Noise is an acknowledged part of community life, especially in multifamily apartment buildings. Some noise is external; traffic, garbage collection, people shouting on the street or in the parking lot. That’s one of the main reasons for zoning laws. Nobody wants to live right next to a noisy factory. Some noise though is internal, and may be coming from next door, upstairs, or downstairs.
But how much noise is too much noise? And what can you as a shareholder or a unit owner do about it? As so often is the case, the answer is...it depends.
One Man’s Noise...
“Essentially what amount of noise is unreasonable is really the test itself,” says Layne Feldman, an attorney with the Hackensack-based law firm Phillips Nizer. “It’s difficult to give a decibel level and measure it. It’s easier to determine when it’s quiet time and what type of conduct is unreasonable, and therefore prohibited during that time frame. For example, playing a loud stereo or allowing kids to have running races after 10:00pm is not reasonable.”
Deborah Koplovitz, a partner at law firm Herrick Feinstein with offices New York and Newark concurs, noting that “We get into the world of subjectivity with noise issues. One person may tolerate a concert pianist practicing the same phrase over and over all day, but that may drive someone else bonkers. Footfall,” 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.”
Alternatively, dropping something on the floor at 3 AM every night might not seem troublesome to the person doing the dropping, but it may make their downstairs neighbor who’s trying to sleep absolutely miserable. While the act may not be intentional, it’s inconsiderate - and unacceptable.
What to Do…
In the event you are suffering through a difficult noise relationship with your neighbor, what should you do? It may depend on where you live. Some attorneys suggest having a friendly conversation with the offending neighbor first. Explain to them what’s happening on your side of the common divide, and try to work out a solution amenable to both of you. Others suggest you bypass the personal approach and go directly to the managing agent.
Koplovitz advises, “The first thing to do is reach out to your managing agent. Make sure you document the noise, the time(s) it occurs, elements and characteristics of the noise, etc.,” as the managing agent will need that information when they speak with your neighbor. “Many communities require that 80% of floor surfaces be covered [to reduce noise]. All residents have to abide by it.” Depending on the nature of the noise, the managing agent may inspect the apartment to make sure it’s in compliance.
In addition to master deeds mandating a certain amount of floor covering, “Most boards prohibit nuisance activities,” says Feldman. “Many also enforce quiet hours. If an owner is aggrieved, they can complain to the board.”
What Says the Board?
Once the managing agent has entered the picture, the board will be informed of the problem - and in some cases, may choose to get involved. They may hear the complaint, determine whether the problem falls under house rules, and come to some determination of action against the offending party. The board may require the installation of some kind of soundproofing, or perhaps even fine the noisemaker. If there is a nuisance, that nuisance must be addressed.
Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to investigate and promptly attend to all complaints and determine their validity. In the event a board doesn’t act promptly or properly, the shareholder can bring an action against them based upon that shareholder’s or owner’s inability to use their apartment in the manner intended.
In the event the board refuses to intervene and the nuisance continues, the complainant party can take matters into their own hands. “An owner can always file a complaint with the local police,” advises Feldman. If the situation is severe and chronic enough, “It will probably end up going to court for mediation.” And, says Feldman, if the complaining resident feels the board has shirked its responsibility in upholding quality of life issues, and that responsibility is clearly delineated in the governing documents, the complainant can sue the board as well.
Condo vs. Co-op - and NJ’s Unique Requirements
As usual, there are some differences between how noise issues play out in a condo versus co-op setting. In this particular case, co-ops have more sway over the behavior of their shareholders than condos do. The co-op guarantees a right of quiet enjoyment under the Habitability clause in the proprietary lease - and technically, since a co-op shareholder is a resident under that proprietary lease, the board could ultimately evict an offending shareholder for actions that infringe on . The complaining shareholder could force the board’s hand.
In a condominium, the actions available to the board are less direct. They would have to obtain a cease-and-desist order, but according to many attorneys, condominiums are enacting house rules more similar to co-ops than in the past to effectively deal with these issues.
The state of New Jersey requires alternative dispute resolution (ADR) be offered to all owners of condos and co-ops before litigation can commence in order to lessen the burden on an overbooked court system. Noisy neighbors and corresponding disputes are included. “ADR is required to be afforded by the board where there is a homeowner dispute in New Jersey,” says Feldman. “If the condo association refuses to do so, then the New Jersey State Department of Community Affairs (DCA) can order the association to comply.”
An apartment, whether co-op or condo is a home, and a home is a place of rest and tranquility to be enjoyed by its occupant. Be cognizant of your neighbors and the noise you make. Hopefully, they will do the same.