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Well-maintained Fences Make Good Neighbors

By Brian Dutra

Fences in common interest developments (CIDs) serve many purposes. The most obvious use of fences is to delineate spaces, such as patios, pools, parks, gardens, parking lots, etc. Fences also offer privacy and safety; and they can be a decorative hardscape component adding depth and texture to the property’s landscape. Whatever the use of your fences, it is important to know the life expectancy of these critical components so that your community can always be prepared to maintain and/or replace them when it is time.

What is the common denominator of wood and metal fence deterioration? Sun and moisture damage. But, if you follow some simple tips, you will maintain your fences and give them the long life they deserve. There is an old saying, "Good fences make good neighbors." But, in my opinion, the full version of that adage should state, "A well-maintained fence allows fences to look good and be tall for a long time; and good-looking and tall fences make good neighbors."

Nearby sprinkler systems are often a cause of early deterioration in a community’s fences. Sprinkler heads can get kicked, or over time slightly turn on their own, making the sprinklers spray unintended areas, such as community fences, rather than planted areas. Have your sprinklers regularly checked and adjusted by your landscapers to ensure that they are watering the plants and not your fences, and perhaps consider having drip systems installed around these areas to ensure that this problem doesn’t persist.

Here are a few tips to manage and maintain the different types of fences in your communities:

Wood Fences (15-20 Years):

  • Fence posts are essentially the spine of the structure and the most labor-intensive structural component, therefore making them the most expensive part to repair or replace. With wood fences, it is common for the post to rot away when the surrounding soil and the post come in contact with each other. When installing posts, it is important that the concrete be "crowned" above the finish grade with a slope to encourage water to drain off the top of the concrete and to prevent dirt from accumulating around the post because dirt holds moisture. When checking the overall health of a fence, walk the fence line, pushing on the fence at each post location. If the fence feels rigid and resistant, that’s a good thing. If the fence doesn’t resist and allows movement, it means that the post is rotted and needs to be replaced. If 50 percent or more of the posts on a single fence line are rotted, it’s time to consider replacing the whole fence because the cost to replace those posts may soon become more expensive than replacing the fence itself.
  • If the fence is painted or sealed, make sure it is on a cycle to be painted/sealed periodically. Just like your skin, a wood fence exposed to the sun can deteriorate if not protected from harmful UV rays. Sealer and paint are like sunblock keeping the wood protected from harmful exposure to the sun and helps keep the wood from soaking up water in the winter months.

Metal Fences (20-25 years):

  • Metal fences serve a very functional role in CIDs. They typically surround areas, such as pools and playgrounds, where privacy is not as critical as security and safety. Because of the liability associated with metal fences, there are components that need to be inspected regularly to mitigate any risk of liability for the association.
  • Gates must be maintained regularly. Pool gates usually have several metal hardware components that can deteriorate when they are exposed to rain and sun. Gate hardware must work properly 100 percent of the time if it is to be considered "compliant" with county pool safety standards. A pool gate may require a metal key or FOB for entry, but the gate must be able to be opened from the inside without a key (e.g., a panic bar). Gates must also close and engage locks on their own for the next users. Additionally, annual gate inspections are recommended to ensure proper function.
  • Gates that have hydraulic closers can act differently from one season to the next because heat can thin out hydraulic fluid and cold weather can make that same fluid more viscous. In turn, the viscosity of the hydraulic fluid can cause different responses and functionality to the same gate. Most hydraulic closers have adjustment dials built-in to them so that with basic tools, simple seasonal adjustments can be made.

The presence of rust on metal fences is the equivalent of dry rot to wood. In many cases, rust can be successfully treated if the corrosion is discovered early. When installing a new metal fence, make sure that the metal is galvanized or powder coated to help ensure longevity against rust. Have your metal fences inspected regularly to ensure that any surface rust is cleaned, treated, and painted to avoid further spread. Vulnerable rust locations are typically found at the bottom of the fence where welded joints and surfaces are hit by sprinklers, or at the horizontal rail-to-post connections (welds are typically vulnerable to rust).

Interior and perimeter fences can take up a large part of a community’s budget when being considered for replacement. This makes it critical that the cost associated with those fences and life expectancy are accurately budgeted for in a reserve study. Prices of fence materials and labor have drastically changed in the last five years; so, if your reserve study hasn’t been updated since then, it is likely that your community budget does not currently reflect its accurate needs. On your next site visit, shake some fences, observe the appearance of the perimeter fencing, and look for deterioration and discoloration at the bottom of the fences to see if sprinklers are watering the fences to evaluate what your immediate future needs may be. Ask your trusted contractor to walk the fence line with you and guide you on what options are available to you to maintain, repair, or replace your association’s fences. Keep your neighbors "good" by keeping your fences "good" and you’ll be good to go!

Brian Dutra is the president of AMS (2013) and has been working in HOAs for more than 15 years. He started his construction career in the CID space working for a local fence contractor as their commercial account manager (HOAs) and while working there, obtained his Class B general contractor’s license. He has overseen dozens of full community fence replacement projects, as well as hundreds of commercial pool fence and community repair projects.


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