Cities are not in the business of sending around fence inspection teams, and as long as no one complains, a nonconforming fence may stand forever.
Tell the neighbor about the law as soon as possible. She probably doesn't know what the law is, and if the fence is still being built, may be able to modify it at a low cost. If she suggests that you mind your own business, alert the city. All it takes in most circumstances is a phone call to the planning or zoning department or the city attorney's office. The neighbor will be ordered to conform; if she doesn't, the city can fine her and even sue.
As long as a fence doesn't pose a threat of harm to neighbors or those passing by, it probably doesn't violate any law just because it's ugly. Occasionally, however, a town or subdivision allows only certain types of new fences -- such as board fences -- in an attempt to create a harmonious architectural look. Some towns also prohibit certain materials -- for example, electrically charged or barbed wire fences.
Even without such a specific law, if a fence is so poorly constructed that it is an eyesore or a danger, it may be prohibited by another law, such as a blighted property ordinance. And if the fence was erected just for meanness -- it's high, ugly and has no reasonable use to the owner -- it may be a "spite fence," and you can sue the neighbor to get it torn down.
Unless the property owners agree otherwise, fences on a boundary line belong to both owners when both are using the fence. Both owners are responsible for keeping the fence in good repair, and neither may remove it without the other's permission.
A few states have harsh penalties for refusing to chip in for maintenance after a reasonable request from the other owner. Connecticut, for example, allows one neighbor to go ahead and repair, and then sue the other owner for double the cost.
Of course, it's rare that a landowner needs to resort to a lawsuit. Your first step should be to talk to the neighbor about how to tackle the problem. Your neighbor will probably be delighted that you're taking the initiative to fix a fence that's already an eyesore and might deteriorate into a real danger.
A boundary fence, also called a division fence or partition fence, is a fence that is located on the line between two properties and is used by both owners. Boundary fences are owned by both owners when both use the fence. What constitutes “use ” varies by state. Some states define use as occupancy – such as using the land up to the fence, perhaps by planting crops. Some use the word “join ” for use – that is, a neighbor who hooks up another fence to the boundary fence is “using ” the boundary fence. Most states say a fence is used only when the landowner ’s property is entirely enclosed by fences.
Unless boundary fence owners agree otherwise, both owners are responsible for keeping the fence in good repair. However, the fence owners may agree to a different arrangement. For example, one neighbor might want to be responsible for repairing the fence, perhaps because she has a dog and is more interested in keeping the fence. Agreements between neighbors about boundary fences are only enforceable between current neighbors. When a new owner comes into the picture, the old agreement is no longer in force.
You can research your state's fence laws, either online or in your local public law library. A good place to start is the Legal Research area on Nolo's website. You may also want to check your city or town's laws. For tips on how to do this, see Nolo's information on How to Find Local Ordinances and State Laws
For a comprehensive guide that contains more specific information on landowners' rights and responsibilities with regard to fences, see Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise, by Cora Jordan and Emily Doskow (Nolo).
In residential areas, local rules commonly restrict artificial (constructed) backyard fences to a height of six feet. In front yards, the limit is often four feet.
Height restrictions may also apply to natural fences -- fences of bushes or trees -- if they meet the ordinance's general definition of fences. Trees that are planted in a row and grow together to form a barrier are usually considered a fence. When natural fences are specifically mentioned in the laws, the height restrictions commonly range from five to eight feet.
If, however, you have a good reason (for example, you need to screen your house from a noisy or unsightly neighboring use, such as a gas station), you can ask the city for a one-time exception to the fence law, called a variance. Talk to the neighbors before you make your request, to explain your problem and get them on your side.