Noise is a common complaint in common wall communities. That new and beautiful hardwood floor in Unit 2A is Unit 1A’s worse nightmare. Suddenly, a normally soft shoed neighbor sounds like a flamenco dancer at full crescendo. While new construction usually provides an extra measure of sound protection, older construction is often woefully inadequate. Is there anything the board can do besides turn a deaf ear?
Since construction related noise complaints are bound to be heard again and again, the board should indeed be proactive and there are a number of things it can do. Here are some ploys to deal with noise.
Quiet Hours Policy. Have a formal policy that promotes a quiet environment. Quiet hours like 9 pm to 9 am Monday through Friday and 10 pm to 10 am Saturday - Sunday are reasonable. In defining what noise is, rather than get into specifics like stereos and barking dogs, something like “any sound disruption that significantly interrupts sleep and the quiet enjoyment of the neighbors” works best.
Dealing with Complaints. The board should not get involved in noise complaints unless several documented attempts have been made by the affected parties to resolve the issues. They need to recite the nature of the disturbances, frequency, dates, times, action taken by the complainant and response from the noise maker. Do not circumvent this step by accepting requests to intercede prematurely. In most cases, neighbors dealing directly with neighbors will solve the problem.
Accept only the hard and documented cases. And never intercede in events that normally would be handled by the police (domestic disturbances and other violent activity). Also, frequency of the disturbance is a critical element. There is a big difference between two complaints over a six month period and two within a week. A repeat disturbance within no more than two weeks is a reasonable standard.
Call in the Experts. If there is a flaw in the building sound design, it isn’t necessarily fatal. There are a variety of corrections varying from lifestyle changes to architectural modifications. To help sort them out, hire a qualified architect or engineer to analyze the problem and provide a list of solutions that can be shared with owners. Those should include modifications made by both noise senders and receivers. A soundproofed ceiling may be more expedient than expecting the upstairs neighbor to rip up the oak floor. Most neighbors do not want to be a pain and will follow the recommendations.
Set Architectural Standards. In the interest of community peace and quiet, the board does have the authority to establish reasonable standards for architectural design. While this generally applies to exterior appearance, structural components that impact the neighbors, like floor surfaces, can also be included. For example, any owner that wants hardwood flooring should be required to install a sound proofing material under or over it to reduce or eliminate sound transmission. Let remodeling owners know the requirements before the floor is installed.
Facilitate the Upgrade. One of the real advantages of homeowner associations is group buying power. If there is a building wide problem, even if it exists within the units, the owners can join together by way of the HOA to address the problem as a whole rather than sending individual owners off on their own. By joining together, the whole problem is solved at the same time and at a volume discount.
Fines. Fining is usually a last resort solution for hard cases. The noise fine policy should lay out a series of increasing penalties like first disturbance, a written warning; second, $25 fine; third, a $50 fine; fourth, a $100 fine...make the penalty enough to get their attention but not so outrageous that a judge would spank the board for being dictatorial.
Right of Appeal. All notices of violation and fines should be in writing and include an appeal process. That ensures a record of the event and no misunderstanding of the issues. Fines should be billed and collected just like regular assessments. If not paid, follow the normal collection routine.
Defensive Action. Sometimes a good defense is the best offense. Some noise complaints are the result of over sensitivity or mismatched schedules like a swing shift worker trying to sleep during the day. In such cases, it makes more sense that the complainer take defensive action rather than expect unreasonable changes from the neighbor. Using "white noise" like a box fan or fountain can drown out many noise problems and cost little.
Noise can be a vexing issue, especially when the offender is insensitive. The board can reduce widespread complaints by enacting noise reduction standards and providing proactive solutions. Using these creative noise ploys in your community, peace and quiet will soon be heard loud and clear.