GOT ROT? (On your wood fence that is)

Of all the inspections I have performed with wood fences around yards at least half of them are damaged.  Of the other half most of them are on their way to being damaged.  So what can you look for when buying a home with a wood fence, what do you look for when having a fence installed, or how can you help ensure your wood fence does not end up damaged and rotted?

[tab: Proper installation is a must]

A nice wood fence surrounding a home’s yard not only provides privacy but also adds appeal to the home and yard.  When a fence is brand new it sure looks nice!  But if the fence was not properly installed it will quickly end up in a landfill somewhere and cost a great deal to repair or replace.  Unfortunately some fence installation companies are only interested in getting your business.  To do that they must underbid their competition as most people are not familiar enough with fences to understand the cost differences.  Once the fence is up it sure looks great but you don’t get to see the errors for some time afterward.  By then it is too late to understand why that fence installer way underbid the job.

The five biggest problems with fence deterioration deal with poor quality installations and corner cutting to get the fence installed as cheaply as possible to maximize profit.  It goes without saying that when you are having a fence installed you should get multiple, detailed estimates for the installation.  As a matter of fact get more than 3 detailed estimates, get 6 if you can!  By detailed you need to know everything from what materials they are using, how tall it is, how deep are the posts, how much concrete they use, how many fasteners they use (nails in boards and brackets to poles, etc.), how they will stain or paint it, along with other details and not just the price.

Fence post rotting in dirt

Fence posts in dirt will rot!

No matter what you are building everything needs a good foundation or starting point.  For wood fences these are the posts that will hold your fence panels upright.  If these are not properly installed then time, and the elements, will take them and the fence down with it.  Here is where the less than honest fence builder will start to cut corners.  First off the fence post needs to be sufficiently buried in the ground.  It is generally recommended that 1/3 of the posts length be buried for sufficient support.  That means a 6′ fence will require a 9′ post and an 8′ fence requires a 12′ post.  As a minimum though in our shifting soils they should be 3′ in the ground.  Before the posts are set, if they are not treated with preservatives, they should be soaked in preservatives to help extend their life.  The hole dug should be at least twice the diameter of the post.  The post should also be set in concrete from their bottom all the way up, and above, the surrounding ground.  This will provide an exceptional anchor to prevent them from tilting over and keep the water away from the wood where it can constantly soak in causing damage.  This is where the first two most used short-cuts/bad installation techniques start.  That is not burying posts deep enough and not using enough or any concrete.

In the picture above we see a fence post that has been buried with dirt in direct contact with it.  Even though this is a pressure treated (soaked in preservative) piece of wood the pressure treated only slows water damage.  As can be seen here this post has been wicking water for awhile now (white staining) and is beginning to rot at its base.  A post buried under the dirt in this way is also an invitation to termites.  Termites can enter the post under the dirt level and do their damage before you see it.

Pickets in direct contact with earth will rot.

The next installation quality issue that damages fencing is improper placement of the fence pickets.  The fence pickets should be approximately 2″ above the surrounding ground and not near or in contact with the ground.  It does not matter what type of wood the pickets are made of, or if they are pressure treated, they will wick water up and they will rot quickly.  In addition pickets that are in contact, or below, the ground are an invitation to termite attack.  The picture to the left shows a fence whose pickets are in direct contact with the ground.  You can see the light discoloration where the water has been wicking up the pickets and the damage at the bottom from it.

Another corner cutting method that saves the installer time and money is using an insufficient number of fasteners (typically nails) or not properly placing the fasteners on the pickets.  In the picture immediately above the fence has three horizontal support rails on the back side of those pickets.  If you look on the right of the picture, about halfway up, you will see the line of nails used to fasten the picket to the horizontal rail on the rear.  The second picket from the right displays the proper way to nail a picket to the rail.  Each picket should have two nails at each rail with the nails placed 1/2″ – 3/4″ from the right and left side of the picket.  The nails should have an appropriate sized head, be flush with the picket surface, not be over-driven (buried in the board) and not under-driven (sticking out of the board.  Over time, and between surface treatments, the pickets will try to curl or cup at their edges.  Properly nailing them on helps prevent the curling or cupping.  To shortcut the installer might only install one on each rail at the center of the board.  If the installer is not paying attention they will drive the nails in right next to each other in the center of the board even closer than that first picket to the right.

The last corner cutting and short cutting issue that causes damage is improperly applying sealers, stains, paints, etc.  Typically when the sealer or coating is put on it looks nice enough for the installer to collect their check and run!  After a couple of rains it starts to run or wash out if it was put on too lightly or even watered down to stretch it out before applying it.  Another time saver for the installer is only to apply it to the immediately visible parts of the fence.  For example if you have an 8′ fence they skimp or don’t apply it to the tops of pickets, tops of the highest horizontal rail, and rarely to the bottom of the pickets or bottom of the lowest rails.  When you get your quote make sure they specify what sealants, stains, paints, etc., they are going to use and the manufacturer’s name and type.  Also have them specify a line item showing how much (gallons) they will be using.  You can then go to the manufacturer’s site and see if the amount they are quoting you to be used is accurate with what the manufacturer’s “Spread Rate” is for that product.

So if you are having a fence installed or replace keep an eye out for these errors and make sure you are having a proper job performed.  So what do you do if your buying a house with one or more issues?  Check for these issues when possible and read the next tab about maintenance for potential corrections to some of them.

[tab: Once there it must be maintained]

So if you have an existing fence it certainly will require maintenance over time if you want it to last as long as possible.  First we will discuss some maintenance tips to help protect your fence and keep it in good shape.  Then we will offer some tips to possibly correct the issues of bad and/or shortcut installation techniques.

Never allow sprinklers to spray on fences

Never allow sprinklers to spray on fences.

The protective coating (stains, paint, sealers, etc.) naturally wear over time and require re-accomplishing.  You can tell it is wearing as the fence starts changing color/shades.  It is never good to wait until the shade changes completely as the more worn the coating is the faster the elements can damage it more.  Another important item is to not subject the fence to unnecessary abuse to cause the coatings to wear even faster.  One of the biggest causes are maladjusted sprinkler heads that allow sprinklers to constantly spray on the fence.  Not only does it prematurely destroy the coating but it also leaves an unsightly lighter pattern as displayed here.

Ivy destroying a fence

Never allow ivy, or any other vegetation, to grow on a wood fence.

Vegetation should never be allowed to grow on wood fences!  In the picture on the left the ivy has been allowed to crawl up the fence and has contributed greatly to the destruction of the fence.  Vegetation can hold moisture against the fence which can damage it.  It hides damage and prevents you from performing normal inspections and maintenance of the fence.  Vegetation also provides a hiding place and pathway for destructive pests such as termites, wood boring bees, and a variety of other pests that can damage a fence.

 

Keep fences clear of trees and bushes.

Keep fences clear of trees and bushes.

Bushes, trees, and other shrubbery adds beauty to the yard but can easy damage and destroy fences.  Keep a 24″ space cleared between the side and top (over) the fence to help prevent them from brushing it in the wind and damaging it.  That space also gives you room to perform your annual inspections and needed maintenance on the fence.

 

 

During your annual maintenance checks look for the condition of the coatings, loose and damaged pickets, loose and corroding fasteners (nails, screws, brackets, etc), unstable posts, properly operating gates and latches, as well as plant growth near the fence.  It is a simple and quick inspection that can catch problems while they are still minor, inexpensively and easily correctable.

So what do you do if you have any of the errors noted in the first tab?  If you have caught them in time they are almost all easily correctable.  If your posts have not been set deep enough that is the one problem not easily or cheaply corrected.  It can be corrected but you should speak with a professional, and reputable, fence installer to determine if corrections are worth performing.  Depending on the age and condition of the fence you might be able to reuse the panels and just remove and properly install the posts.

If the wood of the post is buried underground that can be fairly easily corrected.  You would need to excavate the posts and correct them one at a time to prevent causing the fence to be unstable.  Brace the post and/or fence section to prevent it from tilting or falling.  Then dig down to where the concrete was poured, or the bottom if none was poured.  Wash the area down good to remove any dirt from the post and buried concrete.  Create a form around the hole making sure the form is at least 2″ above the ground level.  Then mix and pour a proper concrete mix in to finish the concrete base the way it should have been done.  If you clean the dirt off completely the new concrete should bond to the old well enough to function.

As for pickets in the ground that is a very easy correction.  As long as the damaged wood has not made it very high, and you are handy with a circular saw, you can raise the level of the pickets by cutting off enough to bring them above ground.  Place a scrap piece of 1/2″ X 6″ X 5′ (or more) wood on the ground and use it as a guide for the circular saw to rest on and run across as you cut.  That will give you clean and even cut lines.  When done just touch up the bottom edge of the board with stain, sealer, paint, or whatever was used on the fence to help seal it.

If you have improperly placed fasteners on the pickets you can always add more where they belong.  Many times if the board is curling then adding the fasteners in the proper place will help bend them back flat.  Just be careful not to put them to close to the edge or you can split the picket.

Obviously for the issue of insufficient, or incomplete, coatings you can always power wash the fence and reapply the coatings making sure to completely and evenly coat all surfaces including tops, bottoms, and sides of pickets and rails when possible.

A wood fence is an expensive addition and/or replacement for any home.  With due diligence in obtaining estimates and reviewing a contractors work you can make sure you are receiving a quality installation.  With very little effort you can also maintain the fence to last a long time!

[tab: Links and References]

PS Inspection & Property Services LLC is a full service home inspection and light commercial inspection company servicing the entire Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex.  We strive to for the satisfaction of our customers in everything we do.  Our services offerings include:

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New Home Warranty Inspections
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Whole Inspections Or Inspections Customized To Your Needs

If you have an inspection need we can customize an inspection for it.  Please visit our main site at PS Inspection & Property Service LLC.

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