Neighbor Noise When Enough Is Too Much

Noise is an acknowledged part of urban life–particularly apartment living.  Some of it—traffic, garbage collection, people shouting on the street—is external, and is controlled (theoretically, anyway) by zoning laws and noise ordinances. Some noise is internal, however, and may be coming from upstairs, downstairs, or from the building next door. But even with the understanding that city living comes with a certain amount of racket, how much noise is simply too much—and what can you as a shareholder or a unit owner do about it?  The answer is...it depends.

Acceptable, ‘Normal’ Noise Levels 

Deborah Koplovitz, a partner at the New York-based law firm Herrick Feinstein, notes that “With noise issues, we get into the world of subjectivity.  One person may tolerate a concert pianist practicing the same phrase over and over all day, but for someone else, that may drive them bonkers.” The sound of people walking on the floor above you “is normal,” Koplovitz stresses, “but someone may perceive it as something other than that and say it’s intentional. Minds can get lost.”

By the same token, dropping something on the floor at 3:00 a.m. every night may not seem troublesome to the person doing it; the act may not be intentional, but it’s also not normal—especially if it wakes their downstairs neighbor nightly. In that case, the noise becomes inconsiderate and unacceptable.

As an attorney for community associations, Michael C. Kim, of counsel to the law firm of Schoenberg Finkel Beederman Bell Glazer in Chicago, has faced this problem many times. “These are the most frustrating situations for both the unit owner and associations,” he says. “Often it is addressed as a nuisance behavior.  One person is creating an unreasonable situation and interfering with another person’s legitimate use and enjoyment of [their home]. It’s difficult to establish the nuisance as noise—and sensitivity to noise is somewhat subjective.  Some people are more acute and sensitive to disturbances than others, from whatever source.”

What to Do?

If you’re the one suffering through a difficult noise relationship with your neighbor, what should you do? The options available to you might depend on where you live.  Attorneys in Chicago suggest you have a friendly conversation with your neighbor first.  Explain to them what’s happening on your side of the common divide and try to work out a solution that’s amenable to both of you.  “The common expectation is that neighbors will talk to each other civilly,” says Kim.

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