Neighbors and Noise
You bet. Almost every community prohibits excessive, unnecessary, and unreasonable noise, and police enforce these laws. To find your municipality’s noise rules, look up the local ordinances.
How to Find Local Ordinances and State Laws
You can probably find your local ordinances online. Most cities’ and counties’ website addresses follow these formats:
- County: www.co.<county name>.<state postal code>.us (e.g.,www.co.alameda.ca.us)
- City: www.ci.<city name>.<state postal code>.us (e.g.,www.ci.berkeley.ca.us).
Your state website also may have links to cities and counties.
If your city’s website does not include the text of local ordinances, you may be able to find local laws on one of these sites:
- State and Local Government on the Net (www.statelocalgov.net)
- The Municipal Code Corporation (www.municode.com).
If you don’t have success with the Internet, your local laws may be available at your local public library or the city or county law library (usually located near the courthouse). Your local public library or office of the city attorney, mayor, or city manager can provide information on local ordinances that cover noise, fences, trees, views and other common neighbor issues.
You also can search your state laws for noise regulations. You can find your state’s laws at Nolo’s Legal Research Center or at FindLaw.
Most local noise ordinances designate certain “quiet hours” — for example, from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and until 8 or 9 a.m. on weekends. So running a power mower may be perfectly acceptable at 10 a.m. on Saturday, but not at 7 a.m. Some universally disturbing sounds are commonly banned or restricted. For instance, most cities prohibit honking car horns unless there is danger. This means that the daily early morning tooting across the street for the carpool is a violation. Dogs and motorcycles may also be singled out.
Many towns also prohibit sustained noise that exceeds a certain decibel level. The decibel limits are set according to the time of day and the neighborhood zoning. When a neighbor complains, police place decibel level monitoring equipment on an estimated property line and take a reading.
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How should I approach my neighbor about a noise problem?
There are two common reactions to noise coming from a neighbor. The first is resignation. You hate the noise, but you do nothing. The second is anger. You lose your temper and call the cops. There are better ways to handle the situation.
Approach the neighbor. Raising a problem with a neighbor is not easy. But it should always be the first step and, if done with respect and sensitivity, may be the last. Often the neighbor is unaware of a problem — for instance, the dog barks only when nobody is home. Assume that the neighbor doesn’t know and would like to be told.
Warn the neighbor. If complaining doesn’t work, get a copy of your local noise ordinance as explained above. Send a copy to the neighbor with a note repeating your request to keep the noise down and explaining that you’ll be forced to notify the authorities if you don’t get results. Be sure to provide details on the problem, including the dates and times of the noise.
If you rent or live in a planned development, send a copy of the lease agreement or special rules (usually called Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions) to the neighbor. If that doesn’t work, report the problem to the landlord or homeowners’ association in writing. Especially if several tenants complain at the same time, the landlord will probably order the tenant to quiet down or face eviction.
Suggest mediation. If you value the neighbor relationship at all, or just want peace in the future, give mediation a try. You and the neighbor can sit down together with an impartial mediator and resolve your own problems. Mediation services are available in most cities and often they are free. Simply call the mediation center, and it will then contact the neighbor for you.
Call the police. Still no response from the neighbor? Stereo turned up another notch? Now is the time to bring in the police (or, if the problem is a barking dog, the Animal Control Department). If you have tried to solve the problem yourself, the police will know your complaint is serious and that you need help.
Try to notify the police while the noise is continuing, so they can measure the noise or hear it for themselves. (Some people simply hold the phone out the window.) Sometimes cities won’t act until the noise affects two or more persons, to prevent complaints from excessively sensitive people.
Sue for nuisance. As a last resort, you can sue in small claims court. It’s easy and inexpensive, and you don’t need a lawyer.
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Can I sue a noisy neighbor?
If your neighbor keeps disturbing you, you can sue, and ask the court for money damages or to order the neighbor to stop the noise (“abate the nuisance,” in legal terms). For money damages alone, you can use small claims court. For a court order telling somebody to stop doing something, you’ll probably have to sue in regular court.
Of course, what you really want is for the nuisance to stop. But getting a small claims court to order your neighbor to pay you money can be amazingly effective. And suing in small claims court is easy, inexpensive, and doesn’t require a lawyer.
To win, you’ll need to show:
- There is excessive and disturbing noise.
- The person you are suing is either creating the noise or is the landlord and therefore responsible.
- Your enjoyment of your home is affected.
- You have asked the person to stop the noise.
- To prove your case, use police reports, witnesses, your own testimony, or even a recording.
How much money should you sue for? In most states, small claims courts limit judgments to between $2,500 and $7,500. Requesting $20 a day for your trouble would probably be considered reasonable. If the noise problem is really severe — keeping you from sleeping or working and making you completely frazzled — make it $100 a day.
Yes, you can ask for the landlord’s help in quieting the neighbor. Standard rental and lease agreements contain a clause entitled “Quiet Enjoyment.” This clause gives tenants the right to occupy their apartments in peace and also imposes upon them the responsibility not to disturb their neighbors. It’s the landlord’s job to enforce both sides of this bargain.
If the neighbor’s stereo is keeping you up every night, the tenant is probably violating the rental agreement and could be evicted. Especially if several neighbors complain, the landlord will probably order the tenant to comply with the lease or face eviction.
How Much Is Too Much?
Research solidly supports claims that noise is a health hazard, not just a nuisance. Exposure to sounds of 115 decibels for 15 minutes a day causes hearing loss, according to the League of the Hard of Hearing (www.lhh.org, a valuable site for noise-related resources). A noisy restaurant checks in at 80 decibels, a subway train at 120, live rock music at 130. About 28 million Americans now suffer from impaired hearing.
Not surprisingly, noise affects the ability to concentrate and learn. Schoolchildren exposed to excessive noise — for example, in schools close to airports or elevated trains — have been found to have problems with reading and memory.
Usually, problems with barking dogs can be resolved without resorting to police or courts. If you do eventually wind up in court, however, a judge will be more sympathetic if you first made at least some effort to work things out informally. Here are the steps to take when you’re losing patience (or sleep) over a neighbor’s noisy dog:
1. Ask your neighbor to keep the dog quiet. Sometimes owners are blissfully unaware that there’s a problem. If the dog barks for hours every day — but only when it’s left alone — the owner may not know that you’re being driven crazy.
If you can establish some rapport with the neighbor, try to agree on specific actions to alleviate the problem: for example, that your neighbor will take the dog to obedience school or consult with an animal behavior specialist, or that the dog will be kept inside after 10 p.m. After you agree on a plan, set a date to talk again in a couple of weeks.
2. Try mediation. Mediators, both professional and volunteers, are trained to listen to both sides, identify problems, keep everyone focused on the real issues, and suggest compromises. A mediator won’t make a decision for you, but will help you and your neighbor agree on a resolution
Many cities have community mediation groups which train volunteers to mediate disputes in their own neighborhoods. Or ask for a referral from:
- The small claims court clerk’s office
- The local district attorney’s office — the consumer complaint division, if there is one
- Radio or television stations that offer help with consumer problems, or
A state or local bar association.
3. Look up the law. In some places, barking dogs are covered by a specific state or local ordinance. If there’s no law aimed specifically at dogs, a general nuisance or noise ordinance makes the owner responsible. And someone who allows a dog to bark after numerous warnings from police may be arrested for disturbing the peace.
To find out what the law is where you live, go to a law library and check the state statutes and city or county ordinances yourself. Look in the index under “noise,” “dogs,” “animals,” or “nuisance.” Or call the local animal control agency or city attorney.
4. Ask animal control authorities to enforce local noise laws. Be persistent. Some cities have special programs to handle dog complaints.
5. Call the police, if you think a criminal law is being violated.Generally, police aren’t too interested in barking dog problems. And summoning a police cruiser to a neighbor’s house obviously will not improve your already-strained relations. But if nothing else works, and the relationship with your neighbor is shot anyway, give the police a try.
Copyright Nolo.com. Reprinted with permission.