Loud music, barking dogs, rambunctious kids. If there is one thing tenants universally despise, it’s noise. Quiet is the best amenity landlords can provide if they want to attract the very best tenants.
But, there’s more. As you will see from the examples below, mishandling noise complaints actually can increase a landlord’s liability.
Prepare For and Prevent Noise Complaints
Preparation is key to avoiding noise complaints, and the fallout that can result.
Use Your Lease to Prevent Noise Complaints
Fortunately, many noise disputes can be avoided altogether by including the right language in your lease agreement. The lease should:
Prohibit unreasonable noise. This prohibition needs to be tied to the eviction policy. By including this language, the landlord is using a two-step strategy. First, the tenant is informed of his or her responsibilities, and also the possible consequences of ignoring the rules.
The specific language used is crucial. For that reason, it is wise to seek legal advice in drafting these provisions for your standard lease agreement.
The lease must be clear and specific if it is to serve as a deterrent. If the language is too general, tenants won’t know what to do — or what not to do. For instance, some landlords will simply refer to a local noise ordinance alone, and require tenants to abide by it. That strategy falls short for three reasons:
If the landlord incorporates the language of a local ordinance, and that law changes, the lease will be out of date. (You may avoid this problem by referring to the “existing noise ordinance” rather than citing a specific section or including quotes from the ordinance);
Ordinances are difficult to read and interpret. Your tenants may not understand; and,
Often, the threshold for a noise ordinance is very high, so many typical noise complaints fall short of violating the letter of the law. Still, these annoyances are very real, and can kill tenant retention and eat profits.
Detailed rules are a better bet. Effective house rules might include a curfew on noise during normal sleeping hours, or specific limitations on the level of acceptable noise — you can’t be so loud you keep others awake at night or interfere with their enjoyment of their property.
Avoid tying the noise to specific behaviors. That soon becomes a battle of semantics, and can lead to landlord liability. For instance, if you try to reduce noise complaints by prohibiting the number of people who can gather in a unit, then you may inadvertently restrict an extended family gathering that exceeds your guest limit. Reducing the number of people who can attend a Super Bowl party also limits the number who can attend Thanksgiving dinner. That sort of policy has been known to give rise to discrimination claims.
Stick to limits on the noise level, not the people or activities making the noise. The better you become at explaining what to avoid, the better the chances a tenant will comply and not inadvertently spark a dispute.
Your goal is not to make rules you can enforce; it’s to make rules clear enough so you don’t have to.
Rein in Pets
Barking dogs are high on the list of noise complaints. Unfortunately, this usually happens when the tenant is away and the animal is bored or frightened. Without the owner there to soothe the pet, it may bark all day.
Chronic barking can be prohibited in the lease agreement. Decide whether to offer a warning so the tenant can consider intervention — like doggie daycare or hiring a sitter.
Landlords who maintain a no-pets policy are vulnerable to a related problem. In the event that a tenant with a disability requires a companion pet, the landlord must allow the animal. Unfortunately, the lease won’t contemplate pets, so naturally it will not provide a remedy for dealing with barking dogs. In order to resolve the problem, the lease must contain another way out. So, if you prohibit pets in your lease agreement, speak with an attorney about the best way to handle this contingency.
It is important to have a standard that can be applied swiftly and uniformly in the case of a chronic barker.
Educate Incoming Tenants
Encourage new tenants to be noise-conscious. For example, they can listen to music or TV with headphones, avoid loud conversations late at night, and move furniture during the daytime.
Prepare the tenant for unavoidable and recurring noises, so they are not startled. If this person is familiar with the neighborhood or recently lived in an apartment complex of the same size, then this is not so much an issue. But others may not understand that the bigger the complex, the higher the level of ambient noise. The neighborhood may be on an ambulance route, or down the street from a concert venue. The trash pickup time may be 5:00 am. Let tenants know what to expect. By anticipating the noises, tenants will feel more savvy and less annoyed.
Have this conversation early in the leasing process. That way, you will flag a tenant who simply can’t adjust to the surroundings. It is better to look for a renter better suited for the apartment than to remain silent and suffer through a year of complaints.
Assure tenants that you care about their experience, and encourage them to talk to you about noise. You may be able to help them resolve their noise issue with tips like proper furniture placement, closing the windows and running the air conditioning or using a white noise machine during certain times.
If an existing tenant becomes a chronic complainer, it may be best to offer them a different unit, or in extreme cases, to allow them to terminate early. This is a tenant who won’t stay anyway, but the damage they can do to tenant rapport throughout the year can be significant.
Keep Up With Repairs
Keep windows in good repair. Don’t underestimate the value of good insulation when it comes to fielding the most common noise complaints.
Learn to Listen and Analyze Noise Complaints
A landlord once was charged with housing discrimination for acting on a noise complaint from an elderly resident who did not like listening to children playing outside her window. This is an example of why it is important to know your responsibilities as a landlord.
Many noise complaints are legitimate; some are not. Learn to recognize the difference:
1. If at all possible, respond to the complaint in person so you can experience it. Then, you will know firsthand if the level of noise is unreasonable. You also will be in a better position to identify the unit where the noise is originating.
2. Whether the noise is reasonable depends on whether the average person would be offended by it. Is the noise “physical”, like causing the walls to shake, or it is “psychological” — where the complaining tenant doesn’t mind loud music, just not that music?
Vigilant parents detest noise from unruly children. Classical music lovers don’t understand how someone could find hours of Bach abrasive. Pet lovers hate their neighbors’ barking dogs. Noise can be subjective. Your job is to view the complaint objectively, and determine if it’s reasonable — would the average person be offended?
3. Has the same tenant made multiple complaints? Were these legitimate, or does this tenant suffer sensitivities to noises that the average tenant can tolerate?
4. Is this type of noise contemplated in the local noise ordinances or your lease agreement?
5. Factor in the source of the noise. Is it coming from another tenant, a neighboring property owner, or city services? This will dictate just how much power a landlord has to resolve the dispute.
6. Is the noise temporary? Infrequent? Persistent?
Each of these factors will help you decide whether to address the tenant who is complaining and offer ways for them to adjust to the noise, or whether you need to intervene and speak to the person creating the noise.
For example, the complaint may be over a tenant who turned up the volume for three or four minutes while their favorite song come on the radio, or for half an hour on the day they graduated. That’s different from the person who routinely blasts the stereo with the windows open, sets up music out on the balcony, or leaves loud music playing in the unit while they go out. A child who screams while playing a game on the lawn is different from a tyrannical toddler placed out in a shared hallway for a time-out.
Act Swiftly and Responsibly
In devising your plan to resolve a noise complaint, the first step is to determine whether it’s the offending tenant or the one complaining who needs the intervention.
For those who are clearly violating the noise standard, determine in advance whether they are entitled to a warning. Your lease should set this standard. Also, review the lease to make sure you have the right to take action, including an eviction, before you confront the tenant. Don’t run the risk that a tenant will call your bluff.
If the situation can be resolved amicably, like a tenant who is oblivious to the noise, that is the best choice. Conflict is best diffused, not confronted.
If the resolution requires coaching an overly-sensitive tenant, remain professional and avoid chastising or demeaning this tenant’s concerns.
Deal with tenants uniformly. A landlord recently adopted noise rules that were stricter for tenants of a particular race. This landlord likely will incur damages and fines in the thousands — if not tens of thousands — of dollars for that lapse of judgment.
Keep emotion out of it. Anger will cause irreparable harm to landlord-tenant relationships. You may end up losing both tenants if you lose your head.
The Worst Way to Handle Noise Complaints
Mishandling noise complaints can generate liability for landlords. Case in point:
A tenant who was frustrated over her property manager’s lack of action on a noise complaint decided to leave a note on the offending tenant’s door. That note was discovered by the noisy neighbor’s boyfriend, an unauthorized guest in the building. Over the next few weeks, the complaining tenant was stalked and harassed by the boyfriend. When she asked to be released from the lease for her own safety, the property manager refused. The tenant was assaulted by the boyfriend. The landlord is facing liability for negligence.
The worst thing a landlord can do is leave noise complaints to the tenants to resolve themselves. Neither tenant has the authority to resolve the complaint. If a tenant has come to you with a concern, you can be certain that he or she has not been able to resolve it without your assistance.
Tenants who are complaining may wish to remain anonymous for the reasons above, or because they don’t want to have to testify at a criminal trial or an eviction hearing. That’s why witnessing the noise yourself is such a strong strategy. It protects your best tenants, who have done nothing wrong.
A Rock and a Hard Place: When Tenants Call the Police
Too many calls to the police will lower the property’s value. Likewise, making it a policy to force tenants to call police to resolve disputes will discourage good tenants from staying or even from renting in the first place. One example:
An apartment management company has secured a contract with a local university to house an overflow of students who can’t fit in the dorms. The leasing policy is to inform students that they only have a duty to abide by the city’s local noise ordinance. Other tenants are advised to call the police right away if they have a noise complaint.
This is bad management. While the policy makes the property manager’s job a little easier, in the long run it will adversely affect the landlord. In some cities, where police calls are tallied, this could end with the property being declared a nuisance.
If the noise signals an emergency, for instance, an escalating domestic dispute, then tenants should call the police for assistance. The same is true if someone if trashing another unit, or may be injured. Tenants should never be made to feel that they will suffer bad consequences for exercising their rights to protection and assistance from local law enforcement.
But most noise complaints don’t go that far. That’s why it is important for tenants to know they also have another, less drastic path to follow if the situation is not an emergency. They can call the landlord.
Screen Your Tenants
As you work to accomplished your goal of providing a peaceful rental environment, don’t lose sight of the importance of careful tenant screening. Ask previous landlords if an applicant has been the subject of repeated noise complaints, and how those complaints were resolved.
Remember, thinking it through in advance is the best approach to maintaining peace — and profits — in your rental properties.
This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).
Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.