Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise
Fences, Trees, Boundaries & Noise
Emily Doskow, Attorney & Mediator and Lina Guillen, Attorney
March 2014, 8th Edition
Resolve neighbor conflicts and get peace of mind
Don’t let a neighborly nuisance turn into a nasty lawsuit. Learn your rights and responsibilities with Neighbor Law, the plain-English guide to the laws behind common neighbor disputes.
Neighbor Law is more than a legal guide—it’s a practical book filled with tips on how to solve problems and restore good neighbor relations. Find out how to handle:
- runoff and flooding
- trees that hang over a property line
- problems with neighboring businesses
- noisy neighbors
- unclear boundary lines
- blocked views
- high, unsightly or deteriorating fences
- secondhand smoke
- dangers to children ("attractive nuisances")
- animal issues
- and more
The new 8th edition includes updated laws and information on mediation and going to court, as well as guidance on how to handle problems such as drug dealing and blighted property.
“A Nolo book that gives practical, no-nonsense approaches to handling neighbor disputes.”-Los Angeles Times
“This classic book, which keeps getting better with each new edition, answers virtually all questions....”-Orlando Sentinel
“An extremely well-researched, well-written and well-organized book....”-The Detroit News
Introduction: Neighbors and Legal Questions
1. Tackling a Neighbor Problem
- Get Prepared
- Approach the Neighbor
- Turn to the Authorities for Help
- Try Mediation
- Take the Neighbor to Court
- Laws Against Noise
- What to Do
3. When a Tree Is Injured or Destroyed
- Who Owns a Tree?
- An Owner’s Rights When a?Tree?Is?Damaged
- What the Tree Owner Can Sue For
- Criminal Penalties
- What to Do If a Neighbor Damages Your Tree
- Preventing Damage
4. Encroachment: Invading Branches and Roots
- Looking for Help
- Trimming a Neighbor’s Tree: The Right of Self-Help
- When a Neighbor Can Sue
- Going to Court
5. Unsound Limbs and Trees
- Getting Help From the City Government
- Trimming a Neighbor’s Tree: The Right of Self-Help
- Ask the Owner to Trim the Tree
- Suing to Prevent Damage
- Homeowners’ Insurance
- After Damage From an Unsound Tree
6. Boundary Trees
- Co-Owners’ Responsibilities
- Damage to or Removal of a Boundary Tree
7. Fruit and Nuts: Who Owns What?
- Who Owns the Tree?
- Fruit That Has Fallen
- Avoiding Problems
8. Obstruction of View
- The Basic Rule: No Right to a View
- View Ordinances
- Subdivision Rules That Protect Views
- Other Laws That May Protect Views
- Views That Are Not Legally Protected
- Avoiding View Problems
9. Boundary Lines
- Settling Uncertain Boundary Lines
- When a Neighbor Doesn’t Honor the Boundary
10. Using Another's Land: Trespass and Easements
- Trespassers Who Become Owners
- Rural Areas: Fencing Livestock In or Out
- Urban Fences
- Property Line (Boundary) Fences
- Disputes Over Boundaries
- Sharing a Fence That Is Not on the Boundary
12. Spite Fences
- General Restrictions on Fence Height
- What Is a Spite Fence?
- Negotiating With the Neighbor
- Going to Court
13. Dangers to Children: Attractive Nuisances
- The Attractive Nuisance Doctrine
- Taking Necessary Precautions
- Seeking Legal Help
14. Rural Neighbors and the Right to Farm
- Ordinary Nuisance Rules
- Right-to-Farm Laws
- What Neighbors Can Do
- When the Neighbor Is Liable for Damage
- When the Neighbor May Not Be Liable for Damage
- What the Neighbor at Fault Must Pay For
- What to Do If You Suffer Water Damage
- Rights to Water
16. When Your Neighbor Is a Business
- Zoning Laws
- Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions
- Home-Based Businesses
- Other Laws Protecting You and Your Property
- Expect a Compromise
- What to Do When the Law Favors You
- When the Law Favors the Business
17. Other Common Neighbor Issues
- Blighted Property
- Weeds, Rubbish, and Garbage
- Loud and Offensive Language
- Drug Dealers
- Registered Sex Offenders (Megan’s Law)
- Animal Problems
- Secondhand Smoke
- Outdoor Lights
18. Legal Research
- Local Laws
- State Statutes
- Case Law
- What Is Mediation?
- How to Find a Mediator
- How Mediation Works
20. Small Claims Court
- What Is Small Claims Court?
- Preparing for Small Claims Court
- How Small Claims Court Works
A. State Statutes on Injury to Trees
- How Much an Owner Can Sue For
- Fines or Jail Sentences for Damaging a Tree
B. State Statutes on Private Nuisance
- Common Law Definition
- Conduct or Condition Must Be Unlawful or Unreasonable
C. Boundary Fence Statutes
D. Adverse Possession Statutes
E. Right-to-Farm Statutes
It is 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning. After a long and hard week, you are enjoying one of the great pleasures in life—not setting the alarm clock. Then the noise starts. Your next-door neighbor fires up the chain saw. Or the neighbor across the street gets an early start with her power mower. Or the teenager upstairs turns on the boom box. And the dog down the street barks at any and all of it.
Whatever the intrusion, your plans for peace are shot. You cover your head with the pillow for a while and then give up. Not wanting to cause trouble, you begin the weekend irritable, tired, maybe even physically ill.
In case you think you are just being too sensitive, think again. Noise is a very serious matter, and the time may come when you realize that you should have acted long ago to curb the situation. In California, if you sell your house, you must fill out a disclosure form for the new buyer, pointing out any problems. There is a blank to mark “yes” or “no” to the question: Neighborhood Noise Problems.1 Then what do you do?
Laws Against Noise
You are protected from a noisy neighbor by local, and sometimes state, law. Additionally, rules in rental agreements and planned communities further restrict allowable noise. Noise regulations are enforced by the police, landlords, neighborhood associations, and the courts. And when you are affected by your neighbor’s excessive noise, you can sue the neighbor for creating a private nuisance. You can ask a court for money damages and to have the noise stopped.
Local Noise Laws
The most effective weapon you have to maintain your peace and quiet is your local ordinance. Almost every community has a noise ordinance prohibiting excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise. And most laws designate certain times as quiet times, such as nights and some hours on weekends. Some types of noise may be allowed at some times but not at others.
Certain necessary noises occur all of the time and we simply have to put up with them—for instance, noise from a heavy industry or from traffic on the freeway. But when we can control the noise, the ordinances apply. Running a power mower may be perfectly acceptable at 10 a.m. on Saturday, but not at 7 a.m., and turning up the volume on the TV or stereo may be okay at 5 p.m. but not at 2 a.m. when neighbors are trying to sleep.
A Look at the Law
If you are a reasonable person and your neighbor is driving you wiggy with noise, the neighbor is probably violating a noise law.
Many towns also have decibel level noise limits, and your town probably has electronic equipment for measuring the noise when a neighbor complains. A few cities have special noise units to enforce the laws and to free the police for other calls.
A typical noise ordinance, this one from Oxford, Mississippi, begins like this: “Creation of any unreasonably loud, disturbing and unnecessary noises in the city is hereby prohibited.”2 Some cities use the language “loud, raucous or nerve-wracking noise.”
Some sounds that bother us the most are placed in special categories that are either not allowed or have special rules. These noises are assumed to disturb people. For instance, most cities prohibit—either in their noise laws or vehicle laws—the honking of auto horns unless there is danger. This means that the daily early-morning tooting across the street for the carpool is a violation.
Dogs are usually singled out; sometimes they are allowed to bark for very short periods, say under ten minutes. The dog that barks only at intruders or a passing fire engine is probably within legal limits. But the neighbors down the block who allow their dog to howl all night are violating the ordinance. If you are having problems with a dog, or are a dog owner, see Every Dog’s Legal Guide, by Mary Randolph (Nolo).
Motorcycles may be mentioned by name in an ordinance. Unnecessary running of the engine, for example, may be presumed to disturb a neighbor.3
In addition to actual lists of troublesome noises, certain types of noise are sometimes included in the special categories. Examples are sounds of annoying pitch, such as a screech, and persistent or repetitive sounds, like the hum of a motor or the pounding of a hammer.
When Is Noise Unreasonable?
Most ordinances prohibit unreasonable noise, but they don’t define it. The police—or later, a judge—may have to make the decision. But to be unreasonable, the noise should be—in the opinion of an average person—too loud, prolonged, or disturbing for the time of day. It usually boils down to common sense and to what most people consider unacceptable. For example, the child who practices the piano for an hour each day is certainly not a matter for the law. A roaring piano at 11 o’clock every night is. A rollicking party several times a year—probably acceptable. Every three days? No way.
Music can present special problems. Sometimes it is a matter of taste. What is pleasant to some ears quickly hits the discomfort level of others.
Example: In a case in Illinois, a teenage rock band was practicing at two o’clock in the afternoon. It disturbed a neighbor who was on the night shift and trying to get some sleep. It also woke up his young son from a nap. The police came out and stopped the noise, but there was an interesting twist. One of the police officers who responded to the call immediately called the noise unreasonable. The other one liked the music and had more difficulty. He had to overcome his own preference to admit that the noise was unreasonable to others.4
These unreasonable noise laws are enforced by the police and the courts according to the effect of the noise on a normal, reasonable person. If you jump out of your skin at the slightest peep of a puppy, you may find no help from the law. Sometimes cities require that the noise disturb two or more persons before it can be stopped, to prevent complaints from excessively sensitive people.
If you are the only neighbor on the block who is being bothered by a noise everyone hears at the same level, you may be too picky. People usually know deep down whether they are being reasonable, and most people actually allow more noise in their lives than the law does.
The Bouncing Ball
A bouncing basketball isn’t usually considered a noise problem, but two California lawyers went to court over one. One sued the other who was dribbling the ball in the driveway and disturbing him.
After several court proceedings, including a full-blown court trial, the case went all the way up to the California Court of Appeal, which found in favor of the basketball-playing neighbor. The court held that the noise from basketball play in the neighbor’s backyard, at a reasonable time of day, for less than 30 minutes at a time, and no more than five times per week did not constitute unlawful harassment and would not cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress. 5
Decibel Level Laws
Many towns prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The decibel limits are set according to the time of day and the neighborhood zoning. For example, higher levels are allowed anytime in industrial areas. In residential areas, the limit is lower than the industrial limit during the daytime and much lower at night. There are exceptions for emergency situations, such as road repair. Also, some cities allow people to apply for a variance to the noise law—a permit to exceed the noise level for a certain period of time, for instance during major construction. You may also be able to get a permit for a one-time event.
Unless you are a sound engineer, the language of these statutes may mean nothing to you. It does mean something to the police or the special noise unit. They have a machine and know how to read the noise level.
Measuring the Noise Level Yourself
If you are curious about the noise level where you live, you can purchase a decibel level machine at an electronics store, for $35 and up. Taking your own reading may give you an indication of how severe a problem is, even though if you complain, the police will want to take their own measurements.
What happens under a decibel level ordinance is that a neighbor complains and the noise unit comes out. If the noise is still going on, the noise officer places the machine on an estimated property line and takes a reading. If the noise level coming into the other property is above a certain number, it violates the noise ordinance. However, the offending noise has to be measured against what is called the ambient level—the background noise level without that particular disturbance.
Finding the ambient level with a live band playing can be difficult. The noise units have become experts at finding comparison levels, and many people insist that this method is the fairest one of all in controlling noise. For apartment living, the decibel level is measured inside, and it is common for the levels allowed to be much lower.
Once the machine shows that the particular noise is above the allowed level, the person responsible will usually be warned. If the noise continues or is repeated, then the person will be cited and fined. Fines are often levied according to how many violations there have been—for instance, $100 for the first time, $200 the second, $300 the third.
When a town adopts the decibel level method, it usually keeps the unreasonable noise law too. When a town has both kinds of laws, either one may be used. In a New Mexico case where a group of neighbors complained about music from a car wash, the decibel level was measured and found to be within the allowed limits. But the neighbors were obviously disturbed (some were contemplating moving), and the court relied on the broader ordinance prohibiting all unreasonable noise. The car wash was found to be in violation.6
Today’s Reasonable Person
The reasonable person in today’s society is a strange mixture of adaptation and resistance. Consider for a moment your everyday life in the city. You slip your car into rush-hour traffic in the morning with several thousand noisy, honking others. Huge trucks fill the lane beside you. Stereos blast the air. Road crews pound with heavy equipment.
On your lunch break, you zip over to the diner, waving at the fellow with the jackhammer, stopping to let a screaming police car go by. You don’t talk at lunch because the din of voices and clatter is so loud that you can’t be heard. When you return to the office, you step into the elevator filled with music, get off on your floor, and return to work in a room with 200 cubicles, or a steam press, or the drum of machinery. After work, back into the thundering traffic, and then finally home. Thirty minutes later a lone dog starts to bark. You tense, then bristle with the invasion.
What’s going on here?
The human brain is an incredibly flexible machine. Several hundred years ago, this kind of constant noise would have been unthinkable. Now you and I, today’s reasonable people, have created an amazing compromise. Some noises are tolerable and some are not. Noise in some places at some times is okay and not in others—definitely not at home.
We may not realize it, but we have set very strict limits and cannot bend at all under certain circumstances. Fifty years ago, if music from your neighbor’s house drifted into your window, you might have not only tolerated it but tapped your toe to the rhythm. Today you react with resentment and can’t allow it. An argument can be made that the reasonable person today is much more sensitive to noise at certain times and in certain places than in years past. As the tolerance for noise increases on one end, it decreases on the other to prevent an overload. We are looking at a method of survival. The Saturday morning lawn mower is not just a bother to some people; it is a nightmare.
It is no wonder that our police can hardly keep up with noise complaints, and that neighbor-to-neighbor fuses are so short. What’s the answer? Who knows? Awareness of the situation is a beginning.
Times of Day
Most local ordinances include what could be called “quiet times.” The noise level allowed is lower during these times, the hours when most of us try to sleep. An average ordinance prohibits loud noises between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 or 8 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. or midnight until 8 to 10 a.m. on Sundays and holidays. Some cities set the evening hour as early as 9 p.m.or even 6 p.m.
What this really means is that if any noise is loud enough to keep a reasonable person awake during these hours, it is above the limit allowed. Towns that use a decibel system also lower the limit during these hours.
These quiet hours can vary from one residential area to another within the same city depending on the zoning for the particular spot. In a residential-only zone, for example, the morning hour may be 8 a.m. and in an industrial area 7 a.m.
Having quiet times listed does not mean that there are no noise restrictions at other times. A blasting boom box can be a violation at any time. What it does mean is that you have the right to expect not to be disturbed during the quiet hours. If your neighbor starts up his chain saw at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, he is probably breaking the law. In suburban areas, the lines between different towns may meander around and different restrictions may apply from one block to the next. It’s a good idea to know not only your own ordinance but those in areas that can affect you.
Example: Bill and Barbara liked to stay out late and party every Saturday night and sleep in on Sunday mornings. Every Sunday morning the church down the street pealed its large bell at 9 a.m. It was the only noise for the whole morning, but it meant waking up at nine. Bill read his local ordinance and saw that the quiet time lasted until 10 a.m. on Sundays. He was extremely uncomfortable complaining about a church, but he finally called the pastor. He then learned what real discomfort was when the pastor politely informed him that the church was located just two lots inside the next suburban town. Their quiet hours? 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. on Sunday.
Other Local Laws
Once in a while, a neighbor noise problem can be solved by using another local ordinance. For example, the neighbor who is running a little machine shop business in his back yard at night and on weekends may be violating a zoning ordinance. Any business conducted at home that creates customers and traffic probably doesn’t fit residential-only zoning.
Other miscellaneous laws also have an effect on noise. Discharging firearms and shooting off firecrackers are forbidden by separate laws. Having too many animals on one property can violate another law. Even working on a broken car for too long may be prohibited.
Noises in some of these situations can be very annoying, yet don’t quite fit the noise ordinance. To find out what other local laws might be applicable, read your particular ordinances. (See Chapter 18.)
If a neighbor’s noise is excessive and deliberate, it may be a violation of state laws against disturbing the peace or disorderly conduct. For example, New Mexico law says that anyone whose conduct is boisterous or unreasonably loud and tends to disturb the peace is guilty of a misdemeanor.7 This means that the police can arrest anyone who is being unreasonably loud. Misdemeanors are minor criminal offenses usually punishable by fines and less than a year of jail time. And California has a criminal law that provides for a fine or jail or both for any person who willfully and maliciously disturbs another person by loud and unreasonable noise.8 You can find out what state laws a neighbor may be violating by asking the police or researching the law. (See Chapter 18.)
Also, many states have noise control laws that address problems affecting us as a public, such as airport, heavy industry, and transportation noises. Some states have an office to receive complaints, and a staff that works with the federal government in its efforts to curb unnecessary noise. If a “big neighbor” is making your life miserable, you can find out from your city attorney’s office how to proceed under these state provisions or look up your state’s law. (See Chapter 18.)
Rental Agreements and Restrictive Covenants
If you live in a planned community or rent an apartment, you have extra remedies that may be available to you besides the town noise ordinances. You may not even need to ask for help from the city.
Renting: An Additional Weapon Against Noise
When your residence is a rented apartment in a large complex, you can be more vulnerable to noise. Problems arise not just because the walls can be a little thin, but also because you simply have more neighbors with whom you must contend. Sometimes the neighbor creating a problem is a complete stranger.
Many apartment dwellers seem to think they have given up a right to quiet, and they tolerate too much noise. They are afraid to be labeled as troublemakers and don’t insist on their rights.
People who live next door to apartment complexes also sometimes take too much noise for granted.
If you are in either of these groups, you have a lot of avenues open to you to regain your quiet. Laws that prohibit unreasonable noise apply to apartments, as do decibel level laws (usually a lower level of noise is allowed within buildings than would be permissible outdoors). You can also sue the noisy neighbor for a private nuisance. But there is more. The person making the noise can be evicted, and you can sue the landlord. (See “Additional Rights If You’re a Tenant,” in Chapter 1.)
Standard rental and lease agreements contain a clause entitled “Quiet Enjoyment.” In this clause you will find wording somewhat like this:
“Tenant(s) shall be entitled to quiet enjoyment of the premises. Tenant(s) shall not use the premises in such a way as to violate any law or ordinance, commit waste or nuisance, or annoy, disturb, inconvenience, or interfere with the quiet enjoyment of any other tenant or nearby resident.”
If the neighbor’s stereo is keeping you up every night, the tenants are probably violating the rental agreement. They can be evicted for the violation. Informing the neighbor of the lease restrictions may be all that is necessary. If that doesn’t help, complaining to the landlord can be very effective.
Most apartment owners don’t want problems among their tenants, and they won’t put up with somebody who ignores the signed agreement and causes trouble. Especially if several tenants complain at the same time, the landlord will probably order the tenant to comply with the lease or face eviction.
The landlord also may know that a tenant’s activity can form the basis for a lawsuit against the landlord. By allowing the situation on the property, the landlord is maintaining a private nuisance. If you have the same landlord, you may not want to sue, but you have the right to do so. If you are just a neighbor, going after the landlord can often solve the problem.
Planned Communities and Condos
When you buy a condominium or a house in a planned community, the deed often contains restrictions called restrictive covenants. These can range all the way from what color you can paint your fence to what activities are allowed on your property. You agree to the restrictions (called Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, or CC&Rs) when you buy the residence.
Restrictions against excessive noise are quite common. The restrictions apply to you, your neighbors, and any tenants who are renting. What’s more, they place responsibility for the tenant’s actions on the owner. The owner is the one who agreed to the restrictions, and when a tenant breaks the rules, the owner can be disciplined and even sued to conform.
In planned communities and condos, the right to enforce the rules is usually placed in the hands of a residents’ committee. Someone who violates the rules is sanctioned, for example, by having privileges to common areas (such as a swimming pool) revoked. These remedies are above and beyond the regular noise laws, which are also applicable to people in these locales. They provide another possible step to take before calling in the law. Some owners’ associations have the power to sue members of the group to enforce the restriction. One neighbor can also sue another neighbor for violation of a restrictive covenant, but the time and expense probably won’t be worthwhile unless the problem is very serious.
What to Do
There are two common reactions to noise coming from a neighbor. The first is a sense of helplessness and resignation. You hate the noise, but you do nothing. The second is anger. You lose your temper and call the cops. There are better ways to handle the situation—and middle ground to be found.
Approach the Neighbor
Discussing the problem with a neighbor is not easy. In fact, it can be very painful. But it is always the first step and if done with respect and sensitivity, will hopefully be the last.
Often the neighbor is unaware of a problem (for instance, the dog barks only when nobody is home). Or the neighbor may just not realize that the noise is bothering someone else. An effective approach is to assume that the neighbor doesn’t know, wouuld like to be a good neighbor and would like to be told. Before you complain behind the neighbor’s back, and certainly before you think of calling the police, tell the neighbor. Step over there or pick up the phone and give communication a chance.
Example: When I began writing this chapter, the puppy belonging to my lovely new next-door neighbors decided, as if on cue, to serenade me. I had only met the neighbors once, and I could not believe what was happening. It was as if the puppy knew when I sat down to write. Every word was punctuated with a yelp. He barked until he became exhausted, slept for a while, and then started again. He barked only when the neighbors were not at home.
Several days of this went by, much to the amusement of my family. It was not the least bit funny to me. I began to make mistakes in the text and had to rewrite whole paragraphs. For several nights, I looked at the telephone and cringed, wanting to call the neighbors but more strongly not wanting to call.
I knew the dog’s name and discovered if I yelled loudly enough at him, he would be quiet for a few minutes. My family became more amused. Now the neighborhood had turned into “bark, bark, yell; bark, bark, yell.” I was becoming part of the problem.
Finally, I had to call. How could I tell my readers to do something I couldn’t do myself? The neighbors were horrified to learn that there was a problem and very apologetic. They placed the puppy inside and now I write this in silence.
This example is typical. Most of us really hate to complain. Yet look what happened. The dog isn’t barking, the owners were grateful to be told, and the lines of communication are open. Once all of the apologies settle, these neighbors will probably be friends for years. All it took was one phone call.
Warn the Neighbor
When informing the neighbor of the problem doesn’t work, the next step is to get a copy of your local noise ordinance at city hall, the public library, or from the Internet. (See Chapter 18.) Send a copy of the law to the neighbor accompanied with a letter like the following:
Sample Noise Complaint Letter
September 2, 20xx
Dear Mr. Thoughtless,
I have enclosed our local noise laws so that you may read them. You will see that the playing of your stereo so loudly is against the law. It is very disturbing to me. Please turn down the volume as I have asked you to do in the past. Otherwise, I will be forced to notify the authorities.
Keep a copy of the letter because you may want it later if you sue the neighbor. (See “Sue for Nuisance,” below.) Then see what happens. The neighbor may not know the law and finding out about it may put an end to the problem. Putting the complaint in writing also lets the neighbor know you mean business.
Bring in the Landlord
If you live in a rental unit or restricted housing area, send a copy of the lease agreement or special rules to the neighbor along with your written complaint. This can result in prompt action, especially if you suggest that your next complaint will be to the landlord or the neighborhood association. In an area with a homeowners’ association, if a neighbor does not respond, notify the association.
If a tenant refuses to comply with your requests, report it to the landlord in writing. You are not a troublemaker. In fact, you are assisting the landlord in protecting his interests. A sample letter is below.
Sample Noise Complaint Letter to Landlord
May 14, 20xx
Dear Mr. Wilson:
I live in Unit 5 of your Ridgeland Apartments complex. Mr. Jones in Unit 7 plays his stereo at such a loud volume that it is a serious disturbance to me. I have asked him several times to please turn it down and he has not responded. Last week, I sent him the enclosed letter pointing out to him that he was violating his lease.
I regret having to bother you, but I know that you would want to be alerted to this situation so it can be corrected. Thank you for your cooperation.
Strength in Numbers
In dealing with a landlord or a hostile neighbor, one of the most effective things you can do is to get someone else to complain also. This is not nearly as hard as you might think. If you are being bothered, someone else probably is too. They are probably just waiting and hoping somebody will do something. They don’t want to act alone either. The greater the number of people complaining, the faster the relief should be.
When a neighbor is uncooperative, before you call the cops or rush to court, consider using mediation. You and the neighbor can sit down together with an impartial mediator and resolve your own problems. Mediation services are available in most cities and often they are free or available at a nominal cost. You simply contact the mediation center, and most will then contact the neighbor for you.
In a noise dispute, you could not only try to settle the current problem but also work out an agreement that would avoid problems in the future. This is a much better solution than simply calling a police cruiser to the door, which will guarantee hard feelings from then on. And especially when there are more problems than just the noise, the neighbor may be delighted at a chance to be heard. If you value the neighbor relationship at all, or just want peace in the future, give mediation a try. (See Chapter 19.)
Call the Police
No response from the neighbor? Stereo turned up another notch? Now is the time to bring in the police. (If the problem is a barking dog, this may be the Animal Control officer in your town. And some cities have special noise units that respond to complaints. You can find out by calling the police office.) You are in a very different position than you were originally. You have tried to solve the problem yourself. You have done what you could on your own and even have a copy of a letter to prove it.
Of course you don’t have to take all these steps before calling the law. But look at the difference between you, standing there with the written ordinance and the letter in your hand, and the thousands of people who call the cops over the slightest (and often most frivolous) matter. The police know the difference. They will know your complaint is serious and that you need help.
Try to notify the police while the noise is continuing. If they are using a decibel meter, they need to be able to measure the noise level to see if it is above the allowed limit.
Sue for Nuisance
Whenever someone else’s unreasonable action interferes with your enjoyment of your property, that action creates what is called a private nuisance. If you are the one affected by the nuisance, by your neighbor’s blasting stereo or howling dog, you can sue the neighbor. You can ask the court for money damages or to make the neighbor stop the noise (that is, to have the nuisance abated). For money damages alone, you can use small claims court; for a court order to stop the noise, you may have to sue in regular court. A few states limit what subjects can be addressed in small claims court. (See Chapter 20 for small claims limitations.)
What you really want is for the noise to disappear. However, having the neighbor ordered to pay you money can be amazingly effective in regaining your quiet. If the noise continues, you have a “continuing nuisance” and can sue again and again.
A lot of neighbors are using small claims court for noise situations. It’s easy, inexpensive, and you don’t need a lawyer.
To sue for private nuisance due to noise, this is what you need to show:
There is excessive and disturbing noise.
The person you are suing is either creating the noise or is the landlord and therefore responsible.
Your enjoyment of your property is affected. (You don’t have to own the property—you can be a tenant.)
You have asked the person to stop the noise (a letter should be enough).
This can be shown by police reports, other witnesses, your own testimony, or even a recording.
The effect on you is called your damages. This may include loss of sleep, annoyance, or the inability to carry on normal activity without interference. You can ask for a reasonable dollar amount per day for damages. The amount you can sue for in small claims court is limited, usually between $2,500 and $10,000. (Chapter 20 lists each state’s limit.) If you have been bothered for 20 days and want $20 a day for it, this would usually be considered reasonable and would be well within the limit. If the noise problem is really severe—keeping you from sleeping or working and making you completely frazzled—$100 a day wouldn’t be too much to ask.
Once you have sued in small claims court, if the noise continues, you can sue again. Also, if other people are affected, get together with your neighbors. If ten people sue for $2,500 each, that’s $25,000. Do it again—another $25,000. Sooner or later, the noise should stop. (For more on small claims court, see Chapter 20.)
If you choose to sue in regular court and hire a lawyer, get the attorney to write a threatening letter before you sue; that may be all that it takes. Sadly, some neighbors can be pretty rotten, and nothing short of a judge’s order or high money damages will change the situation.
For example, consider one nasty neighbor and an owner attempting to rent his house next door. Every time a prospective tenant looks at the property, the neighbor revs up his huge motorcycle. When the police come out, all is quiet. Damages can mount up quickly for the owner of the house. For extreme situations like this, you will need an attorney.
Most noise problems between neighbors (and most neighbor disputes in general) can be solved by following a few simple guidelines:
Know the law and stay within it.
Be reasonably tolerant of your neighbors.
Be assertive of your rights.
Communicate with your neighbors—both the neighbor causing the problem and others affected by it.
Ask the police for help when it is appropriate.
Use the courts when necessary.
1 Cal. Civ. Code § 1102.6(c).
2 Oxford, Miss., Mun. Code § 18-1.
3 City of Everett ex rel. Cattle v. Everett Dist. Ct., 31 Wash. App. 319, 641 P.2d 714 (1982).
4 Town of Normal v. Stelzel, 109 Ill. App. 3d 836, 65 Ill. Dec. 378, 441 N.E.2d 170 (1982).
5 Schild v. Rubin, 232 Cal. App. 3d 755 (1991).
6 City of Farmington v. Wilkins, 106 N.M. 188, 740 P.2d 1172 (1987).
7 N.M. Stat. Ann. § 30-20-1.
8 Cal. Penal Code § 415.