House 9 Remodeling: Fence Replacement – The Assessment

I purchased House 9 in late 2009 during the Great Recession.  Built in 2006, the house was just three years young.  When the house was built, a 5 1/2 foot tall, wood privacy fence was also erected on the east side of the property.  This 98-foot section of fencing is now 12-years-old and is clearly showing its age.

The fence has all the hallmarks of “professional” craftsmanship.  Many of the 4×4 posts have rotted at the base and are falling over.  Many of the 2×4 decorative cap rails have also fallen off over the years.  Some of the fence boards have become detached and nearly all the fence boards have rotted at the bottom due to the constant moisture from contact with the wet soil.

Average Lifespan of Wooden Fences

According to most fence supply companies, pressure-treated pine fences should last around 20 years.  So why is the fence at House 9 needing to be replaced after just 12 years?  Well it turns out that one of the greatest determinant of a fence’s lifespan is the quality of its construction and installation.

Common Problems with Professionally Constructed Fences

As I have iterated many times, contrary to general belief, the work of professional craftsman is typically far inferior to that of a knowledgeable and skilled DIY landlord.  The reason for this is that most professionals attempt to maximize their profits through a combination of the following strategies:

  • Employ cheap, unskilled or poorly-skilled labor
  • Purchase cheap materials
  • Utilize techniques which produce the most minimally acceptable results in the shortest amount of time

For fence building, these strategies result in the following common issues:

Crooked Posts, Line, Top, Rails, Boards

The greatest contributor to the aesthetics of a fence are the nice, clean lines which result from meticulous construction.  To achieve this look, fence construction should adhere to the following rules:

  • All posts and fence boards should be installed plumb.
  • All posts should be equally spaced apart.
  • All posts forming a continuous run of fencing should form a straight line.
  • The top of a continuous run of fencing should form a straight or smoothly-contoured line.
  • All rails in a fence section should be equally spaced apart.

Following these rules takes time, care, and attention.  To save time, many professionals choose to shortcut the process by eyeballing measurements rather than using lines, measuring tapes, and levels.  This often results in a fence that is an eyesore rather than an enhancement to a home.

Cheap, Weak Posts

A typical privacy fence built by professionals will use 4×4 wooden posts.  These are the smallest and therefore also the cheapest of the wood posts which are sold for fence building.  For comparison, an 8-foot 4×4 pressure-treated wood post currently retails for $7.88 at Home Depot while a 8-foot 6×6 pressure-treated wood post costs nearly three times as much at $22.77.

Due to their smaller size, most 4×4 wood posts tend to warp over time.  So while they may have been constructed straight, over time, many will end up crooked and detract significantly from the aesthetics of the fence.  While less likely to occur,  6×6 wood posts can still warp over time so the additional expense is not certain guarantee against this issue.

Regardless of their size and being chemically treated, all wood posts are guaranteed to rot over time at their base where they experience the most contact with moisture.  Due to their smaller girth, 4×4 wood posts will have their integrity compromised much earlier than 6×6 wood posts.  Once a wood post has rotted and separated from its footing, it no longer provides support to the adjoining fence sections and will require full extraction and replacement.

Cheap, Weak Fasteners

To expedite installation, professionals typically utilize nails instead of screws in their fence construction. Every professionally installed fence I have seen has been assembled with nails.  With the use of a nail gun, the assembly of fence can be ten times faster than using screws.  Nails are also cheaper than screws.  However, screws are far superior than nails in grip strength.  As a result, fences constructed with nails tend to fall apart over time as the nails work their way loose.  This problem is non-existent with screws.

Weak Framing

When framing a fence, professionals often employ inferior techniques such as toe-nailing, which compromises the integrity of the wood.  When the ends of rails are toe-nailed to posts, the wood end often becomes split at the site of the nailing.  When this happens, the strength of the most critical joint in fence construction, between the rail and the post, becomes severely degraded.  Over time, the weight of the fence boards bearing down on these joints will cause the rail ends to break off completely which then requires their replacement.

Ground Contact

Nothing shortens the lifespan of wood faster than moisture.  Wood exposed to constant moisture will quickly deteriorate over time due to decay.  Fences are exposed to the most moisture where they make contact with the the ground.  While this is unavoidable in the case of the fence posts, there is no reason for fence boards to be making ground contact.

Either due to lack of knowledge or laziness, many fence contractors will sit fence boards on the ground rather than installing them with a small gap above ground.  In the case of House 9, not only are the fence boards in contact with the ground, they are buried about an inch underground.  Most likely the fence was built first and then followed by grading and installation of sod.  The result is that the bottom of all the fence boards are heavily rotted.

DIY Landlord Fence Replacement

Given the poor construction and current condition of the fence at House 9, I have decided to replace the fence entirely.  The most important component of the fence, the posts, have failed so I have decided to remove the old fence entirely: fence boards, rails, posts, and post footings.  Once that is done, I will construct a new fence using superior materials so that it will stand the test of time.

Stay tuned for the next post where I will layout the plans for the fence replacement and upgrade.

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