Whether they’re planning to live in their current house for decades or want to sell it in a few years, the advantages of a low- or no-maintenance fence appeal to homeowners. And they’re increasingly willing to pay a higher price for those advantages.
“Homeowners respect the value a no-maintenance fence offers and realize they’re going to have to spend more for them,” says Richard Lusa, president of Fence Depot in St. Charles, Missouri.
If homeowners aren’t the type to move every five years, they have specific fencing concerns they want addressed, says Edward Gibbs, president of Owasso Fence in Owasso, Oklahoma. They want to be assured gates are going to work properly, the fence will withstand weather and they won’t have to paint or stain it over and over. On the other hand, homeowners who plan to sell their house sooner rather than later know they’ll be competing with similar homes in the same neighborhood.
If all else is equal, but one house has a wooden fence and the other has a maintenance-free vinyl or ornamental metal fence, buyers are likely to choose the home with a fence they won’t have to spend time and energy maintaining, Lusa points out. He installs a mix of wooden, vinyl and ornamental metal fencing, including products by Ameristar Fence, and says the market for the latter two has grown during the past three years.
Privacy and clean-line ‘pop’
Jay Irwin, president of Irwin Design and Build in Washington, D.C., says he installed a lot of split-rail fencing two and three years ago, but hasn’t had requests for any this year. In fact, he’s been removing it and installing privacy fencing, usually made of vinyl. “Privacy is one of the bigger selling features this year,” he says. “People like to enclose their backyard to make it feel like a secluded environment.”
Longevity is also an issue. Split-rail fences begin to look old and “ratty” after just one year, Irwin says, whereas vinyl and cedar keep their clean-line appearance much longer. Split-rail fencing costs less – about $5,000 compared with $20,000 for a typical vinyl privacy fence – but homeowners are spending more to upgrade their properties with a product that will retain the “pop” effect of a new fence, Irwin says.
For cedar fencing to do that, it needs to be pressure washed every year and coated with an oil-based sealer every couple years. While there will always be people who prefer the natural beauty of wood fencing and don’t mind maintaining it, that segment of the market is shrinking, Lusa says.
As an alternative, brown and tan-colored vinyl fencing with wood-grain etching is available. Irwin says the material is similar to synthetic decking boards and you have to get close to it to be able to tell it isn’t wood. The cost is slightly higher than that of smooth, white vinyl fencing.
Gibbs says he’s seen a considerable uptick in demand for ornamental metal fencing in upper-class neighborhoods as well as standard middle-class subdivisions. The material is strong – usually 50,000 psi tensile strength – and has no problem withstanding Oklahoma winds, which can reach 30 mph on an ordinary day and 60 mph during storms. Homeowners prefer the appearance of ornamental metal to wooden fencing because it doesn’t change over time, Gibbs says. Vinyl fencing isn’t popular in the area because high winds often cause panels and rails to separate from posts.
Quality changes in fencing material have also driven the trend toward maintenance-free products. “Fencing, for certain wood products, has actually decreased in quality,” without decreasing in price, Gibbs says, while manufactured items such as steel and iron have increased in quality and become more affordable. Irwin says technological advances in the past few years have also led to “significantly more robust” vinyl fencing that stays flexible longer and is more resilient to ultra-violet light, high temperatures, cracking and impacts.
Rust used to be a problem with metal fences, but now ornamental steel and aluminum fences have a powder-coat finish that makes them impervious to oxidation. Most come with 20-year to lifetime warranties.
In the 1970s, the majority of wood fences were made of redwood, “the best wood out there,” Gibbs says, because it’s not as susceptible to the elements as other varieties. But thanks to increased competition, due largely to the rise of big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, most wood fences are now made of Western red cedar, and pickets have shrunk from 1 inch wide to 1/2 an inch. Thick, stable wooden posts have disappeared as well. Gibbs uses galvanized steel posts instead of thinner wooden ones that warp, crack and rot. Today a redwood fence costs two or three times as much as a cedar one, and is outside most homeowners’ budgets, he says.
Irwin says his customers want fences with neat, consistent lines. To accomplish this, he uses hidden hinges that make closed gates look like ordinary fence sections.
Good-neighbor wooden fences, which are identical on both sides instead of having exposed posts facing neighbors’ property, are becoming more common, Lusa says. In the vinyl arena, French Gothic caps, which come to a point at the top and have a rounded notch at the base, and flat New England-style caps with a routed-looking border are the most popular, he says. Installing lighting on vinyl fencing is also a growing trend. You can run wiring through the rails instead of burying it.
Homeowners like to customize ornamental metal fencing, and an increasing variety of finials, decorative options and picket spacings is making that possible, Lusa says. Flat-top fencing, in which pickets don’t extend past the upper rail, is Gibbs’ best-selling ornamental metal product. Fences with classic press-point pickets are a close second.
Overall, fence design hasn’t evolved much during the past five years, Irwin says. “I don’t see the style of fencing changing anytime soon,” he adds. “We haven’t seen a whole lot of changes; mainly just the details.”
Just as homeowners are willing to spend more for maintenance-free fencing, they’re also inclined to shell out extra money for hardware that won’t give them headaches.
“There’s nothing more frustrating than a gate that doesn’t close correctly,” says Jay Irwin of Irwin Design and Build.
The quality of readily available fencing hardware advanced markedly about three years ago, and it was a long-needed improvement, he says. Stainless-steel hinges and latches – instead of zinc-plated steel – are now easy to obtain. Zinc-plated hardware rusts after a few years, Irwin says, causing hinges to give way, latches to stick and fencing to sag. Prices are up along with quality, but homeowners who have dealt with defective hardware in the past are glad to pay them.
When paired with wooden fences, steel-frame gates are alleviating similar problems, says Edward Gibbs of Owasso Fence. Gibbs builds a lot of wooden fences because many homeowners’ associations in the Tulsa, Oklahoma, area require them. Over time, the expansion and contraction of wood in a gate can impair its function. Gibbs nails pickets across the front of steel-framed gates, making them look like the rest of the fence while limiting sagging and warping.