Residents of New York City are continually assaulted by sound – traffic, construction, conversation, machinery, music, TV, and the radio. As a result, the home becomes a retreat and noise is an especially sensitive issue within cooperatives and condominiums, where noise complaints can create disputes among residents. Unfortunately, noise is a highly subjective issue, and conflicts can become extremely difficult to resolve.
Many times, an issue involving noise is a judgment call, requiring boards to determine if a shareholder is truly bothered by a sound of some kind or if the person is overly sensitive to every single noise, even those that are part of normal apartment life. One way to discover the validity of a complaint is to determine if the person raising the issue has previously objected to events taking place in the building. If the person is not prone to complaining, something may well have happened to disturb a resident’s normal living habits, causing lack of sleep or disrupting the quality of life in some way. If a condo or co-op board ignores a legitimate complaint, the residents could be forced to turn to the legal system.
Such is the case now with a retired couple living in a prewar Manhattan co-op who filed a lawsuit against the board because it failed to take action on an air conditioner that had been installed through an outside wall by a neighbor. The noise and vibrations generated by the unit created a serious noise condition that negatively affected the quality of life the couple had previously enjoyed in the building. The protective sheath put in place around the air conditioner was not enough to solve the noise and vibration problem that had affected the elderly couple.
In an attempt to ensure the work was completed correctly on the first try, an outside engineer was brought in to supervise the installation and conduct tests. The engineer was asked to leave before he could complete the tests. In addition, the outside engineer believes the building engineer was also asked to leave early but still wound up signing off on the work.
A rise in the number of noise complaints in recent years can be partly attributed to renovations of older apartment buildings in New York. If the construction work is not done carefully, renovations can spoil the ability of the city’s solidly built prewar apartment buildings to reduce sound. All of a sudden, neighbors can hear every sound made by the residents above them.
When a noise problem results from people or businesses not involved with the co-op or condo, the issue can become even more troublesome. A store, restaurant, or bar on the ground floor of the property that is generating significant levels of noise has little incentive to lower sound levels to an acceptable volume. The legal system may be the only remedy to the situation, but this should be a resident’s last resort.
However, mediation is the most acceptable method of resolving a noise dispute. Most of the time, the people involved are neighbors who will continue to live in the building and interact with each other. Turning to litigation as a method of resolving a noise problem can cause friends or acquaintances to turn against each other. Residents involved in a noise dispute should try everything in their power to demonstrate the validity of the issue to the condo or co-op board before resorting to litigation.
Residents should also try to resolve their differences without involving the board for a very practical reason: formal complaints may hamper their chances of selling their apartment in the future and even decrease the value of their asset. If the board does get involved, the issue will probably appear in the minutes from board meetings. Potential buyers can learn all about past troubles with apartments they are thinking about purchasing by reading those records.
New York City building codes have not yet fully caught up with the sound issues of the modern city. Even if a board brings in a consultant to test noise levels, the sound might not violate city regulations, despite the fact that the quality of life of the building’s residents has been harmed. A city task force is currently working on revisions to the code to address these issues. The Department of Environmental Protection recently finished a draft of proposed revisions to the noise code, which is more than 30 years old. The Mayor’s Advisory Council on the Environment is now considering the draft.
The city’s efforts to bring building codes into line with modern life will take some time to complete. In the meantime, condo and co-op residents must continue to cope with noise problems. Everyone involved, from the neighbors and the managing agent to the board, should appreciate the seriousness of the issue and try to resolve the problem without forcing one party to resort to litigation. Mediation is almost always a better solution to noise disputes.
Andrea Roschelle is a partner at Starr Associates, a residential and commercial real estate law firm.