Holmes: A lot of contractors start out in the business as fence guys, so make sure yours has some experience and didn’t just pick up a hammer. Ask if they have done these types of job before, how many they’ve done and whether you can go see some of their completed jobs. If they say no, that’s a huge red flag. You also don’t want a contractor who just ‘happens to be in the area’ or who is ready to start right away. A good contractor is usually busy; chances are he or she will not be able to start your fence or deck the next day.
Ask for references—and check them—and get lots of quotes. When you get them, remember there is no average price for a deck or a fence—every situation is different, depending on the materials, access, details, size and experience and skill of the contractor.
PSP: What are some other warning signs a contractor is unethical or unskilled?
Holmes: If they want to be paid in cash, walk away. If they ask for all of the money up front, walk away. If they don’t provide a contract, walk away. Be sure to structure the job and payment schedules the same way—contractors should be paid based on milestones they reach, not a big deposit up front.
PSP: What are some of your basic rules for fence building?
Holmes: When doing wooden fences make sure to use wood that has been chemically treated, like cedar, or composite materials, since they will last the longest. Also be sure your contractor checks the wood for cracks, warping and crowning before installation starts.
Use 152-x-152 mm (6-x-6-in.) posts, rather than 101-x-101-mm (4-x-4-in.) ones; this will cost you a bit more, but it will be well worth it in the long run. Also, make sure your gate is secure, with a sturdy 6-x-6 post in a solid foundation. This is a really important detail, and is often overlooked. When installing hinges go for that extra set (use three instead of two); more hinges will better support the cantilever. Also, make sure your contractor uses galvanized screws and nails.
You should also make sure the holes for the fence posts are the proper depth, and that your contractor uses cement and proper cement forms (such as Sonotube®) to secure the posts. Fence posts should be set deep enough to go below the frost line—0.9 m (36 in.) is a good minimum depth, but 1.2 m (48 in.) is even better. Finally, make sure the posts are installed plum, that the top of the fence is level and that the fence is installed in a straight line.