Dealing with noise complaints and disturbances

We’ve all experienced it: You’re trying to get a good night’s sleep, but your neighbours and their party guests have other ideas. Or, maybe the folks living in the apartment above you stomp around like they’re playing basketball in their living room.

Dealing with noisy neighbours can be a complicated process, especially if your neighbours aren’t cooperative. Here’s your guide to dealing with noise as a homeowner, condo owner, renter, or landlord.

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What qualifies as a noise complaint?

Before we get into how you should deal with noise disturbances, it’s important to understand what sorts of noise call for some sort of action.

Noise disturbances are complicated. There’s no magic threshold for deciding when noise becomes bad enough that you need to do something about it, and context is always important. Most of us wouldn’t complain about a neighbour mowing the lawn on a Saturday afternoon, but doing so in the middle of the night might be cause for complaint.

Check local bylaws

One way you can decide if your neighbour’s noise is complaint worthy is your local bylaws. Nearly every city addresses noise in their bylaws, so it’s a good place to start. You’ll be able to find your city’s bylaws on the city’s official website. If you’re having troubles finding the right bylaws, you can contact city hall and ask for help getting access to the information you need.

Normally, municipal bylaws prohibit noise that is “unreasonable,” or “excessive,” or “persistent,” or “unnecessary.”

There are different standards depending on the source of the noise, too. Bylaws usually let construction sites, trains, and some businesses make a reasonable amount of noise during the day, while limiting such noise at night. If you hear noise from a commercial source and you think it’s against your local bylaws, you can report it to the city’s bylaw office. Many cities have an online feature for reporting bylaw infractions. Otherwise, there’s usually a phone number to call. In either case, you’ll find the pertinent information on your city’s official website.

When it comes to neighbourly noise, everyone has a right to the quiet enjoyment of their property. If your neighbour is making a racket that infringes on that right, you have a noise nuisance on your hands. However, some municipal bylaws don’t impose heavy restrictions on residential noise. In fact, noise could be considered a legal nuisance even if it’s not breaking any bylaws.

Is it reasonable?

It comes down to what amount of noise is “reasonable.” You may find the sound of your neighbour’s children playing outside to be annoying, but it probably doesn’t justify a formal noise complaint. In fact, many noise bylaws never consider things like normal conversation, children, or pets to be “unreasonable noise.”

Condo board bylaws

Meanwhile, condo owners have their own considerations when it comes to defining unreasonable noise.

Condo boards (a.k.a. Strata councils in BC) have their own bylaws, by which the condo building’s owners must abide. This can make noise issues just a touch more complex for condo owners.

We asked Benjamin Hagen and Justin Leung of Vancouver-based law firm Richards Buell Sutton LLP for their thoughts on the process of dealing with noise disturbances as a condo owner. As with any noise disturbance, the noise needs to be unreasonable for you to have any recourse.

What does unreasonable noise mean for a condo owner? Hagen and Leung write:

“When an individual chooses to own or rent a unit in a Strata building they should expect to be subject to noise above what might be experienced in a detached home or a townhouse. When living in a Strata, there may be other individuals living above, below and on either side of your unit. However, Strata owners still have a reasonable expectation to enjoy their unit and noise should be considered unreasonable if it is in violation of the Strata’s Bylaws or is affecting your health.”

The presence of condo bylaws is one of the wrinkles for condo owners that doesn’t exist for detached homeowners. One condo building’s bylaws may use different language than another’s when it comes to defining unreasonable noise. Particularly since condominium legislation is different from province to province, you’ll need to consult your own building’s bylaws to see how they define unreasonable noise.

We’ll get more into the considerations for condo owners a bit further down.

Ultimately, you may have to use your discretion to decide if the noise you’re hearing is worth a complaint. If you think the noise is unreasonable, you can at least take the first steps to address it.

But how do you deal with noise nuisances? That depends on your living situation.

How do you deal with noise as a homeowner?

Dealing with noisy neighbours is a touchy subject for homeowners. You and your neighbours are probably stuck together for the long term. Since you have no choice but to live next to each other, it’s best to avoid a protracted dispute.

If your neighbour is making an unreasonable amount of noise, here are the steps you should follow:

  1. Speak to them directly (if you’re comfortable with it). Often, people simply don’t realize how much of a racket they’re making. If you speak to your neighbour, make sure to keep things friendly; don’t be confrontational.

    Be specific about the issue you’re raising. If the noise is an ongoing problem, take the time to record instances of the noise over several days. These records show your neighbour that you’re serious, and they may come in handy later if things escalate.

    Finally, offer some reasonable solutions or compromises. Remember, your neighbour has the right to enjoy their home (within reason) just as you do. Depending on what they were doing that caused the noise, you could ask them to limit their activities to certain hours or suggest that they move the activities indoors.

  2. But what if your neighbour doesn’t quiet down after you speak to them?

  3. In the case of a single incident, like a house party, it may be time to report them, either to the city bylaw office or the police non-emergency line. If your city accepts noise complaints (and the office is open), it’s best to contact them before going to the police; calling the police should be a last resort.

    If it’s an ongoing noise problem, you may instead wish to offer your neighbour a firm warning: you’re not taking legal action yet, but you will if they don’t address the issue. It helps if you can point to specific noise bylaws that they’re violating. This may help them realize their noise is a serious issue and they could face legal consequences.

  4. If the problem still continues, you might have no choice but to take legal action.

    Suing your neighbour for nuisance is the nuclear option. It will cost a lot of money, and success isn’t guaranteed. As well, legal disputes can drag on for months. That said, if you’ve exhausted your other options, hiring a lawyer may be the only thing you can do.

    If you’re a Square One customer with legal protection coverage, the legal fees for pursuing a civil case against your neighbour are covered under your policy.

If you’d rather avoid any sort of confrontation (or your neighbourhood is just naturally noisy), you could also do some DIY noise dampening. There are plenty of options for your home that might reduce noise from outside, including acoustic panels or soundproof insulation. These are also worth considering if your neighbourhood experiences noise pollution from trains, traffic, or other sources that aren’t likely to go away.

How do you deal with noise as a condo owner?

As mentioned earlier, noise must be “unreasonable” for a condo owner to rightfully take action. That can be difficult to define, and not just because every condo building may phrase it differently in their bylaws. Though most definitions are meant to be as objective as possible, it’s hard to be objective about noise.

“An issue faced by owners and Stratas is the fact that noise affects everyone differently,” write Hagen and Leung. “What one person considers unreasonable may not affect another person.”

If the noise disturbance goes so far as to reach the legal process, Hagen and Leung write, “objective expert research should be used to establish whether the noise goes beyond what is reasonable, rather than just a personal opinion.”

But we’ll get to that.

Before getting involved in litigation, there are some simpler options to try first. If you’re dealing with noise that you find unreasonable, here are the steps you should take:

  1. Before things get too serious, you can ask the noisy neighbour to quiet down. Often, people simply don’t realize that they’re making too much noise. As long as you know where the noise is coming from and you’re comfortable approaching the noisemaker, you may be able to resolve the issue quickly and amicably.

  2. The next thing to try is filing a formal complaint to your condo board or management company.

    “The common-sense approach is to approach [the] individual first to request the noise be resolved in order to keep neighbourly relations,” write Hagen and Leung. “However, if you are not comfortable approaching a neighbour, the Strata Management Company can be approached for assistance. This is done by way of a formal noise complaint.”

    Filing a formal complaint

    While provinces other than BC may not use the term “Strata” (another term for condo), condos across Canada have governing bodies to which owners can make formal complaints.

    In preparing your complaint, try to provide as much evidence for the noise disturbance as possible. Noise issues can be difficult to prove, since the people to whom you’re reporting them aren’t present to hear the noise.

    “To start, it is recommended to keep a detailed log of the noise, including the time of day, type of noise and duration of noise,” write Hagen and Leung. “Another step is to have a representative of the Strata (either the strata property manager or a member(s) of Strata Council) attend at the unit to hear the noise firsthand.

    “Some owners have simply used their phones to record the noises or even purchased specialized noise equipment to measure and record the decibel levels to assist in a claim. Other owners have gone to the expense of hiring sound engineers to investigate the source and volume of the noise.”

    The exact process that follows your complaint may differ depending on your building’s bylaws and the province in which you live. However, condo boards are required to enforce their bylaws. If your noise complaint alleges that a fellow owner is violating the bylaws, the board has a duty to investigate.

    The enforcement process in BC

    As an example, the enforcement process in BC looks like this. On the BC process, Hagen and Leung write:

    “If, after following the proper steps, the Strata Council has determined that a breach of a Bylaw or rule occurred, the Council may impose a fine against an owner or tenant. Strata Corporations can collect fines and other costs remedying breaches by one of four ways: Make a claim with the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), sue the owner or tenant in court, arbitrate the matter, or refuse to produce a ‘Form F: Certificate of Payment’ when an owner is selling a unit.”

  3. If you’ve complained to your building’s Strata council, condo board, or management company, and they’ve decided not to take any action, it’s time for the next step: bring your complaint to a higher authority.

    “If the Strata Management Company and/or the Strata Council is unwilling to take reasonable steps to mitigate the noise or fine the other owner then you may consider commencing an action with the Civil Resolutions Tribunal,” write Hagen and Leung. “The Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) is an online tribunal [in BC] that resolves strata and small claims disputes of up to $5000.

    “The CRT is designed to be used by all parties without the need for legal representation. It encourages collaborative dispute resolution rather than the adversarial system in the courtroom. The CRT will only make a decision if you and the other participants cannot come to an agreement on a solution.”

    If you’re not in BC, chances are your province has a similar body to help condo owners pursue their rights, like the Condominium Authority Tribunal in Ontario, for example.

It’s worth noting that if you own a condo but rent it out, you’ll still be responsible for following these steps on behalf of your tenant. Though, you may need to enlist their help in documenting the noise disturbances if it comes to that.

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How do you deal with noise as a renter?

As a renter, you have a right to quiet enjoyment of your home. In fact, your lease or rental agreement probably stipulates quiet hours that everyone in the building must follow. Even if you don’t share a building with other renters, your landlord still has a duty to help resolve issues that affect the quiet enjoyment of your home.

Unfortunately, some noise is simply a fact of life. In most apartment buildings, there’s little you can do about heavy footfalls from your upstairs neighbours or children laughing next door.

That said, if your fellow apartment dwellers’ noise rises to the level of a disturbance, you have a right to address the issue. Here are the steps you would take:

  1. If you’re comfortable with doing so, speak to the offending neighbour directly. Be kind while you explain that their noise is bothering you and suggest reasonable steps they could take to address it. Remind them of the building’s quiet hours if it’s appropriate.

  2. If you’re not comfortable confronting your neighbour directly, or you’ve done so and they’re not quieting down, contact your landlord or building manager and inform them of the issue.

    If the noise problem is an ongoing one, keep a written record of each time you experience the disturbance. Describe as best you can what the noise sounds like, how loud it is, and how long it goes on for. Written documentation will help your landlord address the situation more effectively. If all they have to go on is your word, it’s difficult for them to take action.

    If the noise problem is an urgent one (like a noisy house party), you may need to call the police non-emergency line to report a noise disturbance if you can’t reach your landlord.

  3. It’s your landlord’s responsibility to resolve ongoing noise issues. If your landlord isn’t addressing your complaints, you may need to start a formal dispute resolution process. For example, in BC you would contact the Residential Tenancy Branch, or the Landlord and Tenant Board in Ontario.

When living in an apartment building, it’s always good to make sure you’re holding up your end of the deal as well: make sure you’re quiet during quiet hours, and consider getting a rug to dampen heavy footfalls if you think you might be disturbing your downstairs neighbours.

Faulty equipment or building materials

If the noise that’s disturbing you is the result of faulty equipment or building materials, you can request that your landlord fix the issue. For example, let’s say you live above the building’s front door and it loudly slams every time someone comes or goes. Your landlord is responsible for fixing or replacing the door to reduce the nuisance to you.

How do you deal with noise as a landlord?

As a landlord, it can be difficult to resolve a noise complaint from one of your tenants, particularly if you live separately from your rental property. By the time you’re present to investigate the noise, it may have stopped.

As well, not all tenants have the same noise tolerances. If you’ve got multiple suites in the same building (or you’re a manager for a whole apartment complex), one family might think their noise levels are perfectly acceptable while another thinks the sound is a nuisance.

If the noisy neighbour is also one of your tenants, have a look at the next section. If you’re a landlord renting out a condo, you’ll probably want to read the condo owner section up above, as the process is a little different.

Meanwhile, if your tenant complains about noise from an unaffiliated neighbour, here’s what you should do:

  1. Start by collecting as many details from your tenant as possible. Where was the noise coming from? Is it a recurring problem? If the noise is a persistent problem, you should ask your tenant to start keeping a record of the noise, including times, durations, and descriptions of each incidence. Detailed records make it easier to take action later, if the situation warrants.

    If it’s an urgent, one-time problem (like a house party) you may need to take action right away. If your tenant is comfortable doing so, you can ask them to approach the noisy resident themselves and request that they quiet down. If they’re not comfortable with that, you may need to pay a visit to the noisemaker yourself.

  2. If you (or your tenant) have spoken to the offending party, and the noise issue still hasn’t abated, the next step is to make a report with the appropriate authorities. Depending on the situation, you may report the noise to a city bylaw office. Most municipalities have bylaws against excessive noise. Some cities allow you to report bylaw infractions using an online system on their official website, or you may need to find a number to call.

    If the noise issue is an urgent one, like a late-night house party, you can report it to the police non-emergency line.

  3. If the noise issue persists after a report to the authorities, the next step is to pursue legal action. That can take many forms.

    Depending on which jurisdiction you live in, you may have access to mediation services that can facilitate a meeting between all the affected parties. Sometimes, all it takes to resolve the issue is to sit down and hash things out.

    Failing that, you can also try to solve the matter in court. Noise disturbances can be considered a legal nuisance, which means that you – as the property owner – can pursue you and your tenants’ rights to not be unreasonably disturbed.

As a landlord, it’s your responsibility to ensure that your tenants are free from unreasonable disturbances, which includes noise issues. If your tenants complain about noise and you don’t take steps to resolve the issue, you could find yourself embroiled in a legal dispute of your own. While you may not necessarily be responsible for the noise of neighbours that aren’t your tenants, as the property owner you’re in a position to help your tenants end the noise issues.

For landlords who insure their rental units with Square One and purchased legal protection coverage, covers costs arising from legal process will be covered.

What if your tenant is making the noise?

You’ve also got some responsibilities if you receive a noise complaint and the offending party is also your tenant. Here’s what you should do if you receive a noise complaint about one of your tenants:

  1. Get as many details as you can from the complainant, to start with. If one of your tenants is being a nuisance to neighbours, you should speak to the tenant right away. You don’t need to be confrontational; they may genuinely not realize that they’re being too loud.

  2. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the next step is to issue the problem tenant a formal warning, in writing. Exactly how you need to do this varies depending on the tenant/landlord regulations in your local jurisdiction, so make sure you’re clear on what’s expected of you. Some provinces have designated forms you can use to give official notice to your tenant.

    Regardless, your notice should tell the noisy tenant:

      1. What the problem is, in the most specific terms possible. Include as many details as the complainant gave you;

      2. What your tenant needs to do, and how long they have to act; and,

      3. What happens if they don’t stop their disturbances.

  3. Depending on the situation, you may be able to set up mediation between the complainant and noisemaker. Sometimes, getting everyone together to calmly talk things through is the best way to resolve a dispute.
  4. If you’re managing tenants in an apartment building, you may be able to address the situation by asking the noisy tenant (or the complainant) to move into a different unit. If there’s another rental unit in the building available, moving one of the two parties may be enough, particularly if the complainant has above-average noise sensitivity.
  5. If nothing else has worked, you may have no options left except to end the tenancy. It’s up to you how many warnings you want to give before moving to this option. The eviction process differs by jurisdiction and can often be a lengthy one if the noisy tenant contests your decision. If you’ve kept good records and given the tenant clear and timely warnings about their noisemaking, it’ll help things go smoothly.

    Anything you can do to make the process easier helps, as evicting a tenant for being noisy can get complicated if they dispute it. You may have to prove (in a legal sense) that their noise is unreasonable. That can be hard if you’re not there to hear it yourself. In some cases, landlords even need to hire acoustic engineers to provide objective evidence. It’s best to do whatever you can do keep the situation from getting to that level.

No matter your living situation, noise disturbances can be tricky to resolve. If you’ve exhausted the simple options like asking your neighbours to be quiet and reporting noise to bylaw offices, you might have no choice but to turn to legal action.

In most cases, legal protection insurance from Square One will cover costs associated with such action. If you’d like to know more about legal protection insurance get a quote online in just 5 minutes.

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