5 steps to resolving a noise complaint

Inman News

Q: I inherited my mother's house and rented it to tenants who are complaining about noise from the neighbors. The neighboring property is a townhouse that's occupied by college students (who are also renters), and they do indeed make a racket, with loud parties many nights. I've talked to them and tried to get them to quiet down, to no avail.

My renters are telling me that they can break their lease (and not be responsible for rent for the rest of the lease term) because of this situation. Since I can't evict the neighbors, it seems to me that I've done all I can do, and that my tenants should not be able to get out of their lease. --Eloise D.

A: Your tenants will indeed have the right to break the lease, with no responsibility for future rent, if the situation has become intolerable -- even if you're doing all you can do to make things better. An intolerable situation would be one in which a reasonable person could not live peacefully in his home. Night after night of loud parties next door would probably qualify in most judges' eyes.

But there may be solutions that you haven't tried yet. First, talk to the townhouse owners and see if they will deal with their tenants (they have the power to terminate the lease if the students' behavior truly disturbs the peace of the neighborhood). Next, find out if your city has a noise ordinance, and if it does, tell your tenants to arrange for the noise to be measured. Try to have the city send any notices of violations (and fines) to the townhouse owner, not the students. That might get results -- in fact, cities are increasingly passing laws that specify that fines for nuisance behavior must go to the owners.

Finally, talk to the homeowners association for that development. The association undoubtedly has a rule prohibiting unnecessary noise, and you can ask them to enforce it (unfortunately, you cannot sue to enforce it, because you aren't a member of the association).

If all else fails, consider a lawsuit in small claims court, in which you describe the situation as a public nuisance, and ask the judge to order the noisemakers to stop and to pay your tenants damages for having put up with the problem. Although this may seem like a lot of work, understand that you'll continue to face this problem with your next batch of renters until you've got the situation under control.

Q: My brother rents a basement unit in a house, but the unit is illegal. The owner is threatening to evict him for maintaining a nuisance (the owner claims my brother is hoarding). My brother says he's going to threaten to call the building inspectors, who will fine the owner for the illegal unit. This is a mess. Any advice? --Tom D.

A: Oh, what a tangled web we weave. Both the landlord and the tenant have chosen to operate outside of the law, and now that they want the benefit of the law, they're about to find out how shortsighted that can be.

Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that your brother's accumulated material possessions constitute hoarding. That condition, newly added to the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth version), is a recognized mental disorder, involving the excessive acquisition of objects and the inability to get rid of them. The homes of hoarders can become a safety and fire hazard, as papers, objects and even food build up, making it impossible to adequately clean or even move about, and posing a fire danger.

There's no doubt that serious hoarding poses a legal nuisance (a substantial threat to health or safety), and would be grounds for eviction in any state.

Landlords who discover rental property that's the site of severe hoarding should take steps pronto -- not to necessarily evict, but to try to work with the tenant to address the problem. One should keep in mind that hoarders may qualify as persons with a legally recognized disability, which would require landlords to try to reach an acceptable resolution short of eviction. Good adult social services departments should respond for requests for help.

In the best outcome, the tenant accepts help in cleaning up, and accepts continuing help, if need be, to avoid future build-ups.

Your brother's landlord should attempt to deal with the problem in this way, rather than immediately jumping to an eviction. But doubtless he, too, is aware of the possibility that the city inspectors will be tipped off to the lack of a permit (as a result of their own efforts, or from the tenant), which may result in a fine and, unfortunately for your brother, an order that your brother move out. If the unit can be permitted, he would probably be allowed to return; but if permitting can't be done, your brother will be out, period.

So neither your brother nor the landlord stands to gain if they call upon the law to help them out. To make matters worse, your brother's threat to call the inspectors might land him in some legal hot water of his own. This threat may qualify as extortion, which includes the threat to expose a crime (this is pretty close to what your brother is doing, by threatening to expose an unpermitted unit).

Although it's not too likely that a prosecutor's office these days would devote time and resources to bringing such a case, that's not the end of the matter. If this case ends up before a judge, this threat will not bode well for your brother.

Your brother and his landlord have some thinking to do. Once there's an eviction lawsuit, both stand to lose big time. They need to try to work this out between them, realizing that if they cannot, the gig's up for both.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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