Frequently Asked Questions about Fence Codes in the Chicago Metro Area
As you use our convenient guide to fence codes and regulations in the cities that make up Chicagoland, you’re bound to encounter terms and information that raise questions in your mind. You’ll find answers to the most commonly asked questions on this page. For other questions about specific issues regarding fences in your city, contact your city’s building or zoning authority. You’ll find a phone number and link to that department’s website here on the page for each city.
What is a “plat of survey” and how do I get one?
A plat of survey is a diagram, prepared by a surveyor, which shows the dimensions and layout of your property and the structures that exist on it. Applications for a building permit usually require at least one copy, with the fence location indicated on the drawing. There should be a copy of your plat of survey with the mortgage or deed papers for your home. If not, you may be able to get one from your lender or the county clerk or assessor’s office. If no plat of survey exists, you may have to hire a licensed surveyor to prepare one. The cost of such a survey varies.
How do I locate my property lines accurately?
That can be a tricky thing to do on your own. However, if your home is in a recent planned development or subdivision, you may be able to measure from existing buildings to locate it, working from your plat of survey. Since the fence you build must be entirely on your property, you can allow a bit of extra space to make sure. In other cases, you may have to hire a surveyor to locate the property’s corner markers or stakes, which will be buried on your property and mark the lot’s boundaries. Don’t rely on existing fence locations, though. They may be incorrect.
Is the sidewalk in front of my home on my property?
It is almost certainly not. Sidewalks are generally built within the road easement. Your property line will be behind the sidewalk. In some cities, front yard fences must be set back from sidewalks from 6″ to 12″, as well.
What are fence setbacks and why are they needed?
In some cities, fences along public streets, sidewalks and alleys must be set back a certain distance for a variety of reasons. In other cases, fences of different heights may be built, depending on how far they are set back from the property line. If you have any questions about a specific situation, contact your local building department or authority.
What if I have reasons to need a higher fence than is allowed?
In some cities, fences that are adjacent to commercial properties, alleys, schools, major roads, railroad tracks or other specific properties can be built higher than the usual maximum. In other cases, you may be able to apply for a variance to the building code if you can justify the higher fence. Keep in mind, though, that variances require time to process and may even involve a public hearing. If you have questions, ask your local building authority.
What does an “open fence” mean?
Generally it means a fence that is constructed or made of materials that provide regular openings that make up at least 50% of the area of the fence. Picket fences, ornamental metal (wrought iron) fences, chain link fences and fences with lattice panels are considered to be open fences. In some cities, more precise definitions are used. Privacy fences, shadow box fences and palisade fences are considered closed or solid fences. In other words, if you can easily see clearly through the fence from a distance, it is an open fence. Open fences are often required in front and some side yards.
What is a “sight triangle”?
This applies primarily to corner lots where two roadways or a roadway and an alley intersect at one corner of the property. In order for drivers to see traffic on the intersecting street, it’s important that fences don’t block the view. Sight triangles may also be required next to driveways. A triangle of varying sizes, measured on each side from the corner of your property is often specified. In that area your fence may be limited in height or may be prohibited. These rules exist to protect the safety of drivers and pedestrians.
Why can’t I build a fence in my front yard?
In some cities, front yard fences are prohibited altogether. Typically, this is done to encourage friendly interactions between neighbors and to discourage fences that might degrade the appearance of homes on that street. In other cities, front yard fences must be made of only certain decorative materials and have strict height restrictions. For example, many cities prohibit chain link fences in front yards, but allow short ornamental metal or wooden picket fences. In historic districts and other neighborhoods front yard fences may be required to be of a specific design.
What if I ignore city building permit requirements and just build the fence?
That’s a risky thing to do. You might get away with it for a while, if you follow the city’s materials and height regulations, but if the city discovers your fence was built without a permit, you could be subject to fines or even be required to remove the fence at your own expense. What often happens is that a neighbor notifies the city of a non-conforming fence, leading to an inspection by a code enforcement official. Why take that risk?
Why does the “good side” of my fence have to face out?
This is a very common question. The answer has two parts. First, your neighbor probably won’t want the posts and rails of your fence facing his or her property. They’re not as attractive as the finished side. Similarly, fences facing toward a public right of way are required to be attractive on the outside. Second, you may have to do maintenance work on your fence. If the structural side faces another property, you might need access to that property. Consider a design that looks the same from both sides, such as a shadow box, inserted panel design, or other two-sided fence. That’s a popular solution.
Consult Your Local Building Department or Contractors for More Answers
If you have questions that aren’t answered on this page, you can get helpful answers by calling the building authority phone number listed on this site’s page for your city. Usually, the staff there will be happy to give you an accurate answer to any question regarding building codes and rules. Local, licensed contractors will be happy to answer your questions, too, especially about types of materials and installation. They have knowledge based on long experience installing fences in your community. If you’re building your own fence, you can also find helpful instructional videos on almost every aspect of construction and installation by searching on YouTube.