Fences mark the property line between residences in Palo Alto like creeks and roads divide cities from each other. But, other than a 7-foot height limit, there are no rules saying what the fence materials or design must be.
The "good-neighbor fence" style is what divides most properties in the city. These feature an overlaying plank structure that looks the same from either side. Some fences stand on their own, while others are covered by vines or other landscaping, obscuring them from view.
Fences located in front of a home can be far more decorative or experimental. These are what Redwood City contractor and fine carpenter Jon McAllister calls "house jewelry" because they are the first thing that people see. Fences can range from simple white pickets to more custom designs, such as rustic or curvy national park-style redwood fences.
For a traditional 6-foot tall good-neighbor fence, companies typically charge $27 per square foot for low-quality redwood (known as construction common, or concommon), while higher quality redwood (construction heart, or conheart) can cost between $32 and $40 per square foot. Contractors say that large-scale projects reduce costs for homeowners. Daniel Cardwell, a contractor with San Jose-based Sierra Lumber and Fences, said that for picket fences the price for redwood and vinyl is between $23 and $26 per square foot, and that the main advantage of vinyl is that it is easier to maintain.
While price can sway some homeowners, the aesthetics of the fence are paramount for most decisions.
When Mike Turbow decided to do something with the good-neighbor fence at his rental property, his neighbor, a Realtor, suggested Plane and Stain, a Redwood City-based contractor. The company suggested that he replace the fence because the cost difference between repairing and replacing the fence was only $200-$300 more, Turbow said. The replacement work took only one day, as opposed to a multi-day, labor-intensive retrofit.
Turbow has now hired the same company again for work on the white picket fence at his Palo Alto home. He originally wanted to save the pickets, which are in good condition, and replace the posts. But the company told him that it would be easier to replace the whole thing.
"They said, 'Look, we can replace the posts, we can save all the wood pickets, but because of the labor involved it's not going to cost you much different to replace the whole thing and we can just duplicate what you have there.'"
Turbow also looked to see if vinyl picket fences would be a good replacement because of their long life. But he found that their prices are at least 30 percent higher than redwood so he decided to stick with redwood.
While the aesthetics of vinyl fences may be lacking, the quality of some newer PVC material has increased. When reviewing what appeared to be a normal picket fence, McAllister revealed that the material was not redwood or cedar, but a PVC material called AZEK. McAllister used this material because of the multiple curves in the design, curves that would be hard to make with wood. The AZEK material allowed for McAllister to make an aesthetically pleasing structure that still looked (and arguably feels) like wood.
Palo Alto homeowner Phyllis Sherlock faced a less complicated dilemma when it came to replacing one part of her cedar grapestake fence. After 75 years, many spent covered in ivy, the fence had rotted through in some places, and balls from the neighboring children were getting over its 5-foot height. Her two sons, one who is a contractor, John Sherlock of Palo Alto-based Sherlock Construction, helped her install the new fence, which retained the old style but pushed the fence to 7-feet tall, the height limit of fences in Palo Alto. Sherlock split the cost with her neighbors, a normal practice among homeowners.
Keeping with the previous style, the new fence used old railroad ties as posts, giving the fence an even more natural feel.
"I really like the rustic look, and it goes well with (my) house," Sherlock said.
Sherlock's cedar fence is unusual not only in its style but its material. Redwood is the dominant material in the Bay Area because of the proximity to belts of redwood forests and a climate that encourages the farming of redwoods. This means that, according to local contractors, redwood makes up almost all of the material that they use for their work.
But not all redwood is the same. Two types of wood come from a redwood tree: all heartwood and lumber that contains sapwood. The all-heartwood lumber has a darker hue and is taken from the center of the tree, where the wood has been infused with rot- and insect-resistant resins over the period of the tree's life.
Differing grades of heartwood are based on the number and size of knots that it contains, but the resistance to decay is similar. Sapwood, on the other hand, is lighter in color and is taken closer to the outer layer of the tree. Because of its young age it does not contain the resistance-creating resin and is much more vulnerable to rot. According to McAllister, most sapwood is used inside of buildings or in very low-exposure areas above ground because of its lack of rot resistance.
McAllister warns homeowners that some contractors will try to save themselves money by using heartwood that also contains sapwood for fence boards. This means that, while the heartwood can remain untreated, the untreated sapwood will rot and jeopardize the rest of the fence. When someone is investing significant time and money into a fence that should last between 20 and 40 years, this technique is a major problem that shortens the fence's lifespan.
Simple maintenance is necessary in order to maintain a long-lasting and sound structure. McAllister emphasizes the importance of landscaping and irrigation when it comes to preserving fences, especially around the bottom running boards and posts.
Dirt buildup from landscaping can encroach on posts that had previously been raised above ground, and contact with dirt and water encourages and accelerates rot in the fence. McAllister said that if homeowners can ensure that their fences are kept clear of these two dangers, than they can rest assured that they will get plenty of use out of their structures.
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