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How to Address Noise Complaints from Your Neighbor

How to Address Noise Complaints from Your Neighbor

Here are four ways to address noise complaints from an unhappy neighbor.

As soon as I heard the three swift knocks at the door, my stomach sank. I knew who it was, and why she was here. Again. Up against a deadline with a bunch of financial documents, I was working somewhat frantically at the kitchen table while my son played with Hotwheels cars in the other room. I knew what he was doing, because I heard each car swish against the floor. Unfortunately, my downstairs neighbor heard it, too.

Noise complaints, as much a staple of city life as pigeons or giant pretzels, have risen dramatically since stay-at-home orders went into place. A WNYC analysis of 311 calls from last March and April showed a 22-percent increase over the same time period of the previous year.

Sam Himmelstein, a tenants’ lawyer, says such complaints have “gone up exponentially” in his practice since the start of the pandemic.

With so many people now spending the majority of their time inside of their apartments, it makes sense that neighbors are hearing, and complaining, more. For those of us stuck indoors with children, trying to maintain some semblance of work and school life without resorting to non-stop screen time, what remedies are there?

First, take solace in the fact that most landlords and co-op boards are loath to get involved in noise-related disputes between tenants. To take you all the way to court, someone would have to prove that the sound presented a nuisance--a higher bar than you might think.

“You have to make an unreasonable amount of noise at off hours,” Himmelstein reassures, explaining that unless we’re blasting disco music at 2am, we’re probably safe from the threat of eviction or lawsuit. “The majority of cases,” he says, “do not end up in court.”

Of course, our neighbors are also trapped indoors, and we don’t want to make them miserable, either.

4 Ways to Handle and Prevent Noise Complaints from Neighbors

So, how can families try to minimize noise and maintain cordial relationships with fellow residents? Here are a few ways:

First, apologize for the noise.

First, try to be empathetic. Before launching into a list of reasons that wintertime pandemic parenting is fraught with impossibility, offer a simple restatement of the complaint and a sincere apology: “I can see that the noise is really bothering you. I’m so sorry this is happening.” It may help to remember that if you have the conflict negotiation skills to disarm a toddler intent on launching a juice box at another child, you can handle a disgruntled downstairs neighbor.

Once you’ve acknowledged the problem and open communication is possible, you might want to offer your phone number so they can contact you when noise is bothering them. This also discourages them from calling the landlord instead.

Find strategies to absorb excess noise in your apartment.

The next thing to think about is carpets. Popularly believed to be a law, the 80-percent carpeting rule is actually just a clause in your lease or agreement. Himmelstein notes that it is also, “the least-enforced lease clause in existence.” But when there are complaints, the addition of carpets or rugs can offer proof to your neighbor, landlord, or co-op board that you are putting in a good faith effort to absorb the sound within your own unit. Purchase thick, padded rugs, or even additional rubber padding, for play areas and other problem spots. Curtains can also help.

You can purchase noise-absorbing acoustic panels to line your walls or ceilings, but simple carpets are usually recommended as the first line of defense.

Kjirsten Alexander, a Manhattan parent to a 3-year-old, explains that she reminds her child to play with blocks, or other toys that make noise against the floor, on her rug or play mat. “It’s an important lesson for her to consider others when she is playing,” Alexander says. In my situation, had I simply asked my son to move his toy cars from the step leading to our sunken living room and onto the living room floor, which is covered by a thick rug, we might have averted an issue that day.

If your child plays piano on an electric keyboard, they can practice using headphones. If you have an upright piano, put a thick rug under it, a felt runner on top, and try moving it at least six inches away from the wall to keep the sound from travelling. Ask your piano tuner about ways they may be able to help soften the sound.

If noise is unavoidable, ask your neighbor when they most need quiet.

Is your child’s trumpet practicing interfering with your neighbor’s video calls with clients? Does remote school gym class coincide with daily check-in with their boss? Once you’ve established communication, ask your neighbor which spaces of the apartment they most need quiet, and at what times. P.E. can be moved into another room, and music practice times can shift an hour. Try to approach the issue like a puzzle you and your neighbor are solving together.

You can even involve your kids in the process, deciding which toys or activities should be off-limits at certain times and in particular spaces.

Find low-noise solutions and activities for your child.

Some kids just need to wiggle. If your remote-schooling child is prone to making noise by scooting or tapping their chair, you could consider purchasing flexible seating like a wobble chair that will allow them to move around without tipping over. Similarly, a balance ball could accommodate the need to bounce.

For indoor play without all the footfalls, a mini trampoline might do the trick.

In all of your interactions, do your best to help your neighbor see you, and your children, as individuals struggling to negotiate the same unprecedented circumstances they are dealing with. Offer your first name, and introduce them to your kids. It’s easy to complain about a nameless, faceless person. When your neighbor knows that your 7-year-old plays the piano for 15 minutes every afternoon and has an hour-long dance class in the living room on Saturday mornings, it helps frame the noise as specific, meaningful, and—most importantly—temporary.

If you've tried just about everything and you're looking to get a little more extreme with your noise reduction, but in a reasonably affordable way, check out this video for noise proofing your apartment:


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Marie Holmes

Author: Marie Holmes has written for Good Housekeeping, Cosmopolitan, the Washington Post, and other publications. She lives in Upper Manhattan with her wife and their two children. See More

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