What should California landowners know about common fences?

Understanding the state’s good neighbor fence law may help property owners in California avoid potentially costly and contentious neighbor disputes.

Homeowners in California and elsewhere may erect fences on their properties for numerous reasons, including to protect their privacy and security and to delineate the boundary lines of their properties. These structures provide a number of benefits, but they are also commonly a source of neighbor disputes. Thus, understanding the state's good neighbor fence law may help people avoid such issues when sharing common fences.

Presumption of equal benefit

It is generally held that neighbors share equally in the benefits of common fences between their properties. Therefore, state law specifies that both landowners are equally responsible for reasonable expenses associated with the construction, replacement and maintenance of shared fences.

There are some circumstances in which the court may determine that landowners should not bear equal financial obligation for common fences. This includes situations in which the financial burden would be significantly disproportionate to the benefits received by each landowner, the costs seem excessive or unnecessary, or the costs appear related to one property owner's personal architectural or aesthetic preferences.

Incurring costs for a shared fence

Although neighbors bear a shared responsibility for the costs of projects associated with common fences, they cannot spring new construction or maintenance projects on one another. Rather, people are required to notify their neighbors of their intention to fix an existing fence or to build a new one 30 days before starting any work. Such notifications should include the following:

  • A description of the problem with the fence or property line
  • A proposed solution to the issue
  • A proposed schedule of when the project would be started and completed
  • An estimate of the project's total cost

When landowners tell their neighbors they plan to begin a shared fence project, they should also propose how they intend the costs to be split between them.

Spite fences

Should they be unable to reach an agreement with their neighbors or simply want to take on the projects themselves, some property owners may forego the rights afforded to them regarding common fences. They should keep in mind, however, that they cannot build or maintain a shared fence in order to annoy their neighbors or otherwise injure their comfort or enjoyment of their estates. Additionally, people are prohibited from building shared fences over 10-feet tall with a malicious intent toward their neighbors. Doing so may be considered a private nuisance and may open people up to construction disputes.

Working with an attorney

Californians who are friendly with their neighbors may find it easy to work together on issues involving common fences. They may run into problems, though, if their properties have unique characteristics, they cannot agree on the need or they do not get along with adjoining property owners. Thus, it may be helpful for landowners to seek legal guidance before taking on common fence projects to help ensure they are aware of their rights and options.