When you’re considering a new fence, you might be wondering the difference between vinyl and wood. Why choose one other the other, and what are their pros and cons? I’ll break down the vinyl vs. wood fences debate and go over my decisionmaking process as a homeowner.
Vinyl vs. wood fences & this homeowner’s decisionmaking process!
Today’s post is a bit different from my usual posts. It’s not the first time I’ve done a post like this, though—I have a popular post I put together when I was researching vinyl plank flooring called 10 vinyl plank flooring reviews from a homeowner.
I also have a post about the brand I chose (Lifeproof) and how I installed the floors myself. Then later I tackled the buy vs. DIY debate when we were refinishing our carpeted stairs to hardwood. (Spoiler: We hired out, and it’s been the best project in our home!)
Today is less of a buy vs. DIY post because lord knows I don’t have a lot of time on my hands to install a fence these days! We know we’re hiring this job out, but I have done a lot of mulling over vinyl vs. wood fences and which I wanted.
Why write this post?
I often write posts like these when I do Google searches and only find results from fence companies, lumber companies, or vinyl companies 🙂 You know—people with something to gain. I’m just a homeowner reviewing the options, and I’m hoping that’s helpful.
What kind of wood are wood fences made of?
First let’s talk about what each fence is actually made of. It might sound obvious, but it’s a good baseline to start at. Especially if you’re not terribly handy or this is our first home or fence installation.
Wood fences are just that: wood. They are made entirely of wood. They have thick wood fence posts that are set in the ground, usually with concrete. Then the fence is built between the posts.
The most popular type of wood for wooden fences is pressure-treated lumber, usually pine or fir, that is treated to withstand the elements. The treatment is an insecticidal preservative called chromated copper arsenate, which deters termites and other insects.
This helps prolong the wood’s life because, as we all know, termites can do a lot of damage to wood! Fences are also usually stained or sealed in some way to help protect the wood.
Another common choice for fences is cedar, though this is a bit more expensive than pressure-treated lumber. Cedar is not pressure-treated because it contains natural oils that deter insects. Cedar fences are also commonly treated with a finish or sealant that help protect the wood and boost its color. They just don’t have that initial chemical treatment.
Vinyl fences—what are they made of?
When you hear “vinyl fence,” you probably immediately think of the bright white plastic-looking fences that have started popping up everywhere. You’re right! Those are vinyl fences. Vinyl fences are made out of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) that is mixed with other materials to create the strong, durable vinyl that is used for fences.
Many vinyl fences use wood inserts in the fence posts, with the vinyl part just being a “sleeve” or “cover” for the wood. This is not always the case, but it seems to be common. Because the majority of a vinyl fence is made out of a synthetic material, it’s very durable. The material is designed for durability, and it won’t ever warp or split, and it doesn’t need to be sealed like wood.
Vinyl fencing…is it safe?
Yes! Plastic is generally the worst, but it’s sadly a fact of modern life. If you’re worried about installing a synthetic material for your fence, know that vinyl fencing is not treated with harsh chemicals like some other plastics are. Vinyl is also recyclable. (More on that in a bit.)
So let’s look at the pros and cons of vinyl vs. wood fences by topic!
I’m going to break down my thought process for vinyl vs. wood fencing by the major areas I considered when we were fence shopping. First up, maintenance.
Vinyl vs. wood area #1: Maintenance
We have a board-on-board pressure-treated lumber fence now. It is a lovely fence, but it is now 4 years old. And it is definitely starting to show the wear! We had the fence for two years before I pressure-washed it and then stained it.
That definitely gave it a great facelift, but that was in the summer of 2020, and it already needs it again. The neighbors stained their fence last summer, and it really underscored how dull ours was looking.
All of this to say—wood fences require a lot of maintenance. Pressure washing to clean them off and re-sealing/staining to project the wood. You don’t have to do it every year, but you have to do it pretty often.
If you choose to paint your fence instead, it will probably last a bit longer. But the paint will eventually being chipping and you’ll need to paint it again.
Vinyl fences, on the other hand, don’t splinter, fade to a gray-ish, worn color, or warp. You pretty much just have to wash down dirty areas with a soap and water solution. But the hose is probably fine.
For us, the clear answer for which fence wins with maintenance is vinyl. No more staining and sealing fences for me!
Vinyl vs. wood area #2: Durability & longevity
Wood deteriorates over time. Wood fences can last anywhere from 10-20 years or more. But! You have to take care of them. Clean them, seal them, etc. Longevity also depends on the type of wood you use and the environmental conditions where you live.
Wood is extremely durable, though. The posts are solid, and well-built wood fences generally withstand more extreme weather and issues. Vinyl, on the other hand, can snap and break. We’ve seen that with our neighbor’s vinyl fence.
Vinyl fences last longer than wood fences, though. Even with almost no maintenance. I have seen estimates online of upwards of 30 years.
When it comes to durability and longevity, vinyl was the clear winner for us. However, if you live in an area with more extreme weather, you may want to ask around locally.
Vinyl vs. wood area #3: Aesthetics—aka, what’s it look like?
It’s tough to beat a gorgeous wood fence. Freshly cleaned and stained. Wood has a much warmer feeling, and options for staining and painting it are endless. And wood grain on a solid fence is just *chef’s kiss*
Vinyl, on the other hand, is much more sterile looking. It has a smooth finish—though there are newer options that have more textured finishes to mimic wood grain. It also comes in a more limited number of colors. The most common color for vinyl fencing is white, though I see a lot of almond/beige and even darker brown fences where I am. I tend to think the white is a bit stark and favor the beige/almond colors.
I like the darker vinyl colors, but they tend to get a bit pricier. And whatever you choose, you’re stuck with! No painting or staining the fence in the future as your preferences change. This is a negative to me because my preferences have changed over time when it comes to my home’s vibe. What’s to say they won’t change again?
Ultimately, if all things were equal, I would choose a beautiful wood fence over vinyl any day of the week. But all things are not equal, so vinyl is the winner here for us.
Vinyl vs. wood area #4: Sustainability
I am not perfect when it comes to sustainability. We try our best, but modern life makes it tough. That said, it is increasingly a concern for me, so I want to outline some things I found during my research.
At first, I assumed that wood would be the more sustainable choice. You do have to cut down trees to harvest the lumber, but most of the woods you’d use to put up fences are from fast-growing trees.
When its life is over, it doesn’t need to end up in a landfill. I suppose you could repurpose the wood boards for other things, or you might even be able to use it for firepit wood?
The most sustainable choice for a wood fence is likely to use salvaged wood. This might be a great option if you’re fencing in a small area…but for a larger area? I’m not sure this is a practical solution.
As for vinyl fencing—it might surprise you to learn that many vinyl fences are 100% recyclable. It can be broken down into small pieces, melted, and used to make new vinyl products. But this is a resource-intensive process that isn’t without its faults.
When it comes to synthetic materials like vinyl, VOCs are often a concern. VOCs pollute the air and just generally aren’t great for human and environmental health. However, PVC production is not good for the environment, and it does contain carcinogens and chemicals that are not great for you and the trees.
But don’t freak out…
BUT! I am not here to scare you like an essential oils peddler on Facebook. It’s mostly the production process that is bad—and the burning of PVC. Once the PVC is produced (i.e., showing up in your home as finished vinyl fencing), it no longer emits VCM (Vinyl Chloride Monomer).
And it does not emit Dioxin unless it is burned. (No, it doesn’t “leach” it into the soil.) And you could argue that burning pressure-treated lumber might be bad, too. I don’t know. But I do know that all of the chemicals required to clean and seal wood fences might be questionable, too.
All of this rambling is to say that, when it comes to vinyl vs. wood fences and sustainability…you’re probably asking the wrong question!
The most sustainable fencing option is probably a dense row of hedges. Steel and aluminum are also good choices, but I don’t like the way they look. Brick and stone fences are durable, and they are stunning! But they are probably cost-prohibitive in a larger space.
Ultimately, I think that a wood fence wins on the sustainability front if we’re only talking wood vs. vinyl. But it’s a bit murky, and recommendations like creating an upcycled “found object” fence or stone wall aren’t really practical for the average person.
Vinyl vs. wood area #5: Cost
Now let’s talk about the thing most people really want to dig into: cost! I have always heard that vinyl fences are way more than wood fences. We didn’t have an option in our last house, so I just moved along with a board-on-board pressure-treated fence.
I am going to share some real numbers with you all. Keep in mind, though, that I am writing this post in March 2022. Lumber prices are much higher than they used to be, and we’re suffering from bad supply shortages on both the lumber and vinyl fronts.
We had three estimates done for our fence, and I asked for numbers for both a solid wood board fence (not board-on-board) and a vinyl fence. Both 6-foot privacy fences. Here’s what we got.
(To keep it easy, I’m just dividing the total cost by the number of feet. These estimates also include removal of the chain link fence and some gates.)
- Wood: $41/foot
- Vinyl: $44/foot for white; $48/foot for beige
- Wood: $32/foot
- Vinyl: $45/foot for beige
- Wood: No estimate
- Vinyl: $39/foot for beige;
After getting the first estimate, I had to pick myself up off the floor. Seriously…worst time ever to get a fence. We definitely were not paying these prices for wood when we got our first privacy fence!
I knew it would be a lot, but I definitely didn’t think the cost difference between wood and vinyl would be that small. At which point I texted my parents and asked, “why would I pay for a wood fence that I need to maintain every year and that doesn’t last as long as a vinyl fence when the price is only slightly cheaper?”
And that, my friends, should tell you why we decided to go with a vinyl privacy fence. Ultimately, my love for a good wood fence was nothing in comparison to the low-maintenance lifestyle a vinyl fence provides.
We also decided to go with estimate #3, which was from a smaller company. Actually the same company we used to install the board-on-board fence as our first house! The estimate was good, the owner was responsive, and we were happy with the first job.
I’m please with our fence decision, although I tend to agonize over all big decisions like this and always have some sort of buyer’s remorse 🙂 What do you think? Vinyl or wood for privacy fences? I’ll update this post when your fence goes in!