Fed Up With a Noisy Neighbor? Try Mediation, Not Litigation

By: Dave Roos  | 

Illustration about neigborly quarrels
If your neighbors are making too much noise, do you have other options besides just fuming or calling the cops? Poodle Soup/Getty Images

We've all been there — living next to a neighbor who throws loud parties at night or practices the drums during the day. But you're not sure what to do — would calling the cops be too drastic? If you talk to your neighbor, how will that conversation go?

There's an old adage in the legal world — divorces are awful, but at least you don't have to live with the person anymore. But, if you sue your neighbor, it can get just as ugly as a divorce, but when it's all over the "enemy" still lives next door.

If your neighbor is keeping you up all night with loud music or driving you crazy all day with a barking dog, there are steps you can take to avoid an all-out legal battle and a ruined relationship.

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1. Know the Local Noise Laws

Every city and town in the United States has a noise ordinance on the books. Before you complain to your neighbor — and certainly before you call the cops — Google your local noise ordinance.

In Boise, Idaho, the noise ordinance is fairly broad. Loud music, according to Boise's code, is in violation of the law if it's "plainly audible" in the house or business next door, or 100 feet (30 meters) or more from the source of the music if you're outside.

In Denver, Colorado, there are specified decibel levels for different times of the day: 55 db from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., and 50 db from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. (For reference, "normal conversation" is 60 to 70 db). In Indianapolis, Indiana, the noise ordinance prohibits loud music after 10 p.m. and gets oddly specific about vending vehicles that play music (no more than 115 db measured at 6 inches (15 centimeters) from the loudspeaker). In Miami, people can't operate power tools or lawn mowers outdoors between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Barking dogs or squawking birds also can be in violation of noise ordinances if the sound is continuous and unprovoked. For instance, in New York City, the noise code can be enforced if a dog barks continuously for 10 minutes between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. or five minutes between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.

You may want to consult your landlord or homeowners association (if you have one) to see if there are "quiet enjoyment clauses" for your building or complex as well. Often these mirror the ordinance laws in your city, but there may be additional rules.

If you find that your neighbor is clearly in violation of local noise laws, you are perfectly within your rights to call the police (not 911, but the direct police line) or your city's animal control unit if it's a noisy pet complaint. But before you alert the authorities, try our next tactic first.

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2. Talk to Your Neighbors (Calmly and Kindly)

It's very possible your neighbors are completely unaware of how noisy they're being. Yes, it's inconsiderate to blast music at night or run a gas-powered leaf blower at 6 in the morning, but it's probably not malicious. In other words, assume that they're oblivious, not complete jerks.

If you're actively frustrated or angry, take a deep breath and calm down first. If you come in hot, your neighbor is more likely to get defensive and refuse. If you have to wait until the next day to work up a smile, do it.

When you do speak with them, be kind and refer to the local noise ordinances if necessary. Instead of just saying, "Will you keep it down, please?" try to be more specific: "Can you please turn the music down after 10 p.m."? or "Can you keep the dog inside until 8 a.m., because his barking wakes us up?" You'll have more success if you frame your complaints as reasonable requests.

It helps if you have some kind of relationship with your neighbor so that your complaint is not the first time the two of you have spoken. Depending on the circumstances, you may want to send an email or leave a note on their door instead of speaking to them. Just be sure to sign the note.

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3. What if They Refuse to Comply?

Of course, one person's "reasonable request" might come across as "unreasonable" to your neighbor or even a "personal attack." Your neighbors might think they're perfectly within their rights to play loud music or keep their dog in the backyard at night. And frankly, they might have some complaints of their own that they've been harboring about your behavior.

If they refuse to change, you'll want to start documenting. Keep a written log of decibel readings (there are inexpensive machines that document decibel levels), recordings of the noise and date/time, copies of any written complaints you send to them and so on.

You could wait until the neighbors violate the noise ordinance again and call the cops, which might work. But your neighbors probably won't appreciate the $100 fine or the embarrassment of a squad car pulling up to the house. And they'll have a pretty good idea who called the fuzz — that "annoying" neighbor who can't keep to themselves. Not great for neighborly relations.

Or you could take them to court. Trial lawyer Matthew White says that there are two ways to approach a civil lawsuit. You could sue for an injunction, which is an order from the judge to stop playing music after a certain hour or above a certain volume, or you could sue for damages (from loss of sleep, loss of income or aggravation). This is where the documentation will be important.

White has a warning, though. Lawsuits are very expensive and time-consuming, and even if you win (best-case scenario), you're still stuck with these people as your neighbors. Is it worth the cost and stress of litigation, or is there a better way?

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4. Try Mediation

Even though he is a trial lawyer, Matthew White spends a lot of time helping clients avoid going to trial. When it comes to noise complaints between neighbors, he's a big fan of mediation, not litigation. Mediation is a voluntary process in which the warring parties meet with a neutral mediator to find a workable solution.

"If we go to court, I'm going to hate that person," says White. "The worst of both of us is going to come out. Through mediation, we can find creative solutions that are not available in court and both of us can go away thinking we got what we needed."

Mediation is a form of "alternative dispute resolution." Instead of one neighbor suing another and letting a judge or jury decide their fate, in mediation both neighbors meet with a neutral party, a mediator, to work out their own solution to the problem.

White is a trained mediator and co-author, with Lynn Duryee, of "Mastering Mediation: 50 Essential Tools for the Advanced Practitioner." He says that after 40 years in the legal field, he wishes more people knew about the many advantages of mediation over litigation.

First, mediation is a lot less expensive than a lawsuit. There may even be a low-cost mediation service operated by your local government or court system. Even if you have to pay a private mediator by the hour, it's still going to be significantly cheaper than paying lawyer's fees for a trial.

Second, if you go to court, your options for resolving the issue are very limited. The judge can either issue an injunction, award you damages or rule in favor of your neighbor, in which case you get nothing but a big bill from your lawyer. But with mediation, the range of options is virtually unlimited.

"In mediation, anything that can make this problem go away is on the table," says White.

This only works, he says, if both sides are willing to compromise. For example, your neighbor might agree to stop playing music at 10 p.m., but only if you trim those trees in your backyard that block his view. That's a solution that would not come up in court, because your neighbor's view wasn't the subject of the lawsuit.

The one downside with mediation is that the mediator has no legal authority to make the parties come to an agreement or to comply with that agreement. The mediator is a "neutral," not a judge or even an arbitrator. A good mediator knows how to help feuding neighbors find a reasonable common ground and walk away with a solution they can live with. It's then up to the neighbors to do their part to keep the peace.

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