Dealing with Noisy Tenants: California Laws

Noise is one of the most common complaints a landlord has to deal with from tenants.

Every renter deserves peace and quiet. The “Right to Quiet Enjoyment” which is the right to the undisturbed use and enjoyment of the property they are renting is implicit in every rental contract in California and all fifty states – whether it is in writing or not.

But what people interpret as “Quiet” can vary widely leading to serious conflicts that can throw the entire rental/lease agreement into jeopardy, and can result in landlords unknowingly breaking the lease agreement and being sued for damages and legal costs if noise complaints are not properly addressed. 

If the Right to Quiet Enjoyment is not honored it’s a breach of habitability.  That’s what people pay rent for to be able to live, work and sleep without interruption from unreasonable disturbances. It’s the landlord’s job to make sure all tenants receive this right which is part of the rental agreement.

The stakes are high for everyone involved. If you take people’s sleep you take their health and their livelihood – the two most valuable things a person has.  A person obviously can’t pay rent if they aren’t left alone to sleep and earn a living. Loud noise complaints are nothing to take lightly because unwanted and unnecessary noise can get on people’s nerves very quickly.

Unhappy tenants and their conflicts make for unhappy landlords!

Because excessive or “Offensive noise” is a breach of the main principle of habitability, if not addressed properly it can result in worse case scenarios in “Constructive eviction.” This is a landlord’s nightmare where the tenant leaves the property without notice to flee the noise – because it has rendered the rental uninhabitable if they can’t sleep or work there and so be able to earn a living.

If provable that the tenant reported the noise complaint to the landlord and the landlord allowed a known nuisance to continue, the courts may uphold the tenant’s right to leave without rent, or exit a lease early because the Right to Quiet Enjoyment was not delivered. This is why dealing with complaints quickly and effectively is so crucial to prevent the conflict from escalating.

Noise complaints are particularly difficult to deal with because they don’t leave a trace like other types of physical trespass. Unless measured with a decibel meter – which are inexpensive but most people don’t have – how loud a noise complaint actually is tends to be subjective that can feel very different to someone on the receiving end of the sound rather than the person making it.

Noise levels can be difficult to monitor and control if the landlord does not live on the property and so must rely upon second hand information.  If the noise complaint is not effectively dealt with it can lower the standards of the entire rental property and leave a landlord open to complaints from neighbors off the property.

If a landlord fails to stop excessive and unreasonable noise tenants can file a small claims lawsuit against the landlord for tolerating a nuisance. This is a problem that can multiply and become very expensive and difficult to solve very quickly!

What is Excessive or Offensive Noise?

Almost every poll of the top rock guitarists unanimously rates Jimmy Hendricks as number one, with the number two spot usually being a neck and neck competition between Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin. 

Jimmy Page is widely recognized as “The Godfather” of heavy metal highly amplified music.

So, guess who moved in next door to Jimmy Page?  The lead guitarist of Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi.  And they are at each other’s throat in court because the Godfather of Heavy Metal complains Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi plays his music too loud to annoy him!

One man’s music is another man’s noise!

Of course, it would be very hard for anyone to dismiss Jimmy Page’s noise complaint because the Godfather of heavy metal was “Sound sensitive.”  If his neighbor’s music wasn’t in Jimmy Page’s personal space when he didn’t want to hear it there would be no issue!

But we live in an age with amplified music where the turn of the volume control a fraction of an inch can mean the difference between peace or a living hell for those within earshot of the sound – even to heavy metal rockers who formerly played together before excessive unwanted noise caused their friendship to split and end up fighting in court!

Bottom line, if someone is complaining about someone else’s music or television being too loud, there usually would be no complaint if the person making the noise kept it to themselves. The fact that others are aware of it and its annoying them enough to complain is prima facia proof the person making the sound is causing a problem by not keeping it to themselves

However, the fact is everyone makes noise.  When does normal daily living noise become excessive or “Offensive noise” – which one California County has defined as: “Any noise which is loud, boisterous, irritating, penetrating, or unusual, or that is unreasonably distracting in any other manner such that it is likely to disturb people of ordinary sensitivities in the vicinity of such noise.”

California Laws

In California each community has the right to set their own sound ordinances. Decibel level is usually one objective definition with different decibel levels defined as allowable during different times of day.

In San Francisco for example, loud noise is prohibited inside all residential properties between 10:00 AM and 7:00 AM.  Anything above 45 decibels of sound at the property line during these hours will be considered excessive and in violation of the ordinance. A whisper falls around 40 decibels (heard from 5 ft. away) and the sound of normal conversation is about 60 decibels (heard from 3 ft. away).

Many communities have separate decibel levels for daytime, often between 7:00 AM on weekdays and 8:00 AM on weekends until 10:00PM.  For example, noise will be considered “Offensive” if it’s discernible 50 feet from the property line of where it’s broadcast from or louder than 75 decibels at the property line. A telephone ring is about 80 decibels. 

Decibel meters are available online in the $20 range which can be an invaluable tool for objectively settling noise complaint disputes. Check your local ordinances for the regulations that apply in your particular jurisdiction.  Keep in mind reading these that most noise ordinances define excessive noise between property boundaries.  Multi-family living in an apartment on the same property may fall under different apartment noise complaint laws.

Noise Clause in Your Rental or Lease Agreement

The best first line of defense against noise problems is properly screening potential tenants by telling them you are going to contact former landlords and ask the tenant if when you do so, “Has that landlord ever spoken to you about noise levels?” 

You can often get the most honest answer asking the question in this manner, by having it come out of the applicant’s own mouth for an honest response. If the answer is yes, they will want to get their version in before you make that call – which can be very revealing.

It is essential to have a noise clause in your rental or lease agreement that clearly states all tenants on the property have the Right to Quiet Enjoyment which means they can work and sleep without outside disturbance. This is what people pay rent for and expect, and must be respected by all tenants.

The tenant is responsible for honoring the property’s Quiet Hours which are from 7:00 AM on Weekdays and 8:00 AM on Weekends until 10:00 PM at night. 

The tenant is also responsible for complying with local noise ordinances such as prohibitions against “Offensive or excessive noise” which may occur during daytime hours.  The noise clause is not limited to night time hours as the Right to Quiet Enjoyment exists during both daytime and night time hours – only differing in degree as to what is excessive.

Most communities ban certain universally accepted disturbing noises like honking car horns unless there is danger, or the repeated revving of a motorcycle engine.

Responsibility for complying with the noise clause applies both to the tenant and their guests.

If a tenant is found to be in violation of this clause on three separate documented occasions, the noisy tenant is in breach of the rental or lease agreement and may be evicted for cause, and may be liable for a penalty of (Insert a dollar amount) or both.

These actions are at the sole discretion of the landlord.

Have the tenant initial the noise clause along with their signature on the rental or lease agreement to make clear you are serious and you fully intend to enforce Quiet Hours for the benefit of everyone involved.

How to Respond to a Noise Complaint from Tenants

Every property manager has to deal with noise complaints and they should be responded to immediately.

However, these complaints can often be difficult to resolve for a number of reasons, including modifying the behavior of a person making the noise to be aware of their impact on others. Many disturbances occur in the middle of the night that are hard to clearly identify the source of, and unless the landlord catches the sound being made first hand, attempts to reconcile conflicting parties can be difficult.

There can be a vast difference in the perceptions of people making the noise – due to it being the exercise of their own free will wanting to listen to amplified music or yelling at sports events – versus people who are having that loud noise forced upon them against their will whether they want it or not.

Also, sometimes complaining parties can have unrealistic expectations about the realities of living in multi-family dwellings like apartment houses. The landlord must take an even handed approach here to satisfy the contractual agreement with all parties as well as apartment noise complaint laws.

So how does a landlord investigate when receiving a noise complaint to see if it is valid or not? 

Get the Details and Listen

The first step is demonstrating a sincere concern for the tenant expressing the complaint.

Try to determine if these are truly unusual, excessive or unnecessary noise or part of normal living. That boundary is often a grey zone which is why getting the details helps the landlord prepare to talk to the offending tenant.  

The more specific any type of complaint or criticism is the greater the chances it will be heard and acted upon for a positive outcome. When did the sound occur?  What was the time?  How long did it last?  Did they speak to the noisy tenant about it at the time?

The most common loud noise complaints that conflict with neighbor’s peace and quiet are:

  • Loud television or music
  • Barking dogs
  • Noise from parties
  • Unnecessary yelling and shouting
  • Upstairs footsteps
  • Children yelling, playing or crying
  • Shouting at sports events
  • Loud arguments
  • Cell phone shouting
  • Loud visitors to the tenants
  • Noise from neighbors who are not tenants

In many or most of these instances, it is not unusual for the person making the noise to be completely unaware of what impact their actions are having on others. One reason is it is their choice for these actions to occur and so they feel in control, compared to the person on the receiving end having it forced upon them as an excessive and continuous noise disturbance by others. They have no idea how long it will last, and so it feels like a completely out of control situation to them they feel powerless to stop.

Investing in advance in an inexpensive decibel meter available on the internet for under $20 that can be lent to the complaining tenant to help them objectively quantify and document their noise complaints can be an invaluable tool in resolving these disputes.

Instruct the tenant how to use the decibel meter and if possible, video the meter’s reading with a smart phone when the noise is occurring to show the meter reading at the same time. This makes everything perfectly clear and can save a lot of headaches establishing the validity of a claim that without this decibel level recording would have to be taken at the tenant’s word who is complaining. 

However, one phenomenon in the era of amplified music with subwoofer mega bass speakers is that the bass projects so much further than the treble that what sounds good to the person up close can feel really bad to someone who is only being pounded by the bass further away and can’t tune it out. These deep bass vibrations that are so intrusive that they can shake a person’s bones may not show up as high with a decibel meter reading or video recording as other types of sound – but can be just as irritating.

Listening carefully and finding out what the source of the noise is when receiving a tenant noise complaint helps to identify and pinpoint the problem and see if it’s an issue that can ideally be dealt with that’s a compromise for everyone involved and everyone can live with.

How to Resolve Noise Complaints Between Tenants

Getting the specifics and details of the complaint and showing authentic empathy to the tenant making the complaint is the first step in resolving the problem.  Continuous or excessive noise can have a negative impact on a person’s health and well-being. The second step is going to talk to the tenant that is the subject of the complaint and letting them know that you have received a complaint about their noise levels. 

Ask if they are aware of what the problem may be?  Allowing them to respond and make a statement about what the problem may be can help achieve their “buy-in” resolving the problem if it comes out of their mouth first.

If they are not aware – or are unapologetic – then kindly inform them what the details of the complaint that you have received are.  Listen to their response.  Disputes always have the best chance of being resolved when everyone feels they are being listened to fairly.

Remind them of the noise clause they initialed in the rental or lease agreement promising everyone’s Right to Quiet Enjoyment would be respected – including theirs.  If it is their first offense, this warning may be enough to solve the problem.   

It may also be helpful to ask some of the other renters near them if they have been impacted by the tenant’s noise.  If you receive a confirmation of the original complaint upon asking this of others without identifying who made the previous complaint, that’s a red flag you want to pay attention to.

After researching the complaint and talking to the person accused of making the noise, let the tenant know what steps you have taken to resolve the problem, and ask them to be sure to let you know if the problem continues.  This helps the tenant feel vindicated their complaint has been taken seriously and acted upon.

If you receive a second complaint that seems legitimate based upon the research you have already done and your sense of whether the noisy tenant is taking responsibility for their actions or creating conflict, speak to them a second time and be very firm they are in breach of the rental or lease agreement which is grounds for a fine, eviction or both. 

Do they clearly understand their legal obligations they signed onto that they must fulfill to continue to be permitted to stay on the property without disturbing the neighbors? That creating a nuisance with noise is “just cause” grounds for eviction in rent-controlled jurisdictions?

Listen closely to their responses.  Does it sound like they are taking responsibility for their actions and so you have some basis to believe they will moderate their behavior, or do you feel they are making excuses or blame shifting onto the person making the complaint – the usual excuse saying that person is “sound sensitive.” 

If their excessive noise wasn’t in the other person’s space there probably would be no issue. If there is another complaint, they probably aren’t keeping it to themselves. It’s their responsibility to control their noise so it’s not annoying others forcing it upon other tenants instead of respecting their choice.

Being aware of what impact our actions have on others and taking responsibility for those actions are two of the most defining elements of maturity.  Blame shifting their failure to honor the noise clause of the rental agreement onto others is unacceptable.

“But we were cheering the home team!” It’s one thing to be doing that in a stadium or sports bar where everyone is there with that same intent.  But it’s completely different to make people have to listen to loud yelling fifty times with each basket in a two and a half hour basketball game. Then it can sound like aggression to others who aren’t fans because nobody likes being yelled at.  There’s no exceptions in noise ordinances or the noise clause they initialed regarding home team cheering!

You will always have the greatest chance of being heard if you state your request in terms of respect – in this instance respecting other people’s privacy which is basic common decency.  Most people don’t think of themselves as being disrespectful, but need to have it pointed out to them when their actions feel to others as lacking in respect – which is willingness to show consideration for others.

The most important way you show respect for someone is, to as great a degree as possible, respecting other people’s choice.  At the heart of noise complaints is one person creating conflict forcing their noise on someone else that is unwanted and annoying – instead of respecting other people’s choice of peace and quiet.

Noisy Neighbors

If the source of the tenant’s complaint is from neighbors on adjoining properties that are outside the landlord’s control it may be best to first ask the tenant to speak directly to the person making the noise.  If this doesn’t get any response, or if the offending person is a tenant of another landlord, it may then be best to contact the fellow landlord directly.

Involving the Police with Noise Complaints

No matter how diplomatic and thoughtful your initial approaches to the person making the noise may be, if nothing changes, this may be the time to contact law enforcement – particularly if the sound is occurring past a certain hour impacting people’s sleep.

Check your local noise ordinance and if the noisy tenant fails to comply, call the police and they will take care of the problem for you.  Make every attempt to contact the police when the sound is occurring – sometimes simply holding the telephone in the direction of the sound is enough – so there is a time stamp on when the complaint was made and recorded with the police.

If you have already attempted to solve the problem yourself, having the police show up to demonstrate your complaint is serious and can be used in a court of law to support your case is very strong evidence when eviction for cause is the next step.

Barking Dogs

One of the most common noise complaints from tenants are barking dogs.  Most noise ordinances define a specific length of time a dog can bark before it’s considered a nuisance.

In the City of San Francisco, California a barking dog is defined as “a dog that barks, bays, cries, howls or makes any other noise continuously and incessantly for a period of 10 minutes to the disturbance of any other person.”  Other ordinances define the length of time as 30 mins intermittently.  It’s the responsibility of the dog owner to take care of their dog so as not to create a disturbance for others.

One problem resolving barking dog problems are the sound of their dog doesn’t usually affect the dog owner as much as neighbors because they feel in control and may be blissfully unaware of the impact on others.  To neighbors, it can feel like a totally out of control situation because the owner isn’t taking care of their dog’s barking intruding into their space and negatively impacting their peace and quiet.  No one wants their sleep or ability to concentrate and work to earn a living controlled by an animal!

Another problem is many dogs are left unattended, such as when the owner goes to work and is not aware of their dog’s barking that is annoying to people forced to listen to the barking they are powerless stop.

The first step in resolving barking dog complaints is to try to get a written or video recording with a smart phone of the times of day and duration of barking.  The more specifically the problem can be documented the greater the chances of the problem being mutually perceived and solved.

After asking the tenant complaining about the barking dog to provide written documentation or video to quantify the barking, approach the dog owner with the specifics. 

First ask the tenant if they are aware if their dog’s barking is causing problems for neighbors. Then explain noise complaints have been made about their dog’s barking. Tell them the noise complaint specifies these specific instances, were they aware this is a problem for others?

You will always achieve the greatest buy-in from the dog owner solving the problem if you can get them to agree there may have been times their dog was a problem barking and they will make an effort to keep that from happening going forward.

Give them a warning. Remind them of the noise clause they initialed which is part of their rental or lease agreement that must be honored to continue to stay on the property. Tell them you will be meeting with them again in a couple weeks to see if the problem has been addressed or if it has continued to be a problem because specific action is required on their part to control their dog’s barking.

If this warning doesn’t get results, look up the local animal control ordinances because most municipalities have special procedures for handling barking dog complaints. Ask animal control authorities to enforce local noise disturbance laws.  This may take persistence because this is a very common problem.  

Landlord’s Duty to Ensure all Tenant’s Right to Quiet Enjoyment is Honored

Never forget that a landlord has a duty and contractual obligation having received payment of rent to ensure that tenants’ Right to Quite Enjoyment is honored for the mutual benefit of each and every tenant on the property.

Excessive and continuous noise can seriously impact a person’s health and well-being. One noisy tenant can lower the standards of others to act the same if the problem is not addressed.

These issues may impact one tenant who is more vocal about it first, but over time sound disturbances being low grade tension can be tolerated up until the annoyance reaches a tipping point that can suddenly feel overwhelming to the person its being forced upon. Once that tipping point of frustration is met, it can become very difficult to solve the problem with compromises that earlier may have worked.

They just want to be left alone!

Everyone has their limits, and once exceeded, the longer the problem of noisy tenants has gone on and gotten on people’s nerves the harder it is to resolve. This is a natural human reaction, which is why addressing complaints quickly so noisy tenants don’t get on other’s nerves is key to resolving them.

At Fast Eviction Service, help on any of the issues discussed in this article is simply a click or phone call away. Email intake@fastevict.com or call our office at (800) 686-8686 to discuss your questions for a free evaluation of your case.

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