Noisy Neighbors: What is your recourse against a noisy neighbor?

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Since a majority of Americans live in urban centers, chances are many of us confront the challenges of living in close proximity to our fellow citizens. But the insomniac neat freak upstairs who insists on vacuuming at 3 a.m. or the never-ending kegger next door need not be insufferable nuisances. A little legal knowledge and a good set of earplugs will help you get your hard-earned z's.

When diplomacy fails, there are limits to the decibel levels the law will tolerate. Most cities have ordinances addressing the excessive noise issue. Take for example one of the noisiest cities in the world, New York City. Municipal code prohibits noise from car horns, radios, stereos, televisions, and loudspeakers in public places. The code also prohibits construction noise after 6 p.m. on weekdays. The Environmental Control Board, an administrative court, has jurisdiction over violations of "quality of life" ordinances. Violators must either pay a fine or appear in court to challenge the violation. You can find out what the noise abatement rules are for your city and which agency enforces them by contacting your local government.

But what if the noise levels are peaking not in public but in your apartment building? Initially, a polite chat with the offending neighbor should do the trick. If not, speak with your landlord or apartment manager about soundproofing the walls or intervening with the noisy neighbor on your behalf. At common law, a leaseholder is entitled to "quiet enjoyment" of the property. If you ask your landlord to do something about the noise levels and he or she fails to do so you may have legal recourse against the landlord.

The most likely remedy for breaching the covenant of quiet enjoyment is early termination of the lease. That means you'll be off the hook for the rent balance but you'll have to break out the moving boxes. If moving is not an option, you may decide to file a private nuisance lawsuit against the noisy neighbor. Remember, this may mean hiring an attorney if you are asking the court to stop the noise. Small claims court is another option if you don't have the resources to hire a lawyer and you're only suing for monetary damages.

Before taking these steps, always notify the noisy neighbor first, providing him or her with a copy of the local noise abatement ordinance. Be sure to document your actions in case it becomes necessary to involve law enforcement or the landlord.