Pros and Cons of Rail Fences

rail fence

A rail fence is instantly recognizable for its classically simple horizontal boards, but before you invest in installing one, let’s look at the pros and cons of rail fences.

Pros of Rail FencesCons of Rail Fences
AffordableNo Privacy
Easy to InstallDoesn’t Contain Small Animals for Livestock
Low MaintenanceMinimal Security
Variety of Materials and StylesLimited Aesthetic
Increased Curb AppealTrickier Lawn Mowing
Land and Livestock Containment

Instantly recognizable, split rail fences are made of two, three, or four horizontal rails connected to evenly spaced vertical posts. You can construct them with wood, vinyl, composite, or metal. Decorative split rail fences in front yards are typically 4 feet tall, while ones used for containing livestock are 6 feet (and are sometimes called ranch rail fences). 

The variety of materials and versatility of the simple construction has made the rail fence a staple installation for residential properties.

Pros of Rail Fences

rail fences with house in background
Photo Credit: Rawpixel


At an average cost of only $20 per linear foot, a rail fence is one of the more affordable ways to protect your livestock or stylishly section off a perimeter. A ranch-style rail fence can be ideal for keeping large animals, such as horses, contained and protected.

Easy to Install

Because rail fences use so few materials and simple tools, installation is often easy enough to DIY. In many cases, it is only a matter of securing posts to the ground at regular intervals and slotting the rails into their appropriate grooves on those posts. You could install it in a day or two, depending on how much land you have to cover.

No specialized tools are required. 

Low Maintenance

Because the fences are often made with cedar or pressure-treated wood, rail fences resist decay and breakdown, minimizing the need for repairs and upkeep. If the fence is vinyl, composite, or metal, you won’t have to worry about staining or painting it, saving you money on maintenance costs. 

The simple maintainability of rail fences means they are ideal if you want a set-it-and-forget-it fence that will stand the test of time. Often made of wood that is naturally hardy and processed to be weather resistant, a rail fence will outlast many other barriers while also being easy to repair when it does break. Using simple tools, you can repair damages to a rail fence quickly and easily.  

Variety of Materials and Styles

A rail fence can be made of various materials and colors. For example, you may prefer a white vinyl ranch rail to show off your boundary line or a simple yet classy pressure-treated pine split rail to contain animals or separate sections of land. 

Types of rail fences vary, too — you can choose two to four horizontal boards and flat or round timber. As an alternative to the traditional ranch rail design, you could opt for a standard crossbuck design for a more pricey, yet elevated, look.

Increased Curb Appeal

A picturesque rustic fence will increase your home’s curb appeal and boost its property value. Potential buyers can see your landscaping and any livestock in their full glory thanks to the rail fence’s ability to provide security that looks charming while not overly obstructing the expansive view of your home. 

Land and Livestock Containment

Rail fences allow you to contain a large area of land with minimal resources, with posts widely spaced and requiring a simple hole in the ground and additional support material like gravel or soil and tamp to hold it in place. 

If you own a ranch or farm and keep livestock such as horses and cattle, making sure they stay confined on your land is a top priority. Ranch rail fences (also called split rail) are perfect for preventing animals from getting lost or keeping predators out. 

Cons of Rail Fences

No Privacy

Rail fences can be visually pleasing but aren’t designed for privacy. There’s usually just open space between the rails, giving anyone nearby an almost unobstructed view through the fence. You can apply wire mesh to those spaces, but if privacy is your most significant need, a privacy fence may be a better choice. 

Doesn’t Contain Small Pets or Animals

A rail fence might keep your large animals in, but beyond that, it’s not a challenge for almost any other animal to cross. This includes your cats, dogs, and small livestock, such as pigs and chickens. More importantly, a rail fence will not keep wild animals off your property, such as coyotes, bears, deer, or other people’s cats and dogs. 

Depending on the animals you want to keep in or out, attaching chain-link or wire mesh to the fence will solve these problems, though this will add cost to both the build and maintenance. 

Minimal Security

Unlike security fences, rail fences aren’t designed to protect a property from intruders. While it may stop someone from wandering accidentally over your property lines, a determined trespasser will have no problem climbing over the ladder-like structure onto your land.

The rail fence will present a clear visual boundary that you can see from a distance without obstructing the view beyond. This means that looking out, you can see who or what is approaching, but similarly, they can see you, too.

Limited Aesthetic

If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of wrought iron or ornamental wooden fences, you might feel like you stand out uncomfortably by installing a split rail fence. That’s a personal choice, but be aware that this rural fence doesn’t always mesh well in the city or suburbs.  

Trickier Lawn Mowing

To keep the lawn neat and evenly trimmed, you’ll need to be a little more cautious when mowing and landscaping around your new rail fence to avoid damaging it with machinery. Without proper care, a lawn growing around a rail fence can begin to look messy as grass grows around the posts a lawn mower can’t reach. When necessary, we recommend using a weed eater a half inch’s distance away to clean up around fence posts. 

Cost of Rail Fences

You’ll pay anywhere between $1,800 and $4,000 to have a professional contractor install a split rail fence, depending on the size of the fence and its material. Nationwide, the average split rail fence costs about $2,850. Installers often charge by the foot, in this case, about an average of $20 per linear foot. 

By material, split rail fences cost about $11 to $20 per linear foot for a cedar fence, $11 to $21 for pine, $14 to $26 for composite, $18 to $29 for vinyl, $20 to $27 for steel, and $25 to $34 for aluminum. 

Since rail fences are long-lasting and take less maintenance, the upfront costs are worth the long-term savings. 

FAQ About Rail Fences

What types of wire mesh can I use to increase my rail fence’s security?

You can add welded wire mesh, woven wire mesh, or vinyl-coated chain-link fence mesh to your rail fence to keep children and animals confined.

How much does a split rail gate cost?

Like the fence itself, the rail fence gates don’t require a lot of materials, so they tend to be more affordable, around $250 on average. Some popular rail gate styles include double driveway, welded steel tube, traditional matching, and wood picket fence.

Is a “split rail” fence the same as a “ranch rail” fence?

Yes, “split rail” and “ranch rail” are used interchangeably, along with “post and rail” fence.

What is a rail fence used for?

A rail fence is primarily used as decorative fencing in a front yard or for livestock containment. Fence materials include wood fencing, vinyl fencing (PVC fence), composite fencing, metal fencing, and aluminum fencing.

Are there any additional services I’ll need to install my rail fence?

To prepare the land for the fence installation, you or a professional may need to remove an old fence, clear trees or bushes, or grade areas of steep ground. 

When to Hire a Professional Fence Builder

Often, homeowners who choose rail fences do so because they have a lot of land to fence off, and in that case, you don’t want that project to stretch on forever due to a lack of experience. While DIY rail fence installation is feasible, it often takes so much time and energy that it’s not always practical. 

That’s how Fence Gnome can help. We connect you to the best fence professionals near you, so you can be confident that the job’s done right the first time.

Main Image Credit: aimintang / Canva Pro / License

Zach Bridgeman

Zachery Bridgeman is a writer who grew up in Alabama and currently lives in Pittsburgh. He enjoys writing fiction, painting, and exploring the city in his free time.