Noise is everywhere around us. But when noise occurs in a rental property, it can cost a landlord time and money. That’s reason enough to become proficient at handling noise complaints.
These complaints can be difficult to resolve because:
1. Most noise disturbances occur in the middle of the night;
2. It can be tricky to identify the source;
3. Enforcement efforts are not always successful; and
4. Sometimes the complaining tenant is being too sensitive to normal noises.
Tenants’ Right to Quiet Enjoyment
The right to quiet enjoyment of the rental property is at the heart of noise complaints. Tenants are entitled to live free from unreasonable disturbances, which can include excessive, ongoing noise. Inaction by the landlord can violate a tenant’s quiet enjoyment, giving rise to monetary awards. So, it is imperative for landlords to resolve tenant noise complaints.
Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
When is Noise Excessive?
Normal daily activities make noise. No one can access kitchen cabinets or glide along the floor above undetected. Yet, other tenants often complain about these noises. The fact is some tenants are simply too sensitive to noise, and struggle to live in multifamily situations.
That means landlords must evaluate the problem and discern which tenant — the one complaining, or the one making noise — needs intervention. To do that, landlords must decide if the noise is normal, or excessive.
Evaluating Noise Complaints
The guidelines for determining when noise is “excessive” are situation-specific. Landlords must decide on a case-by-case basis whether the noise complaint is legitimate. Turning to the experts — arbitrators who decide noise issues — can shed some light.
Arbitrators may consider:
1. Whether the noise complaint comes from a single source or if multiple tenants are complaining.
2. If a single source, whether this tenant has a habit of complaining, and whether those prior complaints were legitimate.
3. Whether the landlord has witnessed the noise firsthand and can identify the source.
4. The frequency of the occurrence — once in a while versus every night.
5. Whether the tenant or landlord has documented the specific times that the noise occurs.
6. Whether the activity that creates the noise is a normal living activity, such as walking, cooking, talking.
7. What steps the landlord has taken to attempt to resolve the issue, such as speaking with the offending tenant, or offering the complaining tenant a different unit.
Recent examples demonstrate how these factors overlap:
A landlord adopted a policy of not acting on noise complaints from a single source — one tenant. A complaining tenant was told to speak with the loud upstairs directly. That neighbour responded by turning up the volume and becoming belligerent. Later, the complaining tenant was told to submit noise complaints in writing only. Nothing was done until another tenant complained. After that, the loud tenant was offered two separate warnings. Meanwhile, the complaining tenant endured sleep disruption for 15 months. That tenant ultimately was awarded a rent abatement on the basis that the landlord did not protect her quiet enjoyment.
In another situation, an arbitrator sided with the noisy tenants. The landlord attempted to evict those tenants due to multiple noise complaints from one other tenant. The offending tenants denied that they were the ones making the noise and pointed blame at other tenants. The arbitrator determined that, because no one else had complained, the noise was not frequent and unreasonable enough to justify an eviction. However, the arbitrator added that, should the landlord witness the noise in the future, an eviction may be warranted.
Another case highlights the difficulties when one tenant is too sensitive to noise. The downstairs tenant lodged several noise complaints against his upstairs neighbour. The landlord responded by asking the upstairs tenant to be aware of the complaints. She responded by walking barefoot, and doing her best to keep the cabinet doors from banging. Each time the downstairs tenant complained, the landlord contacted the upstairs neighbour and asked her to be aware of the noise levels. The downstairs tenant still was not satisfied. The landlord offered to move him to a different unit, but he refused. The tenant ultimately asked for a rent abatement on the grounds that the landlord violated his right to quiet enjoyment. At the time he filed his complaint the noise had stopped, but the tenant feared it would continue in the future.
In that case, an arbitrator dismissed the complaint because the noises the tenant was experiencing are “normal daily living” noises. No one else had complained about the upstairs neighbour, who had resided there for six years. That tenant was already walking with bare feet and attempting to keep the noise to a minimum. The noise complaints were vague as to specific occurrences, and the landlord had responded, including providing the tenants with an emergency phone number for complaints. The upstairs neighbour was not required to take “extraordinary measures” to control noise from “normal living” activities.
The Best Landlord Policies for Noise Complaints
Respond immediately to noise complaints. This serves any number of objectives. For instance, it is the best opportunity to witness the noise firsthand. That in turn will make the job of resolving the complaint far easier than interviewing tenants after the fact.
A quick response may prevent tempers from flaring.
Use psychology. The complaining tenant may feel ignored. That’s going to trigger more complaints. Show empathy and reassure the complaining tenant that his or her feelings matter. Let the tenant know there are options, and that you will stay in touch until the problem is resolved.
Let the tenant know you will intervene, or if that’s not appropriate, offer suggestions on how to reduce the annoyance from unavoidable noises — run a fan, a white noise machine, move furniture to quieter areas within the unit and so on. Another option is to offer to move the complaining tenant to another unit if that’s possible. As a last resort, consider releasing the chronic complainer from the lease. That may be the least expensive way forward.
Let Your Lease Do the Legwork
Your lease agreement can be a powerful tool — use it! Many noise disputes can be avoided simply by stating the rules, so tenants know what is or is not allowed. This helps the offending tenants as much as the complaining tenant.
The lease also can serve as a road map for handling complaints. The language used in the lease agreement is very important, so seek legal advice when writing or reviewing these provisions.
The rules must be clear if the lease is to serve as a deterrent. The more details the better, but use caution. Reactionary policies can result in income loss. Trying to list all the behaviours that might give rise to noise complaints leads to problems like discrimination claims. For instance, restricting the number of bodies that can be in a unit at one time may limit noise from raucous friends watching a hockey game, but it also limits the number of guests who can attend extended family dinners, which may be discriminatory. The same is true of policies that place noise restrictions only on children.
It is better to focus on the characteristics of the noise, not the people.
Remember, the best lease agreement is not the one you can enforce; it’s the one you don’t have to.
Preparing Tenants for Apartment Living
Anticipating and confronting noise issues head-on is another effective policy for landlords.
Speak with incoming tenants about common noise issues and ask for their cooperation. Night owls can listen to music on headphones and email or text at night to avoid loud phone conversations while others are sleeping.
Counsel tenants who are moving in to do so during daytime hours.
At the same time, prepare tenants for the unavoidable noises they will experience. For instance, maybe there’s an early morning trash pick-up. Suggest tenants close the windows or run a fan during this time period.
Have this conversation early in the leasing process. This is particularly helpful if the tenant has never lived in a multifamily environment. It’s best to flag the rental applicant who won’t adjust and is likely to become a chronic complainer.
Screen Your Tenants
Never overlook the importance of finding the right tenants and running tenant background checks. Find out if your rental applicant has been the subject of noise complaints before history repeats.
Keep Up With Repairs
Sometimes noise complaints are generated from the building itself. Steps like updating windows and beefing up insulation will go a long way towards keeping the peace.
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 Strategy for Dealing with Noise
Requiring tenants to confront their noisy neighbours directly is a bad idea. That can lead to any number of liabilities. Disgruntled tenants may ask for rent abatement. Frightened or angry tenants may turn to the police. Frequent police visits can drive down property value and impact tenant retention. Some disputes escalate into harassment or physical violence, and a landlord may wind up paying compensation to an injured tenant.
Landlords have a duty to manage their rental properties, and to keep the peace. Don’t hand that off to the tenants, or to the police. Tenants are rarely successful in resolving these disputes on their own. Passing the task onto tenants also prevents the landlord from witnessing and documenting the disturbance, which can make it nearly impossible to evict a rule-breaking tenant.
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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.