It’s 3:30 in the morning and your upstairs neighbor can’t seem to get enough of the new Cher album. It’s not just the techno beat that’s getting to you, it’s the volume. It’s making your china collection rattle in its hutch and your teeth hum until you just can’t take it anymore. You’re a patient person, but after a week, it’s just too much. You have a problem neighbor and you aren’t alone.
"Almost every building has a problem resident," says Fred Rudd, president of Eichner Rudd Management in Manhattan. Whether it’s a family with unruly children, a neighbor who’s loath to empty their garbage or an individual with a penchant for loud parties, there’s an endless number of reasons for tension among co-op and condo residents. Thankfully, there’s almost as many ways to avoid or curb these problems before they get out of hand.
Keep it Down!
What’s the number one cause of resident tension? "Noise is probably the most common problem, whether it’s loud music, parties or an arguing couple," Rudd says. Most noise problems can be eliminated with the installation of proper insulation. But it’s not the physical solution that’s difficult. Determining the true severity of a problem is where the real trick lies.
"Everybody has different comfort and tolerance levels," says Martha McDonald-Goupit, managing director of Caran Properties, a property management firm in Manhattan. "What’s noisy to one person isn’t necessarily noisy to another."
Attorney Stuart Saft of Wolf, Haldenstein, Adler, Freeman & Herz, LLP in Manhattan and chairman of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums (CNYC), says that many times complaints result from change. A couple with grown children might have spent years living below another childless couple. Noise levels were minimal. But if a couple with young children moves in overhead, there will be noise. "The level of noise might increase, but still be significantly lower than what others might consider loud. If you’re living in a vertical city, you have to expect a little noise."
Most problems such as those can be solved with a simple phone call or letter to the resident in question. "We’ll send a letter to let them know a complaint’s been made. We’ll do it in a nice way, to remind them that they need to be considerate," McDonald-Goupit says.
Rudd concurs, "We’ll speak to the tenant and review the house rules." In short, they’ll do what they can to be understanding of a situation the first or second time it happens, in an effort to give all residents the benefit of the doubt.
It’s when noise and tempers get out of hand that the real problems can begin. If the problem is ongoing, a managing agent can step in to investigate. "The first thing to do is to report a dispute to the managing agent so we can intervene," Rudd says. "We can investigate to see if it’s a chronic problem." They will check with other neighbors to see if they have the same complaint or determine if there are multiple reports of the same problem from different neighbors.
Saft cites an incident where an acoustical meter was installed in the apartment of the individual who reported the problem. If the noise is the result of a huge, disruptive party or it goes on for hours, McDonald-Goupit suggests calling the police, so there will be a complaint on record.
Rudd says he often enlists the help of another tenant to document the situation, writing down each disruptive instance. Each of these solutions has one important factor in common: providing a paper trail. A written record can prove imperative if the matter should end up in court. The record not only supports the person suffering the problem, it also helps protect the board, showing that steps were taken to solve the problem. In recent years, incidents of tenants suing boards for inaction have increased.
Beyond noise and other nuisances, boards and managing agents need to be on the lookout for incidents involving violence or other physical risk toward residents. In instances when one resident might assault another, Rudd says its vital to not only call the police immediately and get a written report, it’s also important to contact the building’s attorney without delay. Early action can prevent serious problems down the road.
An unfortunate number of tenant disputes do wind up in court each year. Rudd knows of one building whose board has spent upwards of $100,000 in legal fees on just one case. Taking care of problems when they first arise is vital. "You can’t sweep things under the rug," McDonald-Goupit says. "It will guarantee a larger problem down the road. You have to assure people that you’re doing all you can to alleviate their problem."
Saft suggests mediation as one method of settling disputes between residents. "Basically, it’s voluntary counseling with a third party where we try to get each side to recognize the problem," Saft says. Successful mediation may be vital in preventing lawsuits later.
Boards can prevent serious problems by making sure they’re protected before problems get out of hand. "If we’re hired by a new building, one of the first things we do is review the proprietary lease," Rudd says. "If it hasn’t been reviewed in several years, we’ll have a lawyer look at it and update it." He says a board should be especially mindful of protection and liability issues, things that will protect individual board members and shareholders if problems should arise.
Other documentation that should be sent early includes a notice of objectionable conduct. If the resident in question is causing severe problems, problems that may harm the building and may be cause for eviction, it’s imperative that the tenant receive a notice of objectionable conduct. "It starts the process of terminating the proprietary lease," Saft says.
"It’s always better to do something rather than nothing. You can’t ignore a situation in a building where one resident is causing harm to another," Rudd says.
Stopping it Before it Starts
Stopping problems before they start is the best way to prevent strife in a building. To that end, it’s important to know who your tenants are before they even move into the building. Rudd gives the example of a building that has had trouble with pets in the past. If a board receives an application from an individual with three dogs, the members of the selection committee should think twice–maybe even three times–about taking that application any further. If you know what’s gone wrong in the past, it can be a significant key to ensuring it doesn’t happen again.
"It really does start with the basics," Rudd says. "We do good background checks on applicants." Background checks can go beyond simple references, going into territory such as an applicant’s past with litigation.
Once a new tenant is accepted, it’s imperative that he or she become familiar with the house rules. And the more detailed the house rules, the better, Rudd says. "The rules should be so clear that everyone knows what they’re not supposed to do."
And finally, Saft says, it helps to be lucky. "I have seen problems in some of the best run buildings in New York," he says. "If one person is unhappy with their lives, they can ruin it for everyone."
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
In the end, there are far fewer bad apples in the city than one would think. While every building might have a troublemaker or two, the vast majority of New York’s co-op and condo neighbors live in close harmony–it’s a sure sign that with a little preparation and understanding, we all really can get along.
Ms. Lent is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.