The web of laws governing the relationship between neighbors is complicated in any jurisdiction, but it’s especially complicated in a large city like New York. The “laws” applicable to how you interact with your neighbor are sometimes state laws, sometimes local rules applicable to New York City, sometimes regulations imposed by government agencies like the Department of Buildings, and sometimes not “laws” at all, but rather regulations imposed by your coop, condominium, or landlord.
Some of the most important concepts and considerations governing the interactions of neighbors in New York City (whether you rent or own) are as follows:
Everyone has a night to quietly enjoy their own home, whether they own a residential home in Staten Island or rent an apartment in midtown Manhattan.
If your neighbor is disturbing that peace and quiet – for example, by playing loud music or burning odorous incense – you could have a legal cause of action against the neighbor for “private nuisance.” To sustain a legal cause of action for private nuisance, the nuisance need not be intentional or done with malice on the part of your neighbor. It might be merely unintentional, reckless, or negligent.
Often in New York City, your neighbor is actually your landlord. This is typical in situations where you are renting an apartment within a townhouse.
One of the most violated terms of such leases is the right of quiet enjoyment, which means a tenant's right to possess and use his or her property without disturbance, including by the owner. Homeowner-landlords often believe that, despite your lease, they can still enter your unit whenever they want, since they own the building. This is a misconception. Landlords cannot enter your apartment without emergency and/or notice.
If your neighbor is renovating his or her home or apartment, neither you nor your property should be put at risk from that. Generally, significant construction and renovation in New York City requires approval by its Department of Buildings, commonly called the DOB.
If you believe your neighbor is engaging in dangerous renovation activities without a permit – such as breaking through walls – you might be able to file a complaint for the DOB to investigate. Depending on its investigation and assessment, it can issue a “stop work order,” which would prevent your neighbor from continuing to renovate until getting the necessary approval. (Note that cosmetic renovations, like painting walls or installing cabinets, do not normally require approval).
If you own your apartment, chances are that you are very familiar with the building’s rules, especially if your building is a coop or condominium. Such buildings tend to have boards that promulgate detailed policies and procedures for residents.
If you are merely a renter in such a building, you might not be aware of these rules. However, you are still bound by them, just as the owner of your apartment would be. Ask the building staff for a copy. It is common for such building rules to have procedures for moving in and out, sharing common spaces, and hours when certain levels of noise or music are permitted.
Some buildings also have systems for filing complaints or resolving disputes with neighbors (for example, through a mediation process) written into the building’s regulations. Before you consult an attorney or complain to your neighbor about his or her behavior, consult the building rules to get a sense of what regulations the neighbor may or may not be violating.