Neighbors and Noise FAQ

Steps to take when a neighbor's barking dogs, loud music, or other noise production are interfering with your quality of life.

Research solidly supports claims that noise is a health hazard, not just a nuisance. Exposure to sounds of 115 decibels for 15 minutes a day causes hearing loss, according to the Center for Hearing and Communication, a valuable site for noise-related resources. A noisy restaurant checks in at 80 decibels, a subway train at 120, live rock music at 130. Not surprisingly, noise affects the ability to concentrate and learn. Schoolchildren exposed to excessive noise--for example, in schools close to airports or elevated trains--have been found to have problems with reading and memory.

If a neighbor is creating excessive noise, then, you'll want to know what steps you can take to address the problem, as described below.

How should I approach my neighbor about a noise problem?

There are two common reactions to noise coming from a neighbor. The first is 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.

Approach the neighbor. Raising a problem with a neighbor is not easy. But it should always be the first step and, if done with respect and sensitivity, may be the last. Often the neighbor is unaware of a problem -- for instance, the dog barks only when nobody is home. Assume that the neighbor doesn't know and would like to be told.

Warn the neighbor. If complaining doesn't work, get a copy of your local noise ordinance as explained above. Send a copy to the neighbor with a note repeating your request to keep the noise down and explaining that you'll be forced to notify the authorities if you don't get results. Be sure to provide details on the problem, including the dates and times of the noise.

If you rent or live in a planned development, send a copy of the lease agreement or special rules (usually called Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions) to the neighbor. If that doesn't work, report the problem to the landlord or homeowners' association in writing. Especially if several tenants complain at the same time, the landlord will probably order the tenant to quiet down or face eviction.

Suggest mediation. If you value the neighbor relationship at all, or just want peace in the future, give mediation a try. You and the neighbor can sit down together with an impartial mediator and resolve your problems in a way that you can both agree on. Mediation services are available in most cities and often they are free. Simply call the mediation center, and it will then contact the neighbor for you. For more information, see the Mediation, Arbitration, and Collaborative Law section of Nolo's website.

Call the police. Still no response from the neighbor? Stereo turned up another notch? Now is the time to bring in the police (or, if the problem is a barking dog, the Animal Control Department). If you have tried to solve the problem yourself, the police will know your complaint is serious and that you need help.

Try to notify the police while the noise is continuing, so they can measure the decibels or hear it for themselves. (Some people simply hold the phone out the window.) Sometimes cities won't act until the noise affects two or more persons, to prevent complaints from excessively sensitive people.

Sue for nuisance. As a last resort, you can sue in small claims court. It's easy and inexpensive, and you don't need a lawyer.

Can I sue a noisy neighbor?

If your neighbor keeps disturbing you, you can sue, and ask the court for money damages or to order the neighbor to stop the noise ("abate the nuisance," in legal terms). For money damages alone, you can use small claims court. For a court order telling somebody to stop doing something, you'll probably have to sue in regular court.

Of course, what you really want is for the nuisance to stop. But getting a small claims court to order your neighbor to pay you money can be amazingly effective. And suing in small claims court is easy, inexpensive, and doesn't require a lawyer.

To win, you'll 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 home is affected.
  • You have asked the person to stop the noise.

To prove your case, use police reports, witnesses, your own testimony, or even a recording.

How much money should you sue for? In most states, small claims courts limit judgments to between $2,500 and $7,500. (Find out how much you can sue for in your state's small claims court.) Requesting $20 a day for your trouble would probably be considered reasonable. If the noise problem is really severe--keeping you from sleeping or working and making you completely frazzled--make it $100 a day.

You can learn more in the Small Claims Court area of Nolo's website.

Is my landlord supposed to keep noisy tenants quiet?

You can ask for a landlord's help in quieting the neighbor. Standard rental and lease agreements contain a clause entitled "Quiet Enjoyment." This clause gives tenants the right to occupy their apartments in peace and also imposes upon them the responsibility not to disturb their neighbors. It's the landlord's job to enforce both sides of this bargain.

If the neighbor's stereo is keeping you up every night, the tenant is probably violating the rental agreement and could be evicted. Especially if several neighbors complain, the landlord will probably order the tenant to comply with the lease or face eviction.

My neighbor's dog barks all the time, driving me crazy. What can I do?

Usually, problems with barking dogs can be resolved without resorting to police or courts. If you do eventually wind up in court, however, a judge will be more sympathetic if you first made at least some effort to work things out informally. Here are the steps to take when you're losing patience (or sleep) over a neighbor's noisy dog:

1. Ask your neighbor to keep the dog quiet. Sometimes owners are blissfully unaware that there's a problem. If the dog barks for hours every day -- but only when it's left alone -- the owner may not know that you're being driven crazy.

If you can establish some rapport with the neighbor, try to agree on specific actions to alleviate the problem: for example, that your neighbor will take the dog to obedience school or consult with an animal behavior specialist, or that the dog will be kept inside after 10 p.m. After you agree on a plan, set a date to talk again in a couple of weeks.

2. Try mediation. Mediators, both professional and volunteers, are trained to listen to both sides, identify problems, keep everyone focused on the real issues, and suggest compromises. A mediator won't make a decision for you, but will help you and your neighbor agree on a resolution.

Many cities have community mediation groups which train volunteers to mediate disputes in their own neighborhoods. Or ask for a referral from:

  • the small claims court clerk's office
  • the local district attorney's office--the consumer complaint division, if there is one
  • radio or television stations that offer help with consumer problems, or
  • a state or local bar association.

For more information, see the Mediation, Arbitration, and Collaborative Law area of Nolo's website.

3. Look up the law. In some places, barking dogs are covered by a specific state or local ordinance. If there's no law aimed specifically at dogs, a general nuisance or noise ordinance makes the owner responsible. And someone who allows a dog to bark after numerous warnings from police may be arrested for disturbing the peace.

If you can't find the relevant law online, go to a law library and check the state statutes and city or county ordinances or call the local animal control agency or city attorney.

4. Ask animal control authorities to enforce local noise laws. Be persistent. Some cities have special programs to handle dog complaints.

5. Call the police, if you think a criminal law is being violated. Police aren't normally very interested in barking dog problems. And summoning a police cruiser to a neighbor's house obviously will not improve your already strained relations. But if nothing else works, and the relationship with your neighbor is shot anyway, give the police a try.

Are noisy neighbors breaking the law?

You bet. Almost every community prohibits excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise, and police enforce these laws. To find your municipality's noise rules, look up the local ordinances, either online, at your local public library or the city or county law library (usually located near the courthouse), or y calling the office of the city attorney, mayor, or city manager.

Most local noise ordinances designate "quiet hours"--for example, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and until 8 or 9 a.m. on weekends. So running a power mower may be perfectly acceptable at 10 a.m. on Saturday, but not at 7 a.m.

Some universally disturbing sounds are commonly banned or restricted. For instance, most cities prohibit honking car horns unless there is danger. This means that the daily early morning tooting across the street for the carpool is a violation. Dogs and motorcycles may also be singled out.

Many towns also prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The decibel limits are set according to the time of day and the neighborhood zoning. When a neighbor complains, police place decibel level monitoring equipment on an estimated property line and take a reading.

The neighbor plays his drums night and day. What can I do?

Fortunately, most communities have local noise ordinances that prohibit excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise. Look for your local noise ordinance, searching in particular for:

Quiet times. Most noise laws designate certain “quiet” times. Some types of noise may be allowed at some times, but not at others. Your neighbor’s drumming may be perfectly acceptable at 10 a.m., but not at 7 a.m. or midnight. After you find out your community’s quiet times, keep a log for a week or so of the time and day the drummer’s drumming. It might seem like the beat goes on (and on) 24-7, but the drumming might not even be occurring during set quiet times.

Decibel noise limits. Many communities prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level for residential areas. To see how loud the drumming is, you’ll need a decibel level machine (they're usually less than $50). Keep notes of noise measurements in your log, along with the time of day you hear the drumming (the noise limit will probably vary depending on time of day). Or ask the police to take noise measurements. (Most communities have electronic equipment for measuring noise when a neighbor complains.)

If the drumming noise is below the noise limits, and only occurs within reasonable hours, you probably won’t have the law behind you. If however, the drumming exceeds the limits, especially if it occurs outside of designated quiet times, you have some leverage with your neighbor.

In either case, talk with your neighbor (noise ordinance and drumming log in hand). Be sensitive (now’s not the time to criticize the neighbor’s drumming skills). Attempt to work out a compromise (you’ll have more clout if the drumming is also bothering other neighbors—otherwise, you may come off as overly picky). It’s possible that your neighbor is not even aware that the drumming is bothering you. Consider options such as mediation if a conversation with your neighbor doesn’t work.

If the neighborhood drummer is clearly violating the local noise ordinance, call the police, only if you can’t work out a reasonable agreement. The police may issue a warning, and even fine the drumming neighbor if he fails to comply with the law.

How do I deal with noisy fellow tenants in my apartment building?

Even the best rental properties can be noisy at times, with tenants coming and going, doing home repairs, moving furniture, playing music, having loud conversations, or walking across an uncarpeted floor. If a neighbor’s noise is continuously disruptive, however, you’ll want to find the best way to remedy the situation as soon as possible. Excessive noise, whether from loud parties, blaring radios, or dogs barking day and night, violate other tenants’ right to peace and quiet. The following suggestions and tips may help you get a peaceful home (and a good night’s sleep).

Make a friendly request. In person, explain that the noise levels are disturbing you, and politely ask your fellow tenants to keep it down. In some cases, a congenial smile and request is all it takes. Other tenants may not even realize how loud they are being unless you tell them, but remember to always take a friendly approach. Acting in a threatening or belittling manner may exacerbate the situation.

Document the problem. Keep a log, with as much detail as possible, of the times and dates of noise you are hearing. Consider recording the noise, and, if it’s really bad, buy a decibel level machine to measure it.

Make a second request in writing. If the noise continues after your initial request, write the other tenants a letter that outlines the problem and what you feel would be an amicable solution. Your note doesn’t need to be demanding or too formal, but a simple plan that you feel will be effective. For example, if you go to sleep at 11 p.m., explain that a loud radio or television is keeping you awake, but lowering it a few notches will help tremendously. Writing a letter that you’re serious about the noise disturbances will give you proof if you need to complain to your landlord or end up in court.

Contact your landlord. Although this may cause a rift between you and your neighbors, keep in mind that other people in your building may have the same complaints; in fact, getting others to sign a joint letter to the landlord will be especially helpful in motivating your landlord to stop the noise.

Most standard leases have a clause that give tenants the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their homes; this generally includes freedom from excessive or continually disruptive noise which interferes with a tenant’s ability to use their rental—for example, by making it impossible for you to sleep. Look for a clause that’s called something like “violating laws or causing disturbances.” Your landlord may also spell out specific noise guidelines (such as no loud noise after midnight) in a separate set of rules and, so check these, too.

It’s your landlord’s responsibility to enforce lease clauses and house rules; if a noisy tenant doesn’t comply, landlords may evict them. And if your landlord fails to stop excessive and unreasonable noise, you may consider filing a small claims lawsuit against the landlord for tolerating a nuisance. Depending on the situation, you may be able to break your lease and move out early.

Research your city's noise ordinance. Provide your landlord with a copy, so as to back up your request that the landlord take steps to make sure that the noisy tenants cease the problem behavior.

Contact the police. If the landlord fails to stop noisy tenants, the next step is to contact the authorities. It’s a good idea to call the police while the noise is in progress, such as a during a late night party.

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