Good fences and good neighbors: How to avoid a fight over a fence

The proverb "Good fences make good neighbors" is often true -- and a fence that's badly in need of repairs or an eyesore can spark some ugly disputes between otherwise reasonable neighbors. That's especially possible when a fence is parked right on a boundary line.

When a fence sits right on a boundary line between your property and a neighbor's, New York law is actually a little unclear about who is responsible.

When farmland and ranches are involved, neighbors are equally responsible for maintaining a boundary fence. So-called "spite fences" that are erected just to annoy a neighbor are considered a nuisance and subject to legal action. Homeowners' associations (HOAs) also hold considerable sway over the rules regarding boundary fences, as do local jurisdictions.

Beyond that, however, there are some general "fence etiquette" tips you can use to avoid conflicts:

  • Don't erect a boundary fence -- or take one down -- without talking to your neighbors first. You can often come to a private agreement much more easily if you're willing to talk things out before you act.

  • Find out what the zoning laws are in your area regarding a fence. This is a smart step whether you're thinking about erecting a boundary fence or are wanting to make a complaint about one.

  • Take care of your side of an existing boundary fence. (Sometimes that means making a repair or two that benefits your neighbor as well.)

  • If a boundary fence is in serious disrepair, ask your neighbor to split the cost of a replacement fence -- or help with the labor.

  • Don't go crazy with alternative designs. That fence made out of old doors you saw on Pinterest, for example, may look great in the photos, but your neighbors may find your version less than charming.

Sometimes, a dispute over a fence can escalate. When that happens, it may be necessary to get some experienced legal advice about your situation in order to protect your interests.