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04/15/10: Dealing With Noise In Your Condo

Housing Counsel

By Benny L. Kass

Q: I recently purchased a condominium unit and live on the third floor. I have a noise problem with the unit above me. I can hear the people walking back and forth, getting out of bed and everyday normal activities. New owners purchased that condo last week. I believe the previous owner installed a low grade laminate directly on to the plywood floor with no padding/sound dampening material. I talked to the condo association manager and he says there is nothing that can be done. Is there any legal action I can take?

A: Noise is very subjective. I often have joked that one person’s definition of music is another’s definition of noise. Some people are more sensitive to sound than others, so it will be your obligation to prove that the noise you hear is above normal standards.

I am surprised at the property manager’s position. At the very least, he/she could have gone into your apartment to determine whether there really was a problem.

The first thing you should now do is talk with the President of your Association’s board of directors. Invite him/her into your unit for an inspection. Additionally, ask your immediate neighbors if they experience the same issues. Typically, a condominium association does not want to get involved in disputes between just two unit owners, but if the problem is more widespread, then the association does have the responsibility to ensure compliance with their legal documents.

You should review those documents – especially the rules and regulations. All such documents specifically include language prohibiting disturbing noise. Typical language would read as follows: “Unit Owners, residents and lessees shall exercise extreme care to avoid unnecessary noise or use of musical instruments, radios, televisions and amplifiers that may disturb other Unit Owners.”

Many associations require that 80 or 90 percent of a unit must have adequate floor covering – such as rugs. If that is the rule in your association, demand that the manager inspect the upstairs unit to determine if it is in compliance with the rules.

If there is no such rule, you should discuss your concerns with the board of directors and they may be willing to enact such a rule.

If it becomes necessary to prove that you have a real problem, there are professionals – called acoustical engineers – who specialize in determining whether the noise in your unit is within acceptable decibel range. You should retain an engineer – at your expense – so that you will have the proof to demonstrate that the noise you hear is real – and not imaginary. That engineer should also inspect the upstairs unit, so that he can provide some suggestions as to how to resolve the problem.

You should alert your property manager that an engineer will be doing an inspection, so that appropriate arrangements can be made with the upstairs neighbor.

Once you have such a report, and assuming that it demonstrates unacceptable noise, show it to your upstairs neighbors. Explain that you are very troubled by what you hear, and ask them to take appropriate steps to correct the situation. For example: carpets could be put on the floor throughout the unit; in some cases, floorboards could be tightened, and made more secure. Often, hammering down nails will solve the problem.

If all else fails, you certainly can take that owner to court, claiming a private nuisance. But litigation is time consuming, expensive and always uncertain. Discuss your situation with an attorney to determine if its worth the effort.

In researching this matter, I learned that in Great Britain, they have enacted the Nuisance and Statutory Noise Act of 1933. This won’t help you but I found it interesting.