Renting and Noisy Neighbors

by : Mark Rustad

Noise can be a nuisance and worse of all it stalks us in our own homes, thanks to the neighbors. About 100 million Americans share walls with strangers, many in acoustical slums. In U.S. Census Bureau surveys, people consistently rate noise ahead of crime, traffic and other social ills as a primary reason they want to move.

Noise can be beyond frustrating. All this thumping, rock and roll and screaming that barges uninvited into our bedrooms is a known stressor. Noise also makes us ineffective and cranky, raises our blood pressure and robs us of decent sleep.

And now for the bad news: Much of what we've been doing to block the noise doesn't work. If you have tried carpet on the wall, blankets, corkboard or egg cartons, you have probably realized by now, they don't work. While these materials do line makeshift music studios, they are meant to absorb sound already in the room, therefore improving the quality. Exterior noise still gets in. It just bounces around for a bit less time.

If the noise is enough to bother you, it will still bother you after stapling egg cartons to your ceiling. Even some products advertised as cure-alls on the Internet are far from it. Worse, some construction contractors, unversed in the complex details of soundproofing, have been known to choose or install ineffective soundproofing products, leaving the client with a bill but no relief.

But don't give up hope for peace just yet. It is possible to engage in a little "acoustical self-defense, so long as you understand how sound travels, can identify the source of the problem and know to hunt for the right combination of products.

To start, you need to understand how sound works. Sound is a vibration: the quiver of a violin string under a bow; the rattle of vocal cords; the impact of a shoe against the floor. The vibration excites molecules -- in air, liquid or solid -- that in turn excite the molecules beside them, and so on, forming a radiating wave of pressure. This pressure wave, received as sound, continues until it naturally dissipates or until it is:

Ã?â‚?? Blocked. This requires mass -- very high-density materials -- to act as a barrier. Lead works; foam doesn't.

Ã?â‚?? Absorbed. Uses insulation materials to absorb vibrations that would otherwise bounce around -- and echo -- in an air cavity like a drum.

Ã?â‚?? Dampened. Uses chemically engineered paste or strips to transform the energy of sound into heat.

Ã?â‚?? Isolated. Uses nonconductive materials, in wall clips or pads, to isolate the transmission of vibrations between objects.

There are several additional tactics you can use immediately:

Use white noise: That is, a consistent, rhythmic hum might help mask light sound and divert your attention. You can find machines or CDs, or try fans or water fountains.

Isolate the problem. Bass, that low boom from your neighbor's stereo, takes a lot of energy to produce. These low-frequency sound waves are especially hard to combat since they travel far and wide, bending easily around objects. It's why foghorns use them, and why when thunder is distant you hear only its low rumble.
Try to block the sound's path by putting special "isolation pads" or "noise-vibration pads" under your bedposts. Ask your neighbor if you can put pads under his TV, treadmill or washing machine to better attack the problem at the source.

If the noise is really bad sometimes the landlord will get involved because he realizes he can't get top dollar with these noise issues.

Know your rights: Learn about sound ratings required for buildings in your area before talking to the landlord or building association. The information will better arm you for coverage of upgrades. If needed, a real-estate lawyer might help you recover costs or get out of a lease.

What you should not do is:

Ã?â‚?? Knock under the influence (of anger): Yes, it's hard to wait, but it will serve your needs better if you can work calmly and pragmatically with your neighbor. Plus, these things can escalate.

Ã?â‚?? Save police for a last resort: Even nice people turn not so nice after you call the cops. It might fix a big event, but it could further amplify day-to-day noise problems.

Ã?â‚?? Avoid another bad situation: If you must move, don't rush. Take time to visit potential apartments at different times of day to evaluate their noise levels. You can find additional tips for quiet-apartment hunting here.