July 9, 2011 11:53 PM   Subscribe

When apartment-hunting, how can you tell if a place has good inter-unit sound insulation?

I'm going to be looking for a studio or 1-bedroom to live alone in soon (in Atlanta, if it matters). One of the more important qualities to me is that there be strong sound insulation between different units, whether in a complex or a converted house or whatever. Street noise honestly doesn't bother me that much; it's the feeling of lack of privacy that comes from being able to hear your neighbors (and vice versa) that I hate. So far I've lived with roommates in old apartments that had great sound insulation between units, and varying degrees of insulation between rooms in the same unit.

I know the answer is sort of "listen when you're in there", but I'm not sure this really suffices. There's no real way to know when you're viewing a place if the neighbors are even home, what they're doing, etc. Basically what I could use help with is, are there any, uh, "comorbid" characteristics I can look for as tells of either good or bad sound insulation? I know that cheap super-recent housing stock usually has terribly thin walls, but beyond that I don't really have a clue.

posted by threeants to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
You can look for a unit at the end, corner or outside wall of a building (so you won't have neighbors on that side(s)), or look for a unit beside a firewall (look for telltale firewall framing through the roof) because firewalls will isolate sound a bit more than standard inter-unit walls, and you can "tap test" the drywall in units you enter to see if it is 1/2", 5/8", or very rarely 3/4" thick (thicker is better) drywall or special noise damping drywall. You have to have some experience to "tap test" drywall, but once you know what to listen for, the differences are pretty obvious. Spend an afternoon in the building materials section of Home Depot or Lowe's, to thump some different kinds of drywall, as practice.

If little used areas like bathrooms, kitchens, closets, and hallways abut any common walls, you will have less problems with noticeable sound exchange. Plumbing in one end of a unit, in the common wall, will gurgle less noticeably than if the plumbing is spread out, due to floor plan. If the interior doors are solid, rather than hollowcore, they'll act as better fire control breaks, as well as isolating noise better when closed (but solid doors are more expensive, and often require heavier framing, so are only in used in higher quality construction, usually commanding higher rents). If the exterior windows are double or triple paned glass, your heating/cooling loads (and perhaps expenses) will be lower, and you'll hear less outside/street noise. Bedrooms that don't face parking lots are quieter.
posted by paulsc at 12:49 AM on July 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

In a similar vein to what paulsc said, look for a top floor apartment. Much quieter.
posted by evil_esto at 1:05 AM on July 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Knock on the neighbors' doors and ask. Frame it less as "I'm oddly fixated on sound privacy" and more as "Thinking of moving in, how's the neighborhood/landlord/local school and oh by the way, are the walls annoyingly thin".
posted by acidic at 1:43 AM on July 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

It's going to be really, really hard to tell. Unless you're actually viewing the unit you might be leasing, you don't even know who your neighbors are going to be. The people you talk to may not have any problems, but that may be because they have considerate neighbors. It's really a crap shoot.
posted by valkyryn at 4:24 AM on July 10, 2011

Knock on the neighbors' doors and ask.

Absolutely do this. The foundation of my old apartment would shake (the building would actually sway back and fourth) if anyone in any of the units was having sex. That's the kind of thing you want to know about before moving in. (I told this to a potential new resident I happened to meet when she asked me about the place; her response "I don't have a boyfriend right now, so that's ok!")

Don't be afraid to ask. Most people will be happy to tell you what's wrong with the place. (You might want to ask about the water pressure while you're there.)
posted by phunniemee at 6:18 AM on July 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might also ask neighbors specifically -- what's the noise like around the place? Can you hear outside noise/neighbors when you're in your own apt? They don't have to be your close (potential) neighbors -- the whole complex has the same construction standards. Not foolproof but combined with above will raise your chances.

These are great. It's a tough question with high stakes.

We had a nightmare once. Neighbors moved in with a bass speaker that shook our bones. (Even when volume was low, bass was murder. Sequence: 1) Polite exchange 2) Another one 3) Knock on walls 4) Bang on walls 5) They call cops 6) Cop shows up and -- 25 feet away -- first thing out of his mouth is "Who's music is that? It's too loud." Things eased up for a while and eventually, for reasons unrelated, either they moved or we did.

(I suspect the fact that our neighbors left their music playing after having called the cops is a good measure of how the perception of what's "normal" changes. They didn't see anything wrong with it. That bass has become almost white noise for a good number of people, especially the young set.)
posted by LonnieK at 7:32 AM on July 10, 2011

Ask the neighbors.

Also, look for a building that has really nice walls. My apartment has poured concrete walls more than six inches thick separating the units. (Hanging pictures is annoying.) I can't hear anyone except the people above us and the only thing I really hear is when their dog decides to run back and forth. If we lived here on the top floor and not the middle floor, it would be perfect.
posted by Brian Puccio at 8:36 AM on July 10, 2011

The setup of the building can help a lot. I live in a fourplex that has a staircase in the middle that almost entirely separates the two sides. Never hear the apartment across the hall. They hear the people below them but that's because they play their music obscenely loud.
posted by radioamy at 9:20 AM on July 10, 2011

It's tough -- the only satisfactory test I've had was when I was town-house-hunting once, with a real estate agent who was also a close friend -- she was able to get in next door (it was the middle of the day, nobody home), and turn on their stereo.

But during any apartment search, NEVER agree to a unit when the manager first shows it to you. That will also generally be in the middle of the day, when the noisy neighbors are out, or asleep. You MUST return unexpectedly in the evening hours to reconnoiter, to find out if you'll have neighbors who enjoy too much bass, fall asleep to a loud TV, party on the patio, etc. This would be the time to knock on doors as suggested upthread (although I've never had the chutzpah to do that; it's an excellent suggestion -- but being a stranger, neighbors may not respond to your door-knocking -- however, that would be another factor to take into consideration).

And don't bother quizzing the manager about the quality of their sound insulation, it's not their priority -- they care only about getting a new tenant into that vacant unit.
posted by Rash at 9:22 AM on July 10, 2011

As mentioned previously, the apartment's geometry is another good indicator (but in my experience the good top-floor and end-units won't be what's available) but another would just be to bang your hand against an inside wall. Does it have that good, solid feel of plaster-and-lath or brick-and-block? Grab it! Does it have the hollow sound of drywall? Move on.
posted by Rash at 9:58 AM on July 10, 2011

Our best apartment noise-wise was a high-rise where the exterior walls were made of concrete & steel. That was in Atlanta, actually - a condo we rented in the Mayfair Tower in midtown.

In general, I think managed apartment complexes have really thin walls, so you have to depend on the layout much more - our second best place had units that were offset from each other so that our bedroom only shared a tiny amount of wall with any other unit. But given the housing market in Atlanta right now I think there will be a lot of owner-rented options in the higher end condos or some of the loft conversions that have solid concrete walls.
posted by deludingmyself at 10:20 AM on July 10, 2011

When you're talking to the neighbors, ask them to turn up their stereo and stomp around their apartment a bit. It'll give you more information than asking their opinions.
posted by craven_morhead at 11:10 AM on July 10, 2011

I don't know what it's like in Atlanta, but I've had good luck around Chicago in brick "vintage" buildings. In other words, they are old (like built around the 20's-30's i think?) and solidly built with thick walls. (These are the ones that tend to be built in a courtyard shape.) I pretty much never heard my neighbors in these types of apartments. Are there buildings like this where you are?

Because buildings like these are so old, there are some trade-offs. No central A/C, so I had to use a window unit. And I had to be careful with how much electricity I was using at any given time- running the microwave while the A/C was running would blow the fuse. (This did help keep my electric bill low!) And the heat was radiators- the noise might annoy some but I actually grew to like it, and I loved that my heat was free!

Coach house/ carriage house apartments are even better. (You know, the little apartment above a garage that's behind some buildings.) They can be hard to come by but are SO WORTH searching for. I found one, and I love it more than I could possibly describe. I can do basically anything I want at any time. I can practice my guitar with an amp or vacuum the floor at 3 am if I want. It's like a tiny house all to myself, for the price of an apartment. Maybe not the cheapest of apartments, but not the most expensive either, and I feel that what I pay is absolutely worth it.

Having lived in these two types of apartments, I don't think I'd ever go back to a "regular" apartment building in which I could hear my neighbors fighting and having sex and babies crying and all that. If I was forced to, though, I would definitely live on the top floor, no exceptions. There is nothing more grating than listening to a kid in one of those rolling baby walker things tearing back and forth across the floor for HOURS ON END.
posted by GastrocNemesis at 12:02 PM on July 10, 2011

Gastroc's suggestion is great, but there aren't many old brownstones in Atlanta - most of the build-up has happened in the past 25 years. Carriage houses are a good thought though - also search for "mother in law" additions. But vet the landlords for weirdness as best you can in that situation, since they'll be your neighbors as well.
posted by deludingmyself at 12:07 PM on July 10, 2011

I moved into a new apartment a few months ago, and the walls are dreadfully thin. My neighbors aren't home all the time, but when they are, sometimes the one guy will talk (or giggle) much more loudly than I'd think he needs to, and it drives me nuts. And once in a while their TV is so loud, I can tell what episode of The Office they're watching.

But it could be a lot worse, and I'd hate to confront them about it because it'd just be too awkward knowing we both can hear each other so easily.

In retrospect, I wish I'd asked my landlord, "So if I have my TV or stereo up kind of loud, will the neighbors be able to hear it easily?" Since it goes both ways, he wouldn't be able to dodge the question as easily. And/or ask the neighbors the same thing, based on previous tenants... that is, putting it from their perspective rather than yours.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:57 PM on July 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

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