News, Culture & Society

My noisy upstairs neighbours are driving me mad: What can I do?

My partner and I live in a converted flat and we can hear everything my neighbours do upstairs.

There are no carpets so when they’re walking it sounds like an elephant is above us. When they hoover it sounds like someone is sawing through the ceiling and when they do their workouts, the windows shake. 

When they are speaking loudly or watching TV, we can pretty much hear every word – and they love watching war films late at night. They also have a dog, which often barks.

This reader says that his upstairs neighbours ‘sound like an elephant’ when walking around

Both us and the flat above own a share of the freehold and I have spoken to them about it previously, but they just say it isn’t an issue for them. Can anything be done to solve my problem?

Is there any point trying to soundproof the ceiling, or is it more effective to do so from above – and how expensive will it be? Would it increase the value of my flat?

Are there any legal avenues I can explore, and as we share the freehold would it be within my rights to ask them to share some of the costs? Via email

Ed Magnus of This is Money replies: Of all the neighbourly complaints, noise disputes are perhaps the most common.

Whether you live in a converted flat, a purpose-built apartment or a terraced house, neighbour noise can come from multiple directions.

Particularly if you live in a busy town or city, a certain level of noise is unavoidable: we have all been woken by pigeons roosting, binmen shouting or car alarms sounding. 

But there is something much more invasive and unsettling about the noise of your neighbours coming through the walls, ceilings or floorboards.

The action you can take depends on the reason for the noise. 

It’s not always the neighbour’s fault – particularly when it comes to flats that have been converted from older houses.

Only in July 2003 did soundproofing regulations for residential homes come into force.

Are your neighbours breaking the building rules with their noise? You can look at their lease to check whether they are not allowed animals, for example

Are your neighbours breaking the building rules with their noise? You can look at their lease to check whether they are not allowed animals, for example

These building regulations apply to both new-builds and flat conversions, as well as semi-detached and terraced housing. 

They place certain requirements on the separating walls, floors and ceilings between different properties.

If you feel your home contravenes these rules, you could take legal action against the developer or builder and potentially force them to pay for improvements.

This would require you taking a sound test to prove that the noise was at an unacceptable level.  

But unfortunately, the law does not apply retrospectively – so if your flat was converted before 2003, there is no legal action that can be taken. 

If the noise problem can be proved to be anti-social behaviour, you are within your rights to complain to the local council on the basis of it being a statutory nuisance.

Noise, including loud music and barking dogs are examples that could justify the council investigating further, although the advice is to try and solve the problem by talking to your neighbour before contacting the council.

If the council decides your neighbour is causing a statutory noise nuisance, they must issue a notice telling your neighbour what they should do to stop or restrict the noise, and they can be prosecuted or fined if they ignore it.

However, if the noise is occurring from normal day-to-day living rather than anti-social activities, then complaining to the council will almost certainly be unsuccessful.

To help in answering our reader’s dilemma, we spoke to Paula Higgins, chief executive of the HomeOwners Alliance; Stuart Miles, solicitor at Hodge Jones & Allen Solicitors; Mike Hansom, solicitor and partner for property disputes at BLB Solicitors; Phil Lyons, senior technical advisor at the Soundproofing Store; and David Westgate, group chief executive at Andrews Property Group.

What should be your first course of action?

Paula Higgins replies: It sounds like a cliché, but it’s usually good to talk to your neighbours first.

When you approach them, it is a good idea to have three examples of when they were excessively noisy to hand, complete with dates.

Tell them how the noise affected you, but don’t be accusatory – being calm and reasonable typically gets better results than being confrontational.

Rather than saying, ‘you kept me awake’, tell them, ‘I could not sleep because of the noise that night.’

You should also specifically tell them how you would like the problem solved.

Are there any legal avenues to explore?

Stuart Miles replies: The lease of your neighbour should be carefully scrutinised to see if there are relevant clauses to assist here.

This can be obtained from HM Land Registry for a nominal sum.

Some leases contain clauses that may be relevant, such as not being allowed to have animals without permission; needing to have carpet and underlay; and not causing a nuisance or annoyance to other occupiers of the building.

The above clauses are just a few examples, and the wording varies from lease to lease.

Subject to the particular wording of the clauses, and whether or not the neighbour has a consent or licence confirming that they do not have to obey the relevant clauses, then legal action can be contemplated.

Even if there is no such clause in the neighbour’s lease, if the noise is at an unreasonable level and frequency, you can consider a claim for nuisance and breach of your right to quiet enjoyment.

Noise pollution: Being able to hear your neighbour's every move can be a major annoyance

Noise pollution: Being able to hear your neighbour’s every move can be a major annoyance  

How does a claim for nuisance work?

Mike Hansom replies: As well as giving you a right to take legal action against your neighbour, the local authority has an obligation to investigate, and where appropriate, to bring enforcement action to prevent any statutory nuisance.

However, a nuisance claim will not succeed if the neighbours are using their flat in an ‘ordinary and everyday’ way.

This means you are unlikely to be able to prevent them from hoovering, walking around or talking at low volume, simply because the structure of the building is such that you can hear their every move.

Whether the dog barking and home fitness amount to a nuisance will depend on their volume and frequency You will need evidence in the form of a diary, and audio recordings to prove these activities are outside the ‘ordinary and everyday’.

Am I likely to succeed in a legal claim?

Mike Hansom replies: There are multiple legal relationships at play here, because each of you is a leaseholder, and collectively you are also the landlord.

Where there is a management company, company law applies to regulate the obligations of directors and members.

Alternatively, if the freehold is owned in the individual names of the leaseholders, trust law must be considered.

This means it is common for each individual leaseholder to have different obligations and roles to play at the same time.

Whilst this legal mixing bowl provides a variety of potential angles and ways to pursue a claim, it also makes for a complex legal framework which is often very difficult to navigate.

Noisy neighbours are unfortunately something that many people have to contend with

Noisy neighbours are unfortunately something that many people have to contend with

There is no guarantee you will succeed, and even if you do, the judge may not award you costs.

For this reason, you should consider mediation as an alternative to court proceedings which could save time and expense.

You should also check whether you hold a legal expenses insurance policy that might cover the costs.

It is recommended that you check that as soon as possible, as there will likely be a time limit to report a potential claim to the insurer.

Might soundproofing completely solve the problem? 

Phil Lyons replies: Silence is incredibly difficult to achieve when you are physically sharing a structure with other people. 

Soundproofing in domestic environments is more about achieving a good reduction in volume and clarity, as opposed to blocking the sound out completely. 

Is it possible to reduce the vibrations from above?

Phil Lyons replies: Footfall impact or moving furniture on the floor above creates a vibration.

Vibration travels easily through solid materials and therefore will travel through the floorboards, into the timber joists and straight down into your ceiling.

The only way to stop the vibration from travelling into your ceiling is by either adding a cushioning or resilient layer to the floor above to reduce the impact at the source, or building a new suspended ceiling which is ‘de-coupled’ or isolated from the structure so that the vibration cannot transfer into it.

Generally, it is more effective to stop it at the source on the floor if possible.

What about the sound of voices or the dog barking? 

Phil Lyons replies: Dog’s barking, people’s voices, TV and music is what we refer to as airborne noise.

Airborne noise is only blocked by mass.

Mass comes from heavy, dense materials and therefore you need to add materials to the ceiling or floor that are very heavy and dense.

If it’s a timber joist construction in which there is an empty cavity between the ceiling and floor above, it means any sound from above or below echoes, resonates and amplifies – this is called the drum effect.

To stop sound from resonating inside, you need to add acoustic insulation into that cavity space which will absorb the sound and stop it from resonating.

Is it more effective to soundproof from below or above?

Phil Lyons replies: There are many different types of soundproofing which are designed for differing construction types and levels of noise.

Soundproofing the floor tends to be the quickest, easiest and most cost-effective solution as this generally just requires adding a soundproof matting to the floor to get an improvement in sound reduction.

Soundproofing the ceiling is a much bigger job involving removing the existing ceiling and re-building it much better.

But in a perfect world you will get the best results from doing a combination of both.

What are the costs?

Phil Lyons replies: The costs will depend on the size of the floor or ceiling area, the materials you use and who you choose to install it – as well as whether your neighbour agrees to share the cost.

A local tradesman may charge around £300 per day for a two-man team, according to the online soundproofing supplier, the Soundproofing Store – and a professional sound proofing installer may charge around £500 each day.

In terms of material cost, to soundproof a timber floor to significantly reduce airborne and impact noise from above it will cost around £62 + VAT per square metre.

For those looking to install soundproofing to a timber floor sufficient to reduce both impact and airborne sounds, you should expect to pay roughly £38 + VAT per m2. 

Who can carry out the job?

Phil Lyons replies: In terms of installation, most systems are straightforward enough for a good, competent DIY-er to do themselves.

A local builder or tradesman who isn’t trained in soundproofing shouldn’t be used for soundproofing advice or specifications, but can definitely be used to install the systems that a soundproofing company has recommended.

A specialist soundproofing installer would be the best option in terms of bringing more knowledge and experience, but will generally cost a little more.

Will soundproofing increase the value of my home?

David Westgate replies: Soundproofing your flat won’t necessarily increase its value but it could help if you ever decide to sell, as an ongoing dispute with your neighbour could affect the saleability of the property.

If you have already had an informal chat with your neighbour and haven’t been able to resolve the issue, then a sensible course of action might be to find a solution yourself, such as soundproofing the ceiling to reduce noise levels.

Although it might cost you money now, it will improve your living conditions immediately and most likely reduce your stress levels, and in the long run it could save you money if you did ever decide to sell.

When you put a property on the market you are required to fill in a property information form. This provides the buyer with information about your home, including the physical state, and enables them make an informed choice about the property.

The form also asks about any disputes with neighbours or issues that might lead to a dispute in the future.

If you chose to withhold information about the dispute with your noisy neighbour, and didn’t answer the questions in the form accurately and honestly, the buyer could take legal action if they have a similar issue with the neighbour when they move in.

The buyer could potentially claim for the cost of resolving the problem or even compensation for any loss of value in the property, and that could end up costing you more than having the soundproofing work carried out now.

Best mortgages

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk