How do you mark out your territory from someone else's?

Garden fences are a frequent source of neighbourhood rows. Claire Gervat offers a guide to avoiding the disputes
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There's a thin line between love and hate, and sometimes it's the one that separates two peoples' gardens, marked by a fence. When this falls down or needs repairing you might suddenly find yourself swept into a round of needling squabbles with your neighbour.

Which of you owns the fence - and is responsible for maintaining it - should be specified in the deeds of your house. If it is not mentioned, responsibility is usually shared. If the deed plans are not clear, you can ask HM Land Registry to do a site inspection and arbitrate between the two sides - for which they make no charge - and thereby avoid a protracted and expensive visit to the High Court.

Once ownership has been settled, you or your neighbour can start replacing or repairing the existing fence. There are no legal restrictions on anything under 2m high (1m next to a highway, which could include side and rear boundaries); above that, you need planning permission. The local authority will notify the other neighbours who would be affected, and ask for any objections. If an over-tall fence is put up without planning permission, the local authority can order it to be taken down to the legal height.

There might be restrictions over the height of the garden fence, but the same cannot be said for its style (except in a conservation area). If your neighbour puts up an ugly fence under the maximum height - perhaps a chain-link one that means they can see right into your back garden - the only thing you can do is put up another fence on your side of the boundary, or plant extravagantly in front of it. Another possibility would be to offer to contribute towards the cost of a better looking fence; as in many disputes, common sense and conciliation can save a lot of trouble later.

Fencing is one of those household items that usually turns out to cost more than you thought when you first looked at the prices. One six-foot wide panel may cost pounds 20, say, but you will need 10 for a 60ft length, plus posts and fixing materials. Luckily, fixing a fence is a fairly straightforward job if you have some DIY experience, and reputable suppliers will give you full instructions with your fence panels. The messiest part is digging holes for the posts and concreting them in place; an alternative is to buy special metal stakes which you hammer deep into the ground and which hold the posts securely in place.

Paying someone else to put up your fence can be a costly business. For an "average" suburban semi, you could pay out upwards of pounds 500 for your share of the boundaries. The best way to find a reputable contractor is by personal recommendation, but failing that you could try contacting the Guild of Master Craftsmen for a list of members in your area, or ask your fencing supplier.

As with every job you employ someone to do for you, the more exact you can be about what you want (preferably in writing), the more likely you are to be satisfied with the result. Make sure you agree the price and the length of time the job will take. You could also consider drawing up a contract for the work; Which? July 1991 proposed a sample contract for small building jobs. That way, if something goes wrong, you are more likely to be able to get it put right or claim compensation.

And if this seems like a complicated process just to mark out your territory from someone else's, just be grateful you're not a cat.

Consumers' Association 0171-830 6000; The Guild of Master Craftsmen 01273 478449; HM Land Registry - consult your telephone directory for local offices