A thin wall separates my bedroom from my neighbor's living room. Sleep is often impossible. Is this grounds to terminate my lease?
November 18, 2008 8:31 PM   Subscribe

A thin wall separates my bedroom from my neighbor's living room. Sleep is often impossible. Is this grounds to terminate my lease?

I don't think I can overstate how amazingly well sound travels from my neighbor's apartment into mine. We hear the TV, even at low volumes. We hear all conversations. This morning, a conversation next door, seemingly conducted in an indoor voice, was loud enough to wake me up at 5am. It's as if the building somehow amplifies noise from their apartment. When any activity is occurring in their living room, it is simply impossible to sleep in our bedroom.

My neighbor is sympathetic and has been great in working with us to try to make the situation bearable. We've established some hours during which she's agreed not to use her living room. But it's a tough situation; her family operates on a different schedule than we do, is up at different hours, etc. Today she asked, for the second time, to reduce our "silent time" window. And even during silent time, exceptions regularly occur (e.g., tonight they have company in town, so they will be up late).

I understand their position and am grateful for the accommodations they've been willing to make. But my sense is that they're simply not going to be able to adhere to our agreement over the long term, since it requires them to make a conscious effort on a daily basis to keep quiet in their own home.

I've explained all this to my landlord, and sent him some links to sites that describe how to soundproof new and existing walls, and while he didn't reject them out of hand, I don't really think he is going to make any changes unless I make some firm demands.

Before I consider going down that road, I'm trying to understand my position. (Note: I'm currently two months into a twelve month lease.) It seems like, as a tenant, I have the right to quiet enjoyment of my home. (See also here and here.) Does this situation qualify as a breech of the covenant of quiet enjoyment? Is the landlord obligated to take action? If he does not, can I rightly ask to terminate my lease early?

(One other item to note: for what it's worth, the apartment is actually a condo that my landlord owns (so the tenants next door are not his). It's a very nice building that was remodeled just a few years ago. The apartment has new appliances, high end hardware, etc., and the rent I'm paying is higher than average for the size of the apartment and the neighborhood, which I was willing to pay because it's supposed to be a nice place. And because we're paying extra for a nice place, I feel, rightly or not, entitled to a bedroom where I can sleep without interruption and without resorting to wearing earplugs.)

What do you think? I would especially love to hear from anyone who has been in a situation like this before or with legal expertise in this area (I know you are not my lawyer).
posted by medpt to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you are approaching this problem in a very mature way. Personally, I would go insane.
The walls between the two apartments are too thin and have no soundproofing. Does your neighbor have the same problem? You sound like a quiet person, but try making some normal person noise at normal times and document with your neighbor what happens. Perhaps both landlords can work on the problem together.
If you love the apartment, try to work it out with the owners. The whole 'being quiet thing' isn't right, as there is obviously a structural issue. If the owners won't deal with the problem, prepare a notice to quit. Threaten to spread the word on the innertubes. Talk to your upstairs and downstairs people. Work on a class action basis.
posted by Pennyblack at 8:55 PM on November 18, 2008

If the walls are that thin I doubt they are fireproofed. Check and see if that's a requirement for condos where you live and maybe you can get out of the lease that way.
posted by fshgrl at 9:23 PM on November 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Unfortunately, I doubt that it would be considered grounds for terminating a lease. But it would depend enormously on exactly what state (or province, or whatever) and city you live in, because the laws vary a lot.

Usually the issue of habitability has to do with things like whether the place is crawling with vermin, or whether the water works, or whether it freezes inside in the winter. In other words, things which represent a significant threat to health and well-being.

"It's too loud in here" doesn't really rise to that level, so unless your particular location has especially stringent habitability rules on the books, I'd suggest you start wearing ear plugs to bed.
posted by Class Goat at 9:26 PM on November 18, 2008

Fshgrl's idea is brilliant, in a lateral thinking way. Noise is a non-starter, legally, but you can find a fire code that the wall is violating, you're golden, and the insulation it should have for fireproofing will also give you soundproofing as a bonus.
posted by rokusan at 9:36 PM on November 18, 2008

As an alternative solution if you can't get out of the lease, you might consider doing what an old girlfriend of mine did in a similar situation: rearrange your home.

Specifically, we moved her futon into the living room in a pleasant, prominent area, and gave her the biggest bedroom of her life; we moved her office and television-related stuff into the bedroom; we rearranged the furniture and decor to make this not seem so odd.

Ultimately it worked out quite well. Obviously this requires a layout that can accommodate this sort of change, and you'll have to find a way to make the "bedroom" look decent during the day (her having a futon helped, but if you have a normal bed, you might consider a well-placed room divider and a nice throw/fluffy pillows to de-emphasize the bed during the day.)

Good luck. From the age of 19 until 33 (when my wife and I finally bought a house) I knew no peace at night in any of my apartments, from noisy neighbors next door to noisy neighbors above, from loud traffic nearby (with lots of accidents) to loud car stereos in the parking lot across the street, there's nothing worse than noise when you're trying to sleep.
posted by davejay at 9:59 PM on November 18, 2008

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posted by taff at 1:32 AM on November 19, 2008

You could try to hang some quilts or tapestries on the wall. Not ideal but they could give a cozy feel and block sound quite effectively. Get some cheap blankets to hang and then put some attractive quilts over them. Several layers of sound barrier. Also, a sound machine will help a good deal. It might take a few nights to get used to the sound of falling rain or the ocean but will become soothing soon enough. Good luck.
posted by pearlybob at 5:23 AM on November 19, 2008

You could try to hang some quilts or tapestries on the wall.

That's what I was thinking. Especially effective if you can hang baffles on both sides of the wall - yours and your neighbor's.
posted by GPF at 6:49 AM on November 19, 2008

Noise probably won't get you out on the grounds of quiet enjoyment; despite the name of the legal principle, it usually doesn't actually apply to noise. It's usually invoked in cases where you don't have hot water, or heat, or a ceiling that's not covered in mold.

If you're not already using earplugs, you should probably start, if only in the meantime. A white noise generator may also help.
posted by craven_morhead at 6:52 AM on November 19, 2008

Regardless of if the law mandates that the landlord do something, or allows you to break your lease, there is nothing wrong with approaching your landlord and asking them if you can break your lease and help find someone to take your place.

Or if you want to be a little more forceful, you could tell your landlord that you have the right to leave and if he wants to go to court you will seek damages for the several months you have spent there. Make sure you sign something before you leave.
posted by unreasonable at 7:01 AM on November 19, 2008

If I was your neighbor, I'd be pretty pissed that you wanted me to not speak in MY home. If I was making unusually loud noises, I'd see your point. However, normal indoor voices and low volume tv watching falling into a "silent time" is way unreasonable.

Use earplugs.
Put bookshelves or other heavy furniture against the wall.
posted by onhazier at 7:48 AM on November 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't know about terminating your lease, and I know you didn't ask for suggestions for how to deal with the noise, but:

Have you tried using a white noise machine? I use one and I went from being awoken at the slightest noise to sleeping through a ringing telephone.
posted by amarynth at 8:19 AM on November 19, 2008

I was thinking about the fire-code issue, too. In most places I've lived, I've been told that multi-unit dwellings are supposed to have firewalls between units. (I've never looked in the code to actually verify that this is true, so you should do that.)

It's possible your building was somehow grandfathered in, but I'd do some research and see if it wasn't. Some multi-dwelling buildings have some really shady construction going on in them (I've been in one where the owner never actually got even the most basic of permits to convert it from single-family to multi-family, and nobody noticed for 15+ years until they tried to sell).

If the condo complex is of recent construction and there's nothing but a regular hollow interior wall (two pieces of drywall, studs) in between, I'd start to really wonder if it's up to spec. The easiest way to tell might be to hire a home or building inspector; you don't necessarily even need to tell them why you care (you could make it sound as if you're a tenant possibly interested in making an offer to the landlord to buy the unit from them, or something similar; that would be a very plausible reason for getting an inspection done and asking questions about code violations). That shouldn't cost you too much and would probably be pretty definitive.

If it's not to code, I would use that as your leverage to threaten to break your lease.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:15 AM on November 19, 2008

Normal conversation isn't breaking the right to quiet enjoyment. Extended parties, loud televisions, those would be.

Do the neighbors have furniture and carpeting and curtains in their living room? That might solve part of the problem. Do YOU have these natural noise-absorbers? Get as much stuff to absorb the noise and eliminate echo.

I agree with the suggestions to rearrange your apartment non-traditionally, at least for the time being, as well as the suggestion to see if the walls are up to code. If they are (or even if they aren't), something that is done here in NYC all the time is adding an additional wall. People do this more often than you would think for things like pianos or smoking or a neurotic neighbor in a co-op where hundreds of thousands of dollars are at stake. You might want to talk to your landlord about it. But by all means try to find out if it's up to code first.
posted by micawber at 1:12 PM on November 19, 2008

It's worth a shot. Maybe the landlord will decide it's easier to let you go than to deal with your complaints. Be as reasonable as you can. Focus on the fact that want to resolve the noise problem.

Make sure you have a rug under your bed so that the floor can't conduct sound up the bed's legs. Move the bed at least an inch away from the wall. Encourage the neighbor to use lots of soft, sound-absorbing furnishings; rugs with pads, drapes, tapestries, plenty of upholstered furniture, and you do the same. Use a white-noise generator. Looks like you can find free software to play white noise or loop an mp3.

Consider putting foam carpet padding(generally pretty cheap) on the walls, behind something nice-looking.

Work on some meditation and/or self-hypnosis to reduce your chronic irritation, and sensitivity to the noise. As you focus on noise-abatement, you can become even more sensitive to noise.

Be nice to your neighbor; it's uncommon to have a neighbor who will work with you on noise issues.
posted by theora55 at 3:03 PM on November 19, 2008

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