What can we do to improve this bad home rental situation?
May 25, 2010 2:44 PM   Subscribe

The proud new renters of the main floor of a very nice house settle in to discover that there is absolutely no sound barrier between the main and basement suite. They signed a long lease and feel duped. Now what?

I'm looking for advice and solutions regarding our new, less-than-ideal living situation.

With a baby due in September, my husband and I were looking to rent the main floor of a house - affordable, large, nice neighborhood, backyard. We found one that we both loved and, in an effort to win it over other potential renters, signed a two-year lease. We were told that the renter of the basement suite was a quiet, single woman with a full-time job. And, this is true.

However, it turns out that there is no soundproofing between the two suites to muffle our comings and goings and those of our downstairs neighbor. She could be the quietest person on earth and we would still be able to hear everything she does. I can hear her phone ring, her conversations, her music, her microwave. I can hear her clear her throat - while in the bathroom, no less, which means that she can hear me peeing. I worry about the tv and radio being too loud. Forget about sex being private anymore. I was utterly freaked out about the bed creaking during an attempt to be amorous last night. I've been walking throughout the house on my tip toes. I don't know what to do.

We've talked with the downstairs tenant and we've laughed together about this whole situation, but it's really not all that funny and I don't know what to do. She's incredibly nice and she's really the one with the short end of the stick, because she gets to hear our footsteps.

She has been living here for nearly a year now and was aware of the lack of a noise barrier, but it hasn't been a huge problem in the past because the last upstairs tenant worked out of town for 3 months at a time. Our landlords didn't warn her that a couple expecting a baby would be moving in above her. She told us that her lease is up in August that that she'll probably be leaving. This means we could end up with a much louder tenant below come the end of the summer.

Suggestions? Advice? What should we do? We are not considering breaking our lease and moving again. I also don't think we can expect a rent discount; the landlords have already reduced it by $50/mo for signing such a long lease. Is there a way to convince the landords to properly soundproof, or would that be too difficult and too expensive? There is no carpet in the suite, which can't help, and I also think the noise is travelling up through the heating vents (they are the small, rectangular type built into the floor). But my husband is a carpenter, and maybe he could do it in exchange for rent discounts? Do we have extra leverage given that we could try to interfere with the renting of the downstairs suite (Oh, you're showing the place tomorrow? [invites prenatal class over to practice uninhibited grunting, wailing and other pain noises...])

If we have to just put up with this, how do we do it? How to overcome the psychological ickiness of knowing everything you do is being heard?

I truly appreciate your help; I'm trying to laugh about this, but it's definitely distressing.
posted by kitcat to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Unfortunately, without shelling out a lot of money, there is little that can be done. Carpeting the entire upstairs would help muffle footsteps and sounds a bit, as well as help to absorb some sound bouncing around. You would definitely notice a difference. As for the heating vents, there really is no good way to reduce noise transfer through them without adding large silencers into the system, which reduce efficiency and take up space. If you design a system to be quiet from the start, it is a lot easier than fixing it later.

Sound proofing requires adding mass and barriers. Mass is not easy to add, since there is only so much weight you can add to a floor before it is no longer safe. Additionally, you are talking about a very large project, which would require your downstairs friend to have a construction zone for a house for a while.

If you are not considering moving, ask about carpeting (and expect to have that idea shot down, or expect to pay for it yourselves). Other than that, you are probably going to have to just learn to deal with it.
posted by markblasco at 2:54 PM on May 25, 2010

As far as a short term fix, maybe an air purifier or fan for now? Doesn't really mask the sound you make as much as it makes it harder to hear the sound SHE makes, but living in an environment such as yours (actually, adjacent rental houses where we can hear each other's casual conversation) that's what I do.
posted by speedgraphic at 2:54 PM on May 25, 2010

throw rugs everywhere
air purifiers/fans/white noise machines
it's not pretty, and there are solutions you can buy that will look better - but styrofoam egg cartons placed on your walls is an old sound absorbing trick that is used a lot with high school bands in non-soundproof schools.
posted by nadawi at 3:02 PM on May 25, 2010

I have pretty think walls in my old 1920's apartment building. I have a carpet in the living room, which helps to muffle echoes, but I still know my neighbor's ring tone.

My technique has been to just have my iPod docked and playing pleasant background music all the time. I have consciously turned on my music before going to the bathroom and/or sexy times. It doesn't make things quieter, but at least it masks noises--yours and hers.
posted by chatongriffes at 3:08 PM on May 25, 2010

Though it would be expensive... you didn't specify about cost, so I'll throw it in: is there any way that you yourselves could rent that downstairs suite as well, once she moves out? That would completely solve your problem, and offer lots of storage space and etc.
posted by tomboko at 3:09 PM on May 25, 2010

If she's leaving, you might try asking the landlord to install sound-proofing materials after the downstairs tenant leaves, before accepting a new lease. It might be a long shot, but you never know.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:11 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

there are solutions you can buy that will look better

Any suggestions for / links to products?

is there any way that you yourselves could rent that downstairs suite as well, once she moves out?

I've thought of this, but we pay $1000 and she pays $925. No way.
posted by kitcat at 3:12 PM on May 25, 2010

I would ask whether this is up to code, and whether it is possible to have "quiet enjoyment" of your property given the construction.
posted by zippy at 3:28 PM on May 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Agree about putting rugs down on the floors, but also hang cloths from the walls. When I lived in Saint Petersburg, there were rugs on walls for both warmth and sound reasons.

In our own home, we have two thin wall hangings we bought from a store that sells Indian and Pakistani textiles, and they're both colorful and add life and character to the apartment. If you take the egg carton mattress suggestion, you could find something like this to throw it over it.

It is an icky situation. As someone who wakes up at a pin dropping, I feel for you. I do.
posted by zizzle at 3:30 PM on May 25, 2010

You know, I would genuinely just pay to put down low-range carpet over good padding. It will improve your quality of life and comfort in that apartment dramatically.

Yes, I know it's a rental, but you have to live there. For two years! With a baby!

FWIW I've replaced flooring, carpets, curtain fixtures and loads of other stuff in rentals that it wasn't the landlord's obligation to change. Everyone has always thought I was insane, and I have never ever regretted it. I mean, you know, the fact that you don't own the house doesn't mean it isn't your home. Make it a happy place that works for you.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:36 PM on May 25, 2010

Offer to rent the basement suite yourself once it becomes available, and try to negotiate a discounted combined rent. Point out that any prospective tenants living below a new baby are guaranteed to be unhappy and that you'll be saving them the hassle of dealing with the noise complaints (let alone the hassle of filling the basement for the next two years).

If this is financially not viable for you, you can sublet the basement unit on a month-to-month basis and clearly set the terms of the lease (must be quiet, must be ok with a baby overhead) -- a lot of families do this in my city, typically targeting foreign temporary students. As long as you're above board with the landlord and careful in your sublet agreements you should retain enough control of the situation to ensure that you have the right kind of tenant.
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:37 PM on May 25, 2010

The TV show Holmes on Homes just did a full episode where this was an issue, although in this case it was an adjoining wall instead of a floor. (Click the link above and look for the last episode listed - Wall of Silence - and the whole episode is there.) He shows a number of soundproofing solutions -- all of which involve some level of construction -- but the thing that might be most helpful to you is this: when you can hear sound coming through that loudly, this is often a sign of a hidden fire code violation. (Your fire codes may vary, obviously.)

If you can afford it, I might be tempted to hire a home inspector and make sure everything between your units is up to code.
posted by anastasiav at 3:40 PM on May 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

while the egg carton mattress would work, i was talking about actual egg cartons.

under rugs you can put soundproofing foam, you can also buy panels that look nice and wall coverings. of course the floor and the vents are your top concern, but any noise you suck up/deaden is noise that doesn't get downstairs. here is a page that seems to have a lot of different options.

does the basement unit have a drop ceiling? if so, adding a soundproofing layer (or even getting soundproofed drop tiles) could be of the most help.
posted by nadawi at 3:40 PM on May 25, 2010

Effective soundproofing isn't something that can be done cheaply or easily.

Most of the noise you hear will be noise coming through gaps (vents, chimney, gaps in the floorboards/skirting etc.) - try blocking as many areas as possible. As you know your neighbour is getting that and also impact noise as you walk etc. - they really are getting the rough end of the stick.

AVS forums are good for this and here are couple of example threads (search for others). If you see 'green glue' mentioned, a warning the website has sound when you visit.

Egg cartons won't do anything soundproofing wise.
posted by selton at 3:41 PM on May 25, 2010

Egg cartons aren't soundproofing, they're sound dampening so that you can record instruments inside a room without harsh reflections from the walls. They will not do anything but guarantee that your whole house goes up in flames in the event of a minor fire.
posted by Jairus at 3:45 PM on May 25, 2010

Wow - awesome, pratical suggestions and helpful information throughout. Thank you!
posted by kitcat at 3:57 PM on May 25, 2010

Maybe the landlord would be open to installing some QuietRock on the ceilings of the downstairs unit?
posted by yoga at 5:55 PM on May 25, 2010

This article seems to indicate that there isn't much that can be done post-construction. Specifically, that doing anything to the ceiling in the basement apartment isn't going to give much bang for the buck at all. Carpeting upstairs may help the impact noise of footsteps, but if you're hearing airborne noise like coughing, etc., then uh, maybe it would be worth it to you to break the lease with a penalty? (if you can't find a way out of it.)
posted by ctmf at 6:52 PM on May 25, 2010

This will drive you bonkers for as long as you live there. Are you prepared to either be paranoid or bothering someone (just by living) for 2 years? Or expending significant amounts of money and/or energy to help soundproof the place? If that doesn't sound fun (heh heh) cut your losses and figure out how to get out of there.

Carpets do help, but they're not perfect. You won't have carpets in the bathroom and your downstairs neighbor will always hear you pee. The bedroom will never be very soundproof either. Carpet helps, but it's not a miracle worker.

Soundproofing as poor as this is a complete nightmare.
posted by barnone at 6:59 PM on May 25, 2010

To emphasize the above point about fire issues: you do not want to put random soundproof materials on your walls or blocking doors without understanding how they might escalate a fire. Some of that foam is incredibly flammable. I'd second the idea to get an inspector in there and see if these sound levels are even within code.
posted by barnone at 7:01 PM on May 25, 2010

I have no soundproofing solutions for you, but I was the downstairs neighbor in a similar situation, and, well, you get used to the lack of soundproofing. For six years I could hear everything going on upstairs, and eventually learned to filter it out. As long as both you and your neighbors are reasonable it might be okay. We had three different couples come and go upstairs (two of whom had babies while living there), and only two significant sound issues: the upstairs neighbors asked my husband to not play saxaphone after the baby's bedtime and we asked a different set of neighbors to not let their baby play with hard toys on the tile kitchen floor before 8 on the weekends.

Despite my expectations, I barely heard either of the upstairs babies until they actually got old enough to crawl and bang toys on the floor. The only really obvious sex noises were because the couple had the oldest, squeakiest bed ever.

I'd say just try to stay on friendly terms with the downstairs neighbors and ask them to let you know if something is too loud (and let them know in a nice way if they are bothering you). I'll bet you get used to it and it won't be as much of a problem as you think.
posted by rebeccabeagle at 8:16 PM on May 25, 2010

We've been on both sides of this equation in the past (making downstairs neighbor miserable with our normal footsteps on very squeaky floorboards, and hearing every minute detail of upstairs/nextdoor neighbor's life through the ceiling and walls).

Unfortunately this is the one thing that is very difficult to assess before taking an apartment, because the noises are very rarely happening at the time of day when you go to inspect a potential new apartment for 10 minutes. And in my experience, there is very little that can be done to mitigate noise, other than curbing tenants' behaviors. Carpeting, drapes, and wallhangings can help somewhat, but they will certainly not eliminate the problem.

I would encourage you to make sure that the landlord is well aware of the problem (in a calm, but thoroughly documented way, possibly with reference to any code or rental standards), that you and your current neighbor have discussed the problem, and that you would really like to have some assurances from the landlord that he/she will do everything possible to make sure that the next tenant is both aware of the sound issue and prepared to be a civil/conscientious neighbor. (Not to mention any repairs or structural upgrades that the landlord could be asked to undertake.) In addition to you being bothered by a potentially noisy new neighbor (who is not as friendly and tolerant as your current neighbor), that neighbor could become very unpleasant if they felt like they were being kept awake all night with an infant crying.

I am quite tolerant of other people's living noises, though loud stuff like music and TV irritate. If I knew there was a noise problem in a prospective apartment, but I also knew I was getting considerate neighbors like you, I'd probably be OK with entering into such a situation, and would be prepared to behave appropriately. But many people wouldn't, and if, like you, the noise issue was a complete surprise, the new neighbor is probably going to be a lot less accommodating or respectful.
posted by amusebuche at 4:03 AM on May 26, 2010

Before you waste any money on carpeting and rugs, check out the heating vents and the cold air return. If you are hearing throat clearing etc., my guess is that this is an old house with open airways between the floors. If that is the case, there is nothing you can do other than break your lease or rent the basement yourself (or live with it). I had an apartment like this once, and found that if I got on the floor, I could actually *see* into the basement through the cold air return. No amount of carpeting is going to change a situation like that one.
posted by carmen at 6:50 AM on May 26, 2010

Are you ever home during the day? If so, make sure you're walking about when the landlord is showing the space to prospective tenants. If the landlord finds it difficult to rent as is, maybe he will be more motivated to fix the problem.
posted by prefpara at 4:41 AM on May 27, 2010

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