As a longtime resident of New York City, I’ve had every kind of upstairs neighbor — from the techno blaster, to the high-heeled insomniac, to the power-drilling kitchen renovator, to the neglectful owner of a barking pup.
If those weren’t enough to keep my ears sandwiched in a pillow, there’s always the late-night partiers at the bar on the corner, or the endless 2nd Avenue subway construction.
Whether you live in a city or a suburb, you know what it’s like to be subject to a noise that’s a nuisance. What you may not know is that the law tends to have your back when it comes to recourse against unreasonable noise-makers. Here’s a look at when, and how.
NOISE AS A PRIVATE NUISANCE
An upstairs neighbor who practices their musical instrument at 2 AM falls under the category of a “private nuisance.” A private nuisance is using one’s property in a way that unreasonably or unlawfully interferes with the enjoyment or use of another person’s property (without actually trespassing or physically invading that property).
What makes a nuisance “private” is that it involves one individual causing unreasonable disturbance to another or to just a few other individuals, as opposed to the wider public. As such, a private nuisance is considered a civil matter.
So what can you do if your neighbor lets their dog bark all night, or hosts loud parties until the wee hours? If you live in a rental unit, a first line of action is alerting your landlord to the issue by forwarding her a detailed log of the disruptions by receipted delivery. Most residential leases are read to include an implied “warranty of habitability” (in New York it is an explicit law), which requires your landlord to ensure that your living space is free of conditions detrimental to your health, your safety, or the quiet enjoyment of your unit. Landlords are especially likely to be responsible for alleviating a noise nuisance if the noise-makers are their own tenants.
In the event that your landlord refuses to address a persistent noise issue within his or her control, you can file a claim against him o her for breaching the explicit or implicit warranty of habitability. That said, your case will have to be backed with some solid proof, making it ever more important to carefully log the dates and times of the noise disturbances, as well as providing evidence that your landlord did receive the complaint. Measuring the noise with decibel meters, or having an expert do it for you, will increase your chances of winning in court.
If you own rather than rent, you also have options to deal with a neighbor who won’t respond to a polite request to keep the noise down. Local governments often advise you to call the police for a noise complaint, but if the issue persists you can take several different routes. Some disputes are ultimately resolved with the help of a mediator, but it is also within your rights to bring a civil claim against your neighbor for a persistent noise issue.
Again, you are more likely to succeed in court if you have detailed documentation of the noise disturbance. This will be crucial whether you sue your neighbor in regular court to secure an order that they stop the noise, or if you pursue the matter in small claims court to secure monetary damages (which is often sufficient to stop the disturbance).
Before you get into a dispute with your landlord, or call the police on a neighbor, or run to court, you should check for any local laws that govern noise levels in your area. The New York City Noise Code, for instance, draws out specific guidelines for permissible decibel levels, durations, and hours of repair work, animal noises, and more.
NOISE AS A PUBLIC NUISANCE
In contrast to a private nuisance, which bothers one or a few people, a public nuisance obstructs or damages the rights (read: safety, well-being, or reasonable comfort) of an entire community or large group of people. Examples of noise-related public nuisances are building construction, music from bars and restaurants, or car honking that carry on beyond the hours and sound decibels permitted by local law.
As a noise disruption of this sort affects the general public instead of one particular individual, it can be considered a criminal offense, the type of which will vary according to the kind of act involved. You can, for example, be charged with something like disorderly conduct.
Many were shocked to see this play out recently, when family members who cheered during a high school graduation ceremony in Senatobia, Mississippi, despite instructions to hold cheers and applause until all graduates’ names had been called, were charged with disturbing the peace. They are now facing the prospect of $500 in fines and six months of jail time. A rather harsh execution of the law, but also a reminder to take very seriously the fact that creating a noise considered a public nuisance is — however surprisingly — a criminal act.
You don’t have to suffer from unreasonable, disruptive noise. Knowing your local laws can go a long way to helping you enjoy a little peace and quiet.