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Ask Sam: Can I get evicted because of my neighbors' noise complaints?

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Dear Sam: I'm a musician, and my downstairs neighbors complain constantly about the noise I make practicing (and sometimes, even just walking around). They've taken their complaints to the landlord, too. Can I actually get evicted for this? And what happens if I'm the one getting disrupted by noise?

While it's wise to stay on good terms with the neighbors—and your landlord—things would have to get pretty extreme before you get the boot from your apartment, says Sam Himmelstein, a lawyer who represents residential and commercial tenants and tenant associations.

But unfortunately, dealing with neighbor noise (or complaints about it) is a standard-issue facet of city living. "This is a very common problem," he notes. "Sometimes, I hear from the people who are complaining about the noise, and sometimes, the people who are supposedly causing it." As such, there's a long line of court cases about this issue, and  "it's pretty much accepted law that you have to put up with a certain amount of noise," says Himmelstein, "as long as it's not unreasonably loud or happening during hours when people would be sleeping." 

Or, in the eloquent words of a judge who ruled on a 1943 case about an apartment-dweller's "objectionable" piano-playing: "Apartment-house living in a metropolitan area is attended with certain well-known inconveniences and discomforts. The peace and quiet of a rural estate or the sylvan silence of a mountain lodge cannot be expected in a multiple dwelling." 

Mostly, things come down to common courtesy. "You can't blast your stereo at midnight or have really loud parties," says Himmelstein, "but if someone tries to bring a court case about ordinary noise—the pitter patter of children's feet, furniture moving as people get up front the dinner table, walking around the apartment—they won't get anywhere." (New York courts have also specifically ruled that you can't get evicted over the sound of your kids running around the apartment.)

Of course, you'd rather not end up in court at all, so your best bet is to try to come up with a practical compromise, like putting down carpets. "It's always better than going to lawyers and spending thousands of dollars, especially when a court might mandate the same solution," says Himmelstein, who notes that he's seen musicians seek a landlord's permission to put a layer of sound insulation into the apartment. "The practical solutions, while they involve spending some money, tend to result in an actual solution, whereas you never know what will happen in court," he says. And even if things do become litigious, unless you're really going out of your way to make life for your neighbors miserable, "eviction is the last resort," he says. Instead, most judges will give you a chance to "cure" the problem before taking next steps.

If you're the one who's losing sleep—and sanity—to noise from a neighbor, work in the building, or the bar downstairs, Himmelstein recommends bringing in a sound expert like Acoustilog to measure decibels and prove that the level of noise is unreasonable (you can read up on accepted decibel limits here). If it's disruptive work the landlord is doing, you're likely entitled to a rent abatement—we've got more tips on that process here—but if it's construction out on the street? You're at the mercy of 311.

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Sam Himmelstein, Esq., represents NYC tenants and tenant associations in disputes over evictions, rent increases, rental conversions, rent stabilization law, lease buyouts and many other issues. He is a partner at Himmelstein, McConnell, Gribben, Donoghue & Joseph in Manhattan.  To submit a question for this column, click here. To ask about a legal consultation, email Sam or call (212) 349-3000.

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