Neighbors are terrible, we want to leave, a year left in our lease
June 3, 2012 6:21 AM   Subscribe

Can you break a lease because of terrible neighbors?

I rent in what is, essentially, a two-family home. I currently have by far the worst neighbors (they also rent) I have ever experienced. They fight frequently and loudly. They play music extremely loudly. They feel they own the shared backyard of the building.

Due to a quirk in the way the building is set up, they have the space both above and below us. Which means: we are generally surrounded by noise.

I know you have nothing but my word that they're bad, and I could fill this in with examples and diagrams and pie charts, but please just take my word for it.

We've spoken directly to them several times ("hey, can you turn it down?") to little effect - and to the landlord via email. The landlord has spoken to them, but nothing has come of it long term. The last complaint they denied everything, said we were making it up, and then said we don't clean up after our dog. That's when we started considering breaking our lease. This morning I had another small bit of u pleasanter with them, and I'm done with being stressed and upset in "my" house.

June is the twelfth month in a two-year lease. We are in NYC. Is a terrible neighbor grounds for breaking a lease? Are landlords sympathetic if you ask to be let out of a lease on those grounds? Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with said neighbors if the consensus is that we are stuck?
posted by lieberschnitzel to Human Relations (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For noise, call 311. Every single time. We have bad neighbors, too (fights and music; perhaps they could move into your place when you move out?) and while the police don't always respond as quickly as needed, regular visits from them seems to have trained them somewhat to be good. If their fights include physical violence, call 911.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:28 AM on June 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I agree, you need to start reporting them to the police, for a couple reasons. One, it is exhausting for you to have to keep goingmback and forth between them and the landlord. Thaking it to the police makes them both realize you are serious about your complaimts.

Two, you will have a paper trail to help you break your lease with the landlord. Levelling with him and saying, "Look, we need out of the lease, now. This living situation is untenable, and we have the police reports to back that up. How about we agree to part ways amicably rather than risking this getting ugly? I sure don't want us to have to go to court or anything, do you?"
posted by misha at 6:49 AM on June 3, 2012 [8 favorites]

I agree with the two replies so far: include 311. There are two caveats to that, though. First, for 311 to actually take action in a noticeable way, the noise will need to be a) audible from outside the unit or even building, and b) still going on when 311 responds in 45-90 minutes (in my experience). Both of these have been issues for me in a noisy place that I lived -- the fighters downstairs would fight for 10-15 minutes every hour or so, but it was a diceroll whether the awful was happening *when* folks arrived. As for the placement, I had a friend in a building where the internal walls were paper thin but the building was large enough and structured such that the noise barely left the building, and 311 sometimes didn't respond well to that.

The other caveat is much rarer, and hopefully doesn't apply in your case. I was in a building with a bunch of folks who'd had trouble with the law at various points. Police were frequent visitors to the building, and there was definitely resentment between apartments about people giving police "excuses" to overturn the residents' lives. And, to be clear, the disruption of a real investigation was incredible even when it was completely unwarranted. If that's a dynamic in your building, that doesn't mean you shouldn't call 311, but it does mean that you should be ready for some unintended consequences courtesy of the police.
posted by peripatetron errant at 7:28 AM on June 3, 2012

I would not threaten the landlord with going to court. That may very well antagonize the landlord. This could escalate the whole thing, making it very expensive for you.

First thing is to read the lease again. See what stipulations are written regarding early termination of the lease.

You can talk it over with the landlord in a friendly non-threatening manner. She/He may very well have no problem. After all if you're in an area with few apartments available the landlord may be very sympathetic - especially if he thinks he can rent it at a higher price.

Talk it over with a lawyer/legal aid/state attorney's office/rent guidelines board/etc
There is a law requiring that the home be habitable. If it is not then the lease can be broken with zero consequences. Furthermore if you can show your health is being impacted by the stress and lack of sleep being caused by the tenants that could very well be used to justify legally breaking the lease.

This would be especially true if you've explained several times to the landlord the situation with the neighbors.

Are there other tenants bothered by the noise/fighting? Their complaints could add to your ability to break the lease.

Has the neighbor threatened you or tried to intimidate you? That too could aid your cause.

This question makes me wonder what options if any does a landlord have in evicting a tenant such as your neighbors?
posted by 2manyusernames at 7:48 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The rental market in NYC is still tight, breaking the lease should be relatively cheap, breaking the lease for any reason shouldn't cost you more than a months rent, since the landlord (IANAL, not legal advice, etc.) is required to make efforts to rent the place, and would have a really hard time showing that he/she had done so and not managed to rent it with an NYC vacancy rate of 2%, the lowest it's been in five years, and a situation of generally increasing rents.

Now, if it were me, I would start building a case that I was not getting "quiet enjoyment," which is one of the things you're entitled to under the law. Maybe get a sound meter and start taking timestamped pictures when it happens. At a minimum, record it as a voice memo on a phone, bonus points if you can make out the words. Yes, you will have to do the work of calling 311. Now, quiet enjoyment does not mean silence by any means. But it does mean that you should not be subjected to frequent highly disruptive noise, and the landlord is required to address that issue.

One comment on "I sure don't want us to have to go to court or anything, do you?" There is a fine but clear line (again, how I as a non-lawyer understand it) between asserting your rights under the law and threatening to sue unless you get your way. The latter is extortion.
posted by wnissen at 7:56 AM on June 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

In general, you can break most leases for a penalty of one month's rent. Is it worth one month's rent for you not to have to deal with these people anymore? If so, leave.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 8:40 AM on June 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: I'm going to recommend what I always recommend in these cases, which is seeing if you can get the landlord to release you from the lease (not the same as breaking it). I was released from a lease after someone shot the windows out of my car, but that wasn't the first incident I reported. There were a number of incidents over time. My suggestion would be document, document, document, with the landlord.

I have was successfully released from a lease in Texas, but have no idea how it would work in NYC.
posted by immlass at 9:36 AM on June 3, 2012

You'd have to check the NY General Laws, usually found on the state's website, but some states (I would assume most) would have specific landlord/tenant laws in place which should cover this.

For example under Massachusetts law, residential tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their apartments, which is the right to live in and enjoy the premises free from disturbance and interference by the landlord or other residents.

The right to quiet enjoyment is protected by Massachusetts General Laws c. 186 s. 14, which allows a tenant to sue the landlord for up to three months’ rent or actual damages, if higher, plus reasonable attorney’s in the event of the landlord’s breach of its covenant of quiet enjoyment.

Link to MA General Laws

But like I said, you should look up the laws in your state/city.
posted by eatcake at 10:31 AM on June 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Where I was going with that is that, you could write the landlords a proper letter explaining your grievance and using your states law as reference and mentioning what recourses you may have, the landlord may wise up and knock off the noise. You will look stronger in their eyes by knowing the law and knowing that your are within your legal rights to take action against them.

Don't get me wrong, they may and probably will come back you with a strict "this is how it is, and we need to get this work done" but stick to your guns, stay calm, professional and don't lose your temper. You are after all giving them money to live there. They are not doing you a favor by letting you live there.
posted by eatcake at 10:35 AM on June 3, 2012

Talk to the landlord first.

IANAL but a lawyer helped me write a letter which invoked the quiet enjoyment clause to do something called constructive eviction to get out of a lease. The issue was with a roommate - roommate was the landlord's daughter so she didn't have a lease and the landlords wouldn't listen to us about our many problems, so the rest of us had separate leases and we broke them with the same letter, changing our specific details.

If talking to the landlord doesn't work, I think if you could speak with a lawyer who is familiar with NY law and quiet enjoyment it would be helpful. We were students in a different state so we were able to get free legal aid at school and that is what we came up with.
posted by fromageball at 12:24 PM on June 3, 2012

I dunno about NYC, but in Texas there's a right to reasonable enjoyment, which I believe would apply to this. Report to cops, maybe make a recording, etc. Do your research or talk to a lawyer for half an hour and approach your landlord armed with documentation of your neighbor's behavior and appeal to him... "I'm really sorry and I don't want to move, but I can't live like this. If nothing can be done about these guys I'm going to have to move out, which I can do because my right to reasonable enjoyment isn't being met at all." I'm saying be nice about it, not threatening.

That is, of course, if reasonable enjoyment exists and applies that way in NY.
posted by cmoj at 4:24 PM on June 3, 2012

IAAL. In a case everyone reads in the first year of law school, a woman rented a building to use as a "high class boarding house." and the landlord knew this. The house next door, also owned by the landlord, turned out to be a brothel. She was held to entitled to break the lease based on "constructive eviction."

However, this is not your case, since the activity next door is not illegal and doesn't prevent you from making a living. Also, constructive eviction applies only if you move out and make a claim to rescind the lease.

A claim may be available against the landlord for violation of the "covenant of quite enjoyment." The law varies from state to state and is difficult to make out if the landlord isn't the one doing the violating. Here your claim is that the landlord hasn't been able to do anything about it, which is an indirect claim and so much weaker. However, in a New York case, there was a building workers' strike and garbage piled up, creating a health hazard. Failure to remove the garbage was found to be a violation of the CQE. Your case is less extreme, though. A CQE claim needs substantial interference with your use. The apartment building case was based on a credible claim of dangers to health inside the apartments.

You could try a trespass claim, but I think you need more extreme facts, like setting up a heavy-metal disco next door. Better is a private nuisance claim. Google Stiglianese v. Vallone. See also the articles on that results page.

Call 311 and get a case number. Document your claim with recordings, diaries with dates and times, repeated letters to the landlord and the noisy neighbors.

Get in touch with In particular, see the "Neighbors" section.

Lawsuits are very expensive to bring. If you take action, it might be better (always with a lawyer's guidance) to give the landlord written warning and start withholding part of your rent. Wait for them to sue you and use your claims as a defense. The good thing about this is that it's nearly impossible for a landlord to evict a NYC residential tenant. Even when the sheriff comes to move your stuff out, you can pay the back rent and stay. On the other hand, you want the landlord on your side. . . .
posted by KRS at 8:28 PM on June 3, 2012

Nthing looking up tenant rights for your state as opposed to referring to the lease - in my experience most leases tend to be a list of the landlord's expectations and "rights" (some of which run contradictory to the law).

If you have a video camera with sound you can run that during a fight, just a simple, "hey, it's X and Y in apartment 123 again! It's 1:03am on Monday and in the background you can hear our neighbors in apartment 124!" E-mail these vids to your landlord so you have documentation outside of the 311 calls.

I'm not a lawyer, but I would also say that if the landlord has rented to this tenants, knows they are violating your right to quiet enjoyment (if they are in your state) and is not taking actions to curb them through eviction (or other penalty?), then s/he is responsible for your inability to enjoy the home quietly.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:28 PM on June 3, 2012

In general, you can break most leases for a penalty of one month's rent.

I've never known a jurisdiction in which this is true - it would negate the meaning of a month-to-month tenancy, for one thing. With regard to NY, this seems to agree with my scepticism.

As I understand things, your landlord is not preventing your quiet enjoyment of the property. That would be the fault of the neighbours.
posted by pompomtom at 4:32 AM on June 4, 2012

There is a fine but clear line (again, how I as a non-lawyer understand it) between asserting your rights under the law and threatening to sue unless you get your way. The latter is extortion.

The latter is not extortion, it's how the majority of lawsuits begin!
posted by benbenson at 5:09 AM on June 4, 2012

Response by poster: In case anyone is curious, my landlord let us out of our lease. We wrote him a clear, polite, direct letter requesting we be allowed to leave. We alluded pretty gently to quiet enjoyment, but did not threaten legal action. We wrote up recent and ongoing issues, and summarized past complaints. The response was very nice, he apologized and he offered us an apartment in a different building he owns, unfortunately in a neighborhood that is not convenient for us.

Another polite round of emails and he released us from our lease. There was no need to escalate it, but it was nice to know that we had a potential legal reason to break our lease if absolutely necessary. He was totally nice and reasonable about the situation - as he has been about all of this - and we're leaving at the end of the month.
posted by lieberschnitzel at 8:23 AM on June 9, 2012 [5 favorites]

« Older I just want to be comfortable AND stylish....okay?   |   Seeking clinic and urgent care recommendations in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.