard privacy is a plus, of course. “And never underestimate the curb appeal of a white picket fence out front,” LaRose added.

Price and upkeep are often deciding factors in choosing materials. Here’s what you can expect:

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* Wood. Typically, fences are built of pine, cedar or redwood. Redwood is by far the most popular in Southern California, according to Martinez.

For a 6-foot fence, redwood runs about $15 per linear foot, installed. It will last 10 to 20 years and must be painted or water-sealed about every two years. Though redwood is naturally termite-resistant, all wood fences are subject to termite damage, Martinez added.

* Ornamental iron. Plan to pay about $16 per linear foot for an iron fence 6 feet high, and keep that paint brush handy. “Iron rusts from the inside out,” Martinez said. “If you don’t keep an iron fence well-painted, it can rust out in five years.”

* Chain link. One of the most durable materials, chain-link fencing runs about $10 per linear foot for a 6-foot-high fence, and is nearly indestructible. It will last 50 to 60 years with no upkeep, Martinez said. For more privacy, consider adding aluminum or plastic privacy slats, which cost about $6 a linear foot and generally come with a 15-year warranty.

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* Concrete block. A well-built concrete-block wall can last 75 to 100 years, according to Curtis Thompson, owner of Curtis Thompson Masonry in Torrance.

But care is still needed: “Tree roots are death to concrete walls,” Thompson said, noting that soil problems can also be troublesome, especially if the wall isn’t built with an 18-inch-wide footing and with concrete at least 1 foot thick. Steel reinforcement rods are also important. Concrete-block walls range in price from $30 to $50 per linear foot for a 6-foot wall.

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Kathy Sena is a Los Angeles freelance writer. She can be reached at kathysena@compuserve.com.

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Call Before You Start Digging

Before digging that first fence-post hole, you’ll want to make sure you won’t run into any utility lines. Underground Service Alert, a nonprofit organization funded by local utility companies, provides a free one-call notification service.

Call (800) 227-2600 at least two days before you dig, and the service will notify water, phone, cable, gas and electric companies, which will then send representatives to mark their lines.

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