About Real Estate: 'Spite fences' can be difficult for neighbors, prosecutors to remove

Updated 12/9/2011 10:28 AM

Poet Robert Frost wrote that "good fences make good neighbors," but that's not always true.


Q. What is a "spite fence?"

A. It's an unsightly fence that one owner erects for the purpose of irritating or annoying a neighbor.

Spite fences are built for any number of reasons. Sometimes it's the result of a boundary dispute. But more often than not, they're built simply because one owner doesn't like his next-door neighbor.

Spite fences can take a variety of forms. Some are so tall they block a neighbor's view, while others are painted with such hideous colors or patterns that they reduce the entire community's home values.

One nasty owner even built a fence that was laced with mirrors, making his neighbor's home nearly impossible to inhabit when the reflection of the sun flooded the house in the day and bounced back the images of the smallest light bulb that was turned on at night.

Several cities and counties across the nation have passed ordinances that prohibit the erection or maintenance of such ugly fences, but it's difficult for local authorities or an aggrieved neighbor to prove a fence was truly built out of spite. One reason is that, in many jurisdictions, prosecutors or a homeowner who asks a judge to order a fence be torn down must prove that the neighbor built it maliciously. If the builder counters that he simply likes the design, the judge will usually rule in his favor.

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Homeowners who sue over a spite fence and win can usually get the fence removed or modified, and can also ask for monetary damages and court costs. They have a big advantage if they live in a development that's governed by a homeowner's association because the fence must meet the guidelines set by the community's HOA board.

Because proving that a fence was built purely out of spite is difficult, local prosecutors who want to file criminal charges will often look at other parts of the building code to see if the fence meets other requirements. For example, many municipalities have an ordinance stating that a backyard fence or wall can be no more than 4 feet high in the front of the property and 6 feet high in the back. A fence that exceeds those limitations can be ordered to be torn down, or at least reduced in size to meet local standards.

Q. A few weeks ago, you wrote about changes to a federal program that will help more homeowners refinance if they owe more than their home is worth. Is the program also available to people who own a vacation home that was purchased for less than it's worth today?

A. Sorry, but no. Final details of the Fed's revamped Home Affordable Refinance Program were recently released by the Obama administration, and they specifically state that owners of second or "vacation" homes are not eligible.


Several million borrowers who live full-time in their property, though, could benefit from the changes. The new rules streamline the process to refinance for owners who owe more than their property is worth, eliminates many common fees charged by banks, and essentially lowers the credit score needed to get a new mortgage.

Remember that the government's HARP refinancing plan is available only to homeowners whose mortgages are owned or backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, the two housing finance giants that were bailed out by the federal government in 2008 as they teetered near bankruptcy.

Combined, Fannie and Freddie own more than half of all mortgages in the United States. But many borrowers don't realize that their loan is owned by one of the two companies because they typically are required to keep sending their monthly payments directly to the lender who originally issued the mortgage.

Your bank's customer-service department should be able to tell you whether your loan has been sold to Fannie or Freddie and thus make you eligible for HARP help. Or, you can call Fannie at (800) 732-6643 or Freddie at (800) 424-5401 to see if you're eligible for HARP or any other mortgage-related relief programs.

Q. I am 80 years old, and my wife has turned 39 for the fourth decade in a row. We appreciated the information you provided about reverse mortgages about two months ago and checked out some lenders, but we're a little confused: What is the difference between a "tenure" reverse mortgage and a "term" loan?

A. A reverse mortgage is great for many older homeowners because the money a bank provides doesn't have to be paid back until the borrower either sells or passes away. In other words, the bank pays the borrowers each month based on their age and home equity instead of the other way around.

A tenure reverse mortgage would pay you a preset amount each month for as long as you remain in the property. It's a popular choice for those who want a specific monthly amount to supplement their Social Security or pension income.

A term loan works much like a tenure loan. The primary difference is that, with a term loan, the preset monthly stipend lasts only for a specific number of years that you select. Because the lender knows that the payments will be made for a limited number of years, the monthly stipend you can get will usually be higher than the stipend you'd collect from a tenure loan.

A term loan could be a wise choice if, say, you are absolutely sure you want to stay in your house for a set number of years before moving to a retirement community.

• For the booklet "Choosing a Reverse-Mortgage That's Right for You," send $4 and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to David Myers, P.O. Box 2960, Culver City, CA 90231-2960.

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, Cowles Syndicate Inc.$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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