Fence wars: When things get nasty in the suburbs

Fences provide privacy and are essential for boundaries but they can also be a bitter source of contention.
Fences provide privacy and are essential for boundaries but they can also be a bitter source of contention.

I used to roll my eyes about other people's fence issues until I had my own.

It started when we painted our side of a boundary fence black. Our neighbour painted theirs white.

White paint dribbled over our black paint, so we touched it up - with black. The neighbours repainted their side and the cycle continued...until we decided to put down our brushes and live with it.

Pool fences are subject to strict rules.
Pool fences are subject to strict rules.

While most would agree it's better to try and talk things through and come to a civil arrangement over fencing disagreements, it isn't always the case. 

* Queenstown fences being assessed
* What are your rights in fencing disputes?
* Is your fence a barricade?


Anna and Tom O'Connor were once great mates with their neighbours. They enjoyed kids' birthdays, dinner parties and BBQs, until they discovered their friends had measured the boundary between their fence and the O'Connor's new pool.

Despite council sign-off, it was discovered that the pool fence was built 30cm too close to the boundary fence.

The neighbours said it was dangerous, and their two and four year olds could potentially scale 1.4m tin fence. The Council acknowledged they were at fault and came up with the solution of building a 2m high fence.

Fences can be beautiful but people's tastes and budgets are rarely the same.
Fences can be beautiful but people's tastes and budgets are rarely the same.

The neighbours complained again, as their homes are in a heritage area where fences seen from the road are to remain at 1.4m. 

A Resource Management Act lawyer is now involved, and the O'Connor's have since discovered other complaints about their fence. If they lose, they're up for a big expense, re-fencing the property, ripping up decking and re-landscaping.

"We couldn't understand why they didn't come to us first without going to the council?" says Anna. "There are times when I now have to walk the other way down the street or avoid their house. It's been horrible and I hate it." 

The rules around fences are governed by several different laws and regulations.
The rules around fences are governed by several different laws and regulations.

Do you have a fence dispute you'd like to tell us about? homed@fairfaxmedia.co.nz

Jade Drake also thought she was doing a considerate thing when she built a new fence and paid for it. The Fencing Act 1978 states the cost of building or repairing a fence should be shared equally between adjoining owners.

"We'd have made it higher if we'd known what was to come," she says.

Neighbours on all sides have subsequently built up their sections and now both look over the fence, into the Drake's home from waist height.

"One built a raised deck with his BBQ against the fence on his side and stands there cooking his steak looking down on me while I'm gardening. The other put in a raised pool and then used the fill from that to raise the lawn. It is like living in a little hollow," she says.

"I've responded by putting my compost bins next to the BBQ which I fill with lots of lovely horse manure to rot down over summer. And I talk very loudly about the three-storey town house we will one day develop on our back lawn which will have lovely views."

Nicole Crofskey, a researcher at Greenstone TV, who worked on the TV series Neighbours at War, says fence issues often started with something small and then escalated to the point where parties were no longer communicating.

"We'd intervene when people needed third party help. There had to be fresh set of eyes on the issue," she says.

Fences are a source of great contention in the show and Crofskey recalls a story from a small North Island town where stones were being thrown, and there was name-calling and loud music at being played at 3am over a dispute about the position of a boundary fence. 

According to the Law Society's document Over the Fence, in the case of an uncertain boundary, a surveyor is needed to reestablish them.

It also recommends that before anyone decides to buy a property to check the physical boundaries and establish the boundary pegs first.

If the boundary is wrong, you're technically trespassing and the encroaching owner is legally responsible, whether or not they built the fence in the first place.

But if property owners reach an agreement, they can register this against the titles of their affected land so new owners don't need to concern themselves with the same issues. The subsequent owners will be bound by the decisions for up to 12 years.

"This can be a useful way to safeguard against future misunderstandings," the document states.


The best way to resolve any fencing dispute is by mutual agreement. If things escalate, most of the applicable rules can be found in the Fencing Act 1978, the Resource Management Act, Property Law Act, Building Act and Swimming Pool Act.

Boundaries: Before you buy a property check the title first to establish boundaries. If survey pegs are lost or removed a surveyor can establish where the boundary line runs. Technically you're trespassing if they are wrong. 

Cost: The cost of building or repairing a fence is borne equally between adjoining owners, unless one owner damages it - then they pay. 

Views: Under the Property Law Act 2007, it is possible to apply to a District Court for an order to remove or alter a fence that is detrimentally affecting land or obstructing a view.

Councils under their unitary, district and regional plans regulate matters such as the height of fences and how close they may be built to houses, rivers, streams and lakes. Disputes regarding civil matters that cannot be resolved are dealt with through the courts.

Information courtesy of The Law Society's booklet, Over the Fence.

* Some names have been changed.