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Twist and Shout

For the board members at one Manhattan condominium, life is getting a little bit loud. One of their shareholders, a professional musician, is driving a neighbor to distraction with his practicing. A board director has already contacted the musician to alert him to the second shareholder's unhappiness. And while it might seem a matter of course to simply tell the musician to stop after 6 P.M. or get a studio space, "my sympathy tends to be with the musicians," admits the board director, a musician himself. "If you start to eliminate the playing of instruments, people's quality of life is going to go down."

Mitchell Berg, a vice president at Maxwell-Kates, a management company, says he cautions boards not to get too involved in noise complaints between shareholders. He suggests that the complainant send a polite letter to his neighbor. If that fails to stop the problem, the manager should send a letter, and, if the offending shareholder keeps making noise, send a second, more strongly worded one. Then, correspondence from the co-op's attorney.

In some cases, the annoyed shareholder may threaten a lawsuit. It's usually during legal action, say Berg and other management company executives, that a judge will order an acoustical engineer to undertake a sound reading to test whether the noise surpasses the legal residential limit (other times, the complaining shareholder will hire an acoustical engineer to buttress his or her complaints about the noise).

With costs ranging from $150 to $275 an hour, generally with a four-hour minimum, professional sound consultants are pricey, but some believe that it's more cost-effective for shareholders to call the noise-monitoring professional before a lawsuit begins.

"We are often called in when there is a complaint before matters go to court," observes engineer Michael A. Newman, a partner at Dunn McNeil Ramsay, Consulting Engineers. "We do a full inspection and make recommendations for sound remediation."

The first time she gets a complaint about noise, says Shakirah Wadud, managing member of the Urban Collective, a management company, she asks the super to investigate. Depending on his response and type of noise, Wadud will then investigate the sound herself.

If she judges the noise to be a legitimate disruption of the shareholder's right to the "quiet enjoyment of his home" as the language reads in most proprietary leases, Wadud says she then tries to broker a meeting between the two shareholders, so each can air his or her point of view.

In at least one instance, a tenant voluntarily hired an acoustical engineer to avoid being sued by the neighbor. The engineer took readings in the musician's apartment and in the complaining shareholder's unit and recommended more padding. The cost of the hour-long visit was $275, while the new padding was $300. The tenant paid the whole bill, says Wadud, and the next-door neighbor ceased making complaints.

Joseph LaSpina, vice president and director of operations for Maxwell-Kates, reports that his buildings will call in acoustical consultants if the noise complaint is mechanical, either from inside or outside the building.

In the case of one building, notes Berg, shareholders were complaining about an air conditioning in the courtyard, attached to the commercial tenant's business on the first floor. The tenant was running the air conditioning for long hours during the week, and on the weekends. When the tenant refused to control the use of the air conditioner, the building sued, and brought in an acoustical engineer to prove that the noise was exceeding the legal residential limits set by the city's Department of Environmental Protection.

In the mid-1970s, the federal government ruled that workers could not be exposed to more than 90 db per 40-hour workweek. The measure stands for the decibel average of high and low frequencies that can be heard by the human ear. In residences in New York City, the legal limit for noise in residences is 45 decibels.

"Look, it's New York. Everyone lives on top of everyone else. That's just the way it goes," observes Doug Lane, president of Lane Engineering Consulting, which performs noise monitoring in buildings and at construction sites.

"The most common complaint is people hearing their neighbors," notes Alan Fierstein, president of Manhattan-based Acoustilog, a professional noise monitoring company.

In one case, the sound of piano playing was heard from one co-op owner by another. After examining the apartment and taking readings with a spectrum analyzer, which measures high and low frequencies and compares them with the legal residential limit, the engineer discovered that a crevice behind the baseboard was allowing the sound of the piano to be heard downstairs. It cost the piano player $500 to caulk up the crack, which "virtually eliminated the piano noises that people were hearing downstairs."

"Sounds can never be completely attenuated," says Newman. "You've got a good solution if four-fifths of the noise is gone."

Observes Fierstein: "I'm involved in a case right now where a recording studio is bothering a member of the co-op directly above. That's being resolved by re-soundproofing the recording studio, after a judge indicated that that would be the smart thing to do."

If people are unhappy, experts say they should consider paying for an acoustical engineer to test the noises they are hearing rather than run to court. an acoustical consultant may be expensive, that he or she can be cheaper than hiring an attorney (whose fees can run anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000).

A typical inspection and written report can cost about $1,795, says Newman, who notes that Dunn McNeil Ramsay charges $250 an hour. The inspection takes three hours, and the report takes about five hours to prepare. "We don't use pre-printed forms or boiler plate," he explains. "We start out with a blank page and a report can run from 8 to 14 pages; with photos appended to that."

Most managing agents acknowledge they don't suggest hiring a sound engineer, however, because (a) they are concerned that the building will be left with the cost of the visit, and (b) some shareholders would just rather go to court. That's certainly the case with the diligently practicing Manhattan musician, who, his board director reports, has stated that he would rather go to court than set aside time to have an acoustical engineer come in and then add soundproofing. But what happens if a judge orders the musician to have an acoustical professional do a study and based on his readings, add more padding? The board director sighed, noting: "He'd rather do it this way."

For that reason alone, says David Khazzam, vice president of management at PRC, board members should stay out of complaints from shareholders about their neighbor's noise. "These things usually end up in court. There are some boards that are very hands-on and normally, that results with the board fighting with one party or another. I guess the bottom line is, when it comes to noise complaints between two neighbors, unless there is proof [of a real problem] that it be left to resolve between those two parties."

It can be a hornet's nest, too, since the interpetation of sound is personal. "Think of yourself lying on the bed on warm night," says Newman. "You hear the sound of the bumble bee with its primordial flapping of wings. That sound is enough to lull you to sleep. But to your significant other, lying beside you, the flapping of the same wings can be maddening. That's the subjective nature of sound."

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