Noise complaints? Tips for keeping the peace without having to move

Ask the Expert Buying Fall House Hunt Renting Arlington Somerville
. Ally Rzesa/Globe staff

When new neighbors were about to move into the ground floor of Jim Wendelken’s East Arlington duplex, he was honest with his landlord about his rambunctious 11-year-old’s activity levels.

“I said: ‘My son is louder than your average kid. There’s only so much we can do about it.’ I was really upfront about it, even though I could have put our lease at stake. I knew we needed a good match,’’ Wendelken said.

Ostensibly with this tidbit in mind, Wendelken’s landlord leased the apartment to a family with a newborn. The perfect duo, in theory — two families with noisy children who would be understanding. Perhaps, in fact, the activity from both homes would cancel themselves out.

Things were polite — at first. The family with the newborn would text the Wendelkens when they needed quiet time for the baby, usually a couple of hours per day. No problem.

Then the pandemic happened, and everyone was home, all the time.

“Then they needed six hours of quiet time,’’ Wendelken recalled — not feasible for the family, which also includes a young daughter. Wendelken invested in padded carpets. He and his wife also asked their neighbors to text when they planned to leave the home or expected to return, so they could time their noise levels accordingly.

It didn’t help. Tensions escalated. At one point during the pandemic, Wendelken’s son knocked over a chair.

“They rage texted us. They went off on us,’’ Wendelken recalled.

The last straw was his son’s trumpet, which he played on the back porch so as not to disturb anyone. Ultimately, the neighbors complained to the landlord that the noise had forced their newborn into day care. The landlord discussed the situation with the Wendelkens, and they opted to relocate.

Now they’re in a spacious Greek Revival duplex in Arlington Center with a shared wall (but not a shared floor or ceiling). It’s $500 more per month, but the peace of mind is priceless.

“It’s stressful to have to tell your kids they have to be quiet in their own home,’’ Wendelken said.

‘They rage texted us.’ — Jim Wendelken

Then there’s the unfortunate case of former Somerville resident Liza Littenberg-Tobias, whose downstairs neighbors requested that they keep their toddler out of the kitchen in the morning because it was over their baby’s nursery.

“They also asked us not to go into the living room. They would text us all the time,’’ Littenberg-Tobias said.

The aggrieved downstairs family eventually moved, selling to friends of friends who were aware that Littenberg-Tobias had children. This situation was even worse, she said.

“We lived through COVID with them. They would text us at 12:30 to say: ‘We have a conference call at 1. Could you be quiet for the next hour and a half?’’’ she said. Also forbidden: playing hide-and-seek in the house or running the air-conditioning because “it vibrated too much,’’ she said.

The Littenbergs moved in June.

“Our kids are literally asking us: ‘Can we run and jump?’ Now we don’t have to monitor their childhood,’’ she said.

Of course, these are extreme cases. Often, noise complaints can and should be settled diplomatically, especially if you can’t easily flee. Myka Meier, author of “Modern Etiquette Made Easy,’’ suggested broaching the subject in person (no anonymous notes or passive-aggressive texts) by touching on a relatable problem.

For example, “ ‘Sue, as you may know, we recently had a baby, and perhaps it’s just the way these walls were built, but the noise coming from your garage has made it very difficult to sleep. I wanted to bring it up in hopes that during sleeping hours we could find a balance that works on both sides.’ This way, you’re bringing up the issue, saying how it’s negatively affecting you or your family, and then trying to show you want to work together to find a solution,’’ Meier advised. They may not even know they’re bothering you.

If that doesn’t work, Meier recommended writing an e-mail, which has many benefits: You can craft it painstakingly, with time to choose phrases at your leisure. Also, a written message sometimes sinks in better (and lingers longer) than a conversation. But beware: “Never write an e-mail or letter when you’re angry. Write it and then sleep on it, reread it (or have someone else tone-check it for you), and then send it, so that you’re not sending something you will regret later,’’ she said.

This worked for Westford’s Barbara Evangelista when a neighborhood teenager began driving a snowmobile around his yard. “It’s loud and produces smelly exhaust,’’ Evangelista said.

She was poised to let it go given the pandemic — “I feel for the kids, having nothing to do, and I admire them for not being on the computer 24/7,’’ Evangelista said — until an aggravated neighbor sent the family an e-mail and copied her. Worried that the situation was going to escalate, Evangelista did some quick googling of state snowmobile regulations.

You can’t ride them in residential neighborhoods unless you have the permission of all neighbors within 150 feet, she said.

Thus armed, she replied with her newfound info, the parents talked to their snowmobile-loving teen, and the noise stopped.

“With noise, you have to see if someone’s reasonable,’’ she said.

That said: Sometimes diplomacy won’t cut it and you need to take formal action. In Massachusetts, a noise nuisance is defined as “a substantial and unreasonable interference with the use and enjoyment of someone else’s property,’’ said Peter Calabrese, a Boston-based lawyer who handles real estate matters.

Of course, this is subjective. Could nightly tuba practice impede enjoyment? What about the screeching wail of a sleepless tot? It all depends on a person’s tolerance.

‘Our kids are literally asking us: “Can we run and jump?” Now we don’t have to monitor their childhood.’ — Liza Littenberg-Tobias

As such, attorneys working with clients in condominiums “encourage them to review their condominium rules and bylaws to see if there are parameters about what noise will and will not be tolerated — violations of such rules can be presented to the condominium association for redress,’’ Calabrese said. (Of course, this is difficult if it’s a small condo building and both parties loathe each other.)

As such, if things get bad enough, a nuisance claim can be filed against the unruly party, either in superior court (usually for damages of more than $50,000, perhaps unrealistic in the case of a rambunctious tween) or district court for smaller suits. Sometimes, Calabrese said, simple mediation — with a strongly worded letter sent to the offending party — can save clients time in court. Of course, this could make for awkward neighborhood potlucks. Like the stories above, many people opt simply to move.

If you’re in a single-family home ungoverned by condo bylaws or associations, things are more straightforward.

“If you live in a single-family house, usually you’re at the mercy of available legal remedies, like town noise ordinances,’’ said Nick Rosenberg, a lawyer who handles residential real estate disputes. In Boston, for example, noise louder than 50 decibels is forbidden — somewhere between the hum of a refrigerator and normal conversation, according to the EPA — from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. You could always summon the police if you’re being kept awake by someone’s thumping backyard dance party.

Then again, it’s difficult to measure the decibels of a baby’s cry or a teen’s trumpet. Instead, it’s better to avoid the issue completely: by researching the neighborhood and getting a sense of the activity level before moving in; by checking Massachusetts Land Records to see how often a certain property has turned over (and then, perhaps, asking the neighbors why); and by befriending neighbors early on and asking them to address any complaints to you directly, if they should occur.

And if you do throw a loud party or subject the street to a high-decibel toddler meltdown at 2 a.m.?

“A nice note with a gift such as a bottle of wine or a pie is also never a bad thing to keep neighborly,’’ Meier said.

And, best of all, know your limits.

“If you have loud kids, you simply can’t live above people. It’s as simple as that,’’ Wendelken said.

Kara Baskin can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskinSubscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @globehomes.