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Question: My wife likes to sunbathe nude in the backyard. Is it against the law to erect higher fences in government housing?

Landlord’s attorney Smith replies:

Your wife may sunbathe in the privacy of your own backyard so long as her intent is not to indecently expose herself to others. If this is a rental property, you may not erect higher fences, as your lease would prohibit changes without the landlord’s permission. Further, you may not violate local building codes by erecting higher fences than authorized. Although municipalities vary to a certain degree, a 5-foot limitation typically is the norm in residential zones. If you expect peeping toms, then the best approach is to cordon off the area where she is sunbathing, and if the problem persists, call authorities out to look into the matter.

Question: I am in a lease for at least seven more months, but the distance to and from my new job is killing me! Is there a way to terminate the lease due to the fact I work almost one hour away from home and/or at least 30 miles? I think the Internal Revenue Service has some regulations about distance to a new job and moving. I would let them keep the security deposit if I could move out and not owe the remaining balance.

Property Manager Griswold replies:

The fact that you have changed jobs and now have a longer commute is not a legal basis for you to terminate the lease. While the IRS may have certain distance or other “tests” for determining the tax ramifications of moving when associated with a change of employment, there are no such legal bases for getting out of a legally binding residential lease. You should carefully review your lease and see if there is an early termination clause that would give you the ability to unilaterally terminate the lease on certain conditions, such as a forfeiture of your security deposit or an early termination fee. Early termination clauses are not common and your best bet will likely be to contact the owner or property manager and explain your situation and work with them to locate a qualified tenant who would be willing to lease your apartment.

Your situation where a change in personal circumstances necessitates relocation is very common and is not a problem if you are on a month-to-month rental agreement. However, many tenants would rather have the stability and fixed rent offered by a long-term lease and often the landlords will even offer a slightly lower or discounted monthly rent for tenants that sign long-term lease.

My experience is that many tenants fail to realize that a lease is a legally binding contract in which the tenant is also offering the landlord the stability of a long-term tenancy. The lease works for both tenants and landlords until the tenant unexpectedly has a change in employment location or a loss of income or a problem with other occupants of the rental property. When life happens and their situation changes so that the current rental property no longer meets their needs, some tenants look back and realize they would have been better served by the flexibility of a month-to-month rental agreement.

Also, there are landlords who have a change in their personal circumstances and need to suddenly move into the property for their own housing or need to sell the property only to learn that the lease must be honored. Both tenants and landlords need to realize that a lease should only be used when a mutual long-term tenancy is desirable and can be honored.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.

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