Last month my girlfriend and I signed the lease on our third D.C. apartment in eight months. We knew we'd be paying more money for less space and smaller kitchen appliances, that we'd be farther away from our favorite restaurants and grocery store, and that we'd no longer have a washer and dryer in our unit. In place of those things, we'd have something better: a lease with a "quiet enjoyment" provision, and a landlord and condo board serious about enforcing it.
Our new place was quiet enough for the first three nights. Then, on day four, I heard it for the first time: Barking, coming from above, loud and vigorous. The upstairs neighbor has a dog? I felt the muscles in my neck contract. My girlfriend wandered in from another room, her face contorted with anxiety. "This can't be happening," she said.
We'd already dealt with neighbors who were loud but believed us to be overly sensitive, neighbors who liked to bring huge cadres of drunk dudes back to their apartment and keep them around until the sun came up, and a neighbor who adopted two small, yappy dogs, then left them unattended for what seemed like entire weekends. The latest incident turned out to be an afternoon prelude to an all-night barking session that would take place later in the month, when the battery on this dog's bark collar died while the owner was away.
A few weeks later, we met some friends for brunch. "Maybe it's you two," one of them said. We admitted to wondering if we were overly sensitive to noise. "No," the friend said. "I mean maybe you two are just cursed." Another friend chimed in with her own horror story: Her new upstairs neighbor is a dancer, and he likes to practice in his apartment after work. He always checks with her before turning up the music to his routine, but knowing when a person is going to be loud doesn't always make the noise more bearable. You can plan to be somewhere else, or you can stay in and comfort yourself with the knowledge that the noise will end eventually. But you can't stay in and not hear it.
One of these days, I just might move back to Florida and buy a ranch house with a big yard. In the meantime, I'll make do, using some of the strategies I've picked up throughout our noisy ordeal.
1) Aim for the top floor
If noisy people were more considerate, they would voluntarily live in the lowest units of any given building, knowing that dirt does not care about high heels and loud music. But noisy people are often #YOLO people, and tend to want things like balconies and "a view." And yet those high-up floors are also pricier! The trick is to balance your distance from the ground, the quality of your neighborhood and building, and the quantity of drugs you have to sell to afford your rent. Good luck!
2) When possible, deal with property managers and landlords, not real estate agents.
The noisiest apartment I've ever lived in was shown to me by a real estate agent. Really nice woman, really good at her job, but made no mention of the noise. Five months after we signed the lease, I received an email from this agent with a subject line that read simply, "Noisy Neighbors." I knew it couldn't have been an apology—our contact with her ended when we signed the lease—but I wasn't expecting this:
What the hell is this? You lease us a loud apartment, and then you tell us we should've bought a house from you instead? BRASSY MOVE, REALTOR LADY. That's when I realized what I don't like about real estate agents pushing apartments: They have no skin in the game. They parachute in to show a place, and whatever promises they make to prospective tenants (Of course we'll re-grout the tub and change out the shower head before you move in!) expire the minute they get their commission. When we emailed her to say a few things we'd talked about hadn't been taken care of, the real estate agent politely but firmly told us to take it up with the property management company.
3) If quiet is important to you, tell your landlord up front.
It took me a few apartments to realize that landlords are not simply yes-or-no machines. They are humans, and occasionally they act like it. If you want a quiet apartment, tell the landlord. Watch their reaction. Are they relieved to hear this? Do they suddenly look shifty eyed? Are they totally unmoved? Sometimes they will answer in code, something like, "This is a city. There's going to be some noise." Or, "This is a really young building." Red. Flags. Ask about the tenant upstairs. Kids? Single? Young? Pets? Speaking of pets! Does the building ban them? Does it have a size limit? Ask the landlord if they enforce the floor covering rule (assuming your building has a rule requiring 80 percent of the floor to be covered, which it should). Be a detective and ask good questions, because I've yet to see a lease that lets you opt out if your upstairs neighbor has hardwood floors and two peg legs. If you make your preferences clear up front, and the landlord responds by encouraging you to apply, then you've established expectations for the landlord that you can them harangue them about once you move in.
4) Be a decent person and don't wear loud shoes inside.
After my aunt got new carpet installed, she declared that no one—not even her adult siblings—would be allowed to wear shoes on that carpet. Tyranny, yes, but it kept her carpet looking nice for years. Now that I have my own place, I wear either socks or house slippers when I'm inside. It's a cleaner way to live, and it's also more considerate to the people who live below me. "But I live with platonic roommates, and our floors are kind of dirty!" OK! Wear flats. Or two pairs of socks.
Unless you are a sex worker who runs an in-call out of your apartment, there is just no reason to walk around your abode wearing heels/boots/tap shoes. Those shoes are designed to be loud. Be a considerate human being, and make them the last thing you put on before you walk out the door.
5) Don't take up your loud neighbor's offer to swing by their party.
Supposedly the best way to keep a neighbor from complaining about your party is to invite them to the party. I didn't know people actually did this until about six months ago, when I received an invite from a neighbor who I thought was being too loud. She left a note informing me she had a birthday coming up, was having lots of people over, and I was welcome to join them. DON'T DO IT. The next time you complain about them, they just might tell your landlord that you weren't complaining when they had you over for beer pong a few days prior. Be polite, but keep your distance. The loud neighbor would rather co-opt you than accommodate you.
6) React strategically to noisy neighbors.
There are a number of ways to react to a noisy neighbor. Some are good, some are less good, and some are downright awful. For the first offense—and it really should be an offense, like partying late or cramming their apartment full of people on a weeknight—you should either talk to the neighbor yourself (if you live in a building that's small enough where you won't be able to avoid them), or go straight to the landlord (say, if your building has a hundred units). You will essentially be starting your relationship with this person on the icy setting, but so what? You didn't move into this building to make friends, you moved here to sleep, eat, bathe, and recreate with people you already know.
If the noise doesn't stop, or the neighbor explicitly disagrees that they're causing a problem, deal strictly with the landlord going forward. You are now battling over where your neighbors' rights end and yours begin, and you need a mediator for that. Send emails when the problem is happening (so there's both a paper trail and a time stamp), and refer back to the lease. Insist that the landlord enforce the 80 percent rule, quiet hours, etc. Ask for updates. If you can get your landlord or property manager on the phone (where people tend to be more candid), ask them to be frank with you about what can be done. Sometimes the issue is the building, and not the neighbors, in which case the landlord will say something like, "some noise is to be expected in a building this age."
Lastly, don't ever call the cops on your neighbors simply because they're loud. Yes, lots of cities have laws prohibiting noise after certain hours, but that's not what police are for. Police are trained to respond to emergencies with force, which means sicking them on obnoxious people is not only an obvious waste of law enforcement resources, it basically escalates your negotiation into a war. I mean, do you want them calling the cops on you?
7) Buy earplugs.
Sometimes they're all you need. The wax ones work better than the foam ones.
Moving mid-lease is difficult, but possible. Your by-now-harried landlord will gladly explain it to you.