Dear PoPville – Noise Problems in a divided rowhouse

Photo by PoPville flickr user caroline.angelo

“Dear PoPville,

I live in a recently-renovated rowhouse (2006), which was divided into two units, first being the upper two floors (where I live) and the other being a English basement, which is leased to another tenant. My roommates and I have been having problems with sharing a floor/ceiling with our downstairs neighbors since moving-in. Despite our best efforts at maintaining peace with them, they hate our guts. Apparently, the floors are paper-thin and they can hear every word we say when we’re home. Their bedroom is directly below our living room. We’re not ridiculous with the noise – just watch TV, chat with friends, occasionally have people over for drinks and that’s about it. They’ve even complained to our landlord, who’s sent us an email to keep it down, even though I feel like we’re not being unreasonable with the noise levels.

I should also mention that we’ve made a good faith effort at controlling the noise. We have a no-shoes policy on the first floor, laid down pretty much wall-to-wall carpets and limit gatherings after 10 PM on every night of the week. It’s also worth mentioning that the landlord didn’t mention that there was a separate basement apartment until we were deep into the leasing process (aka, about to sign the lease and it was not visible on the outside during the tour) and there was no mentioning of noise issues between the units until the neighbor told me about it.

Is this issue common with renovated rowhouses? If not, is there anything the landlord can do, like install soundproofing insulation? I’m paying good money to live in this house and would like to enjoy living here instead of worrying about walking on eggshells with the neighbors. We haven’t even held our housewarming because we’re afraid of having the neighbors complain to the landlord again. Are we just supposed to not use the living room?”

59 Comment

  • In regards to the housewarming – Could you invite neighbors over to the party – so you can be sure they aren’t trying to sleep?

    I would respond to the landlord and other tenants in writing (perhaps) with photos all that you have done and suggest that the remaining problem lies in the physical structure.
    Your landlord likely didn’t install a floating ceiling which minimizes noise transfer between floors or didn’t put sufficient insulation when renovating.
    Best strategy would be to apologise to neighbors and get them on your side so they see the problem is not you.

  • Tell your neighbor if he/she loves peace a quiet so much to move to the suburbs! This is DC. LOUD NOISES!!!

    • Living in the city means a lot of things — we have to give up the silence of the exurbs, yes, AND we have a mutual responsibility to each other to try to make reasonable efforts not to interfere with everyone else’s quiet enjoyment of their abodes.

      In situations like this one, we run into some discussion about what constitutes “reasonable.”

      It does seem to me that the OP has more options than the basement dweller to avoid noise. If the basement dweller is too loud, the OP can go to another room or go upstairs. If the OP is too loud, the basement dweller doesn’t have all that many choices.

      There are some great recommendations posted above and below that go beyond “Suck it up” and are smart. Among other things, if the owner wants to realize the income of two units, the owner needs to take some responsibility to improve the sound situation. Getting together as tenants to focus on the landlord is a great idea.

      It’s probably worth the OP and the basement dweller both looking at the layouts of their apartments to see if there are alternatives, especially when it comes to bedtime. Do the living room and bedroom need to be on top of each other? Even if the footprint of the house would have the LR ideally be above the ideal location for the BR, would it make sense to move some of the rooms around? Is there space in OP’s apartment that ideally would be the dining room but could instead swap functions with the current living room, so that late-night TV viewing can go on somewhere other than right above the basement bedroom? Or could some other swap of room functions go on in the basement?

      And if there’s no other option, is it possible to consider moving post-Daily Show TV viewing up to the bedrooms?

  • Yeah,

    Rowhouses weren’t built then, nor are they now in a way to isolate noise from one floor to another. You could walk into any non-concrete apartment or condo builing in town built yesterday and you would have the same problems. There is typically no insulation between floors, and even if there was it really wouldn’t solve the problem. Just the way it is.

    If you’ve put down carpet etc, then it is the lower tenants problem.

    Problem with apartment living…

  • I agree with Andy.

    I am actually in a fairly similar situation. I hear people walking upstairs. My neighbor downstairs says he can hear my phone ring when it is on buzz and sitting on a hard surface (my coffee table).

    I think the only thing you can do is get the folks downstairs to understand (1) it is not your fault (2) you are doing whatever you can to limit the noise.

    As far as the landlord doing something, there isn’t much he can do. He’s not going to pay to have the floors re-insulated or anything. From what you wrote it sounds like you are doing the best you can. The only other thing you could do for the folks downstairs (which they should actually do themselves) is buy some ear plugs. I have a pair sitting around just in case it gets a little noisy at night. I personally feel that I live in the city and it is my own responsibility to take at least an extra step or two to drown out noise before I go complaining to anyone.

    Good luck!

    • I had that phone thing happen to me. It really will carry the vibrations right down the leg to the floor and cause a buzzing. I was downstairs and couldn’t figure out what was going on.

      I felt that that scene with Smee in “Hook” There’s no ticking here. There’s nothin left to tick!

    • There’s something peculiar with vibrating phones where the vibration can carry through even when the sound can’t.

      At the office, I couldn’t hear my next-door neighbor’s office phone ring… but I could tell when his Blackberry was vibrating.

      At home, I use a white noise machine, but for a while was getting woken up every morning at 6:15 a.m. by my upstairs neighbor’s BlackBerry. (I finally went upstairs and politely asked him if he had a BlackBerry or something that was going off every morning at 6:15, and sure enough, he did.)

      If you’re having noise issues with your upstairs/downstairs neighbors, it’s probably best not to leave your cell phone set on vibrate.

  • Only solution is for the landlord to do some soundproofing. I would not rent out my basement in it’s current state because you can hear EVERYTHING. A person walking normally sounds like a giant stomping around.

    It might even be worth contributing to the cost-
    Otherwise life is going to suck for the person in the basement and for you too because who wants to live in a place where they have to tiptoe around all the time.

    Avoiding these situations is one of the reasons I bought a house-

  • We have a similar problem in our small apartment building; Our landlord had a great idea – she and her husband escorted the 2 complaining tenants to eachother’s apartments and had them walk around so they could see that there’s not much else to do other than pad the carpets.

    If I were you, I’d exchange numbers in good faith and try to make friends with them. It’s city life and it tends to be noisy.

  • You guys are doing the best you can. I applaud your various efforts to help with the noise.

    I was in a similar situation, where I was the tenant below. Unfortunately, the tenants above were our landlords and they had no decency to take off their shoes while at home/have parties end before 10pm on weekdays/etc.

    The people below just need to suck it up and get ear plugs (those bright orange ones are great). That’s the problem with living in an English Basement or really any apartment building.

    On a side note, I live in another apartment, but our new upstairs neighbor has been aptly named ‘Mr. Stompy Pants’ because he stomps back and forth (for no reason too…he’s not moving furniture or just moving in…so I have no idea what he’s doing).

    • I wonder if he’s related to my current upstairs neighbor, Stompy Stomperson.

      • Haha, maybe. Mr. Stompy Pants has a tendency to go back and forth to the same place over and over and over. It’s like OCDish…

        Sound familiar?

    • We have a stompy pants above us too! At 5:45 every morning, no less. I assume she is getting ready for work, but it’s like she is just stomping around on the same creaky wood plank. My boyfriend laments that it sounds like she’s playing a game of darts with one dart.

      Earplugs are a phenomenal invention. One question though – what do folks do about their alarms? I’ve nearly missed mine some mornings with earplugs in. My solution has been to get earplugs that just block out most, but not all of the noise, but they are obviously less helpful in dealing with the original problem they were intended to solve.

      • YES to earplugs! I put my phone on vibrate&sound alarm mode and put it on the mattress beside me. The vibrations wake me up. Also my cat hits me in the face every moring at 6:30, so that helps.

        • saf

          You obviously do not flail around in your sleep.

          • Allison

            The solution for this is an awesome alarm clock made for the deaf. It’s got a very thin mattress pad that actually goes *underneath* your mattress, above the box springs, and is connected to a normal alarm clock on your bedside stand via a thin wire. When it goes off, it makes the whole mattress vibrate like a giant cell phone. Earplugs away, my friends!

  • Sounds like OP is trying to be sincerely and reasonably quiet. That said, I’ve live in places where I could constantly hear the people above me walking, talking, etc. and it’s one of the most annoying things ever.

    Agreed about getting the neighbors on your side. Maybe you can get the landlord down to the basement to listen while you walk/talk upstairs?

  • Sort of on this topic…do people who use earplugs have issues with not hearing alarm clocks go off in the morning?

    • No, they usually fall out before morning. Otherwise, to compensate I just turn my radio alarm clock louder than normal.

    • Emmaleigh504

      The annoying buzzing alarms break through the earplugs. Sometimes it takes like a minute to hear the alarm, instead of the normal 5 seconds.

  • soundproofing is tough to do retroactively, but not impossible. I completed a full-scope renovation on a row house last year, and used three seperate soundproofing systems between the basement apartment and first floor of the main apartment. It’s a common problem, and takes some investment to really fix. For what its worth:

    R2 “Resilient Channel” tracking to hang the basement ceiling sheetrock from the joists (allows better airflow, reduces sound transmission, especially from impacts like footsteps.

    Roxul acoustic insulation (3″batts) in each joist bay. (joists are the beams that support the floor, and the space between them is a joist bay) Most useful for ambient noise, like conversation or music.

    A felt underlayment between the subfloor and hardwood flooring on the first floor. This helps seal the upstairs off from the basement, and helps with both kinds of noise.

    There are several other systems that work wee, but the ones mentioned above cost about $1500 total for 650 sq ft of floor/ceiling area and were the most cost-effective for me. QuietRock is sheetrock that is supposed to have great acoustic qualities, but its $100 per 8×4 sheet.

    – if the floor is THAT thin, it might not meet fire code.
    – ask your landlord to upgrade the sound insulation(2k would go a long way). It would involve the downstairs folks moving out for a week or so, but would certainly add value and live-ability.
    – encourage the downstairs fokls to use white noise, like fans, soft music, etc.
    – Inform your landlord that you might need to end your lease early if you can’t come to an agreement with the downstairs folks, and start looking for a new place.

    • I have watched “Income Property” enough to know that there are insulation products and building techniques that can be used for fire suppressant reasons as well as noise reasons. I am going to assume that that material was not installed at the time of reno for whatever reason.

      • the Roxul product is an excellent fire retardant, and by code the sheetrock used for the basement ceiling needs to be thicker and more fire resistant than standard sheetrock.

        Other options for a basement ceiling retrofit include special caulks and rubber sheetrock screws that provide further vibration dampening between the joist and the ceiling suspension system. If you add high-hat lighting, there are additional considerations for muffling noise aroud the cans.

    • great summary — for an existing basememnt conversion with bad sound insulation, the ceiling options below are probably more feasible than new flooring above.

      Good to know — we’re considering a basement reno and do not want new floors upstairs.

  • I also live in a rowhouse, in the basement… while I think I’m pretty relaxed about any noise from above, sometimes it does get to be a bit much.

    One thing I did was to have the folks upstairs turn on their TV and then come downstairs so they could “hear” it from my perspective. Though my biggest issue was how they bounded down the stairs… harder to demonstrate, but at least they have my perspective on the general noise.

    It’s rarely an issue, unless they happen to have company (like 5 or 6 or more people) over *and* I really need to sleep.

    Basically, just try to understand each other situation. If you find you really can’t find a common ground, then the only thing you can really do is to put up with a grumpy neighbor or move.

  • To the OP or other above ground dwellers:

    Out of curiosity and wondering if anyone else is in this boat, but can you smell the downstairs food that they are cooking as well? I’m not saying the food aromas coming up turn my stomach, but it’s just that the aroma is so evasive. I too can hear everything the downstairs neighbors are doing.

    • Until recently I lived in the upstairs portion of a rowhouse and yes, we could totally smell the food cooking downstairs. Fortunately, their cooking smelled great; unfortunately, they were very late eaters so it always made me hungry for another meal at 11:30 at night.

  • I live in a renovated row house too and spent a lot of money insulating my ceiling from sound coming from upstairs. It works decently.

    I would bet that your floors go: floors, subflooring, joists, drywall. Maybe there’s a thin layer of insulation but probably not. The floor acts like a drum, amplifying everything you do.

    I can see how it would be bad for them, so I’d have a heart-to-heart and try to work something out with them. Other than pretty major work, you’re not going to stop the noise.

  • We blew insulation above our basement ceiling. This helped but did not eliminate all sound. Mutual tolerance and respect is really the only solution.

  • Thanks everyone for your comments. To answer some of the follow up questions:

    Yes, we’ve had conversations with the neighbors about the noise and they have our cell phone numbers to reach us, which is frequently.

    Also, we can’t smell the food from downstairs, but we share an AC system with them, which means if we turn down the AC on cool nights, they complain about it being hot the next day.

    From their point of view, they shouldn’t have to use earplugs or white noise to drown out the sound. They’re paying good money to live there too, just below us. IMHO, if noise between the units can’t be diminished, the landlord shouldn’t have divided the rowhouse.

    Difficult situation all around…

    • It sounds like you are being TOO nice and accomodating.

    • Yeah, at some point you just gotta point out to your downstairs neighbors that you’re doing your best to be considerate, but you’re entitled to live in the house without taking a vow of silence. Honestly, they moved into an English basement. What did they think would be the case?? Their beef is either with their landlord (for soundproofing), their employers (to pay them more so they don’t have to live in an English basement), or themselves (for choosing a place with existing conditions that they could not abide). You’ve done enough OP.

      • I agree with this – your downstairs neighbors have unrealistic expectations of being able to live without hearing the people above them. At the same time, a show-and-tell where you go down to the basement so you can hear just how much sound carries is also a good idea – some people just naturally stomp around the house not realizing how loud they are (and how quiet non-stomping can be). I had the unfortunate experience of living underneath a couple with a small child who would run in circles all day/night long and it literally sounded like someone was pounding on my ceiling causing the walls to shake, it was horrible – I now refuse to live on anything other than the top floor of a building.

        What your landlord did was sketchy – how could he/she not tell you the basement was a separate unit until the last minute, when they knew all along that you would be sharing things like the A/C system? Unless you are having a party every night with a live band, your neighbors’ complaints should be directed towards the landlord, not you.

    • If you’re not joking you’re being WAY too nice.

      Commenting on the way you use your air conditioning is FAR FAR beyond anything that’s reasonable. Telling your landlord about that might let him know the kind of people you’re dealing with.

      Footsteps simply aren’t offensive.

      Is there something else going on?

    • Wait a minute — you control the A/C for the entire house including the basement? That makes no sense and if I was them, I would not be happy. They should have their own unit. Do you pay separate utilities or is there one electric bill that’s split?

      • I assumed that there are no A/C controls in the basement, only in the OP’s portion.

        If that’s the case, I can understand why they’d be frustrated if the OP was adjusting it in such a way that it wasn’t necessarily keeping pace with the weather.

      • Yes, all of the house AC controls are in our part.

    • IF you need to break the lease, the AC is what you can do it for. It is against DC code for there to be shared HVAC between two units. This is to reduce the spread of airborne diseases like TB, or so I was told. I’m not a lawyer or a developer so don’t quote me on it but I am pretty damn certain that this is the law. Use it wisely.

  • Your neighbors are lucky that you’re so considerate. It’s easy to get defensive…

    Maybe soften them up with an invitation to have a drink at your place, show them what you do to keep the noise down (the volume your TV is usually at, the carpets, the stack of shoes at the door) and ask them if there is anything else they think you’re missing. Ask them to tolorate the day-to-day noise, but to speak up if it’s unusually loud in your apartment.

    I think that people drop their dukes when you sympathize, are proactive, and are approachable.

  • “Mutual tolerance and respect is really the only solution.” Well said KenyonDweler!

  • We had a similar situation, though the upstairs people refused to put down carpets. Stompy McStompersons woke routinely before six am and would often be walking around after midnight. You can invest lots and lots of $$ in adding sound-proofing post renovation, but trust me, it is a waste of money. We moved, which is how the situation can be taken care of. You might also want to get an IIC sound test (Impact Insulation Class test) to see if the building meets the DC code for soundproofing. If it doesn’t, then the owner might be liable. Good luck. I know it’s stressful for both sides, and it sounds like you’ve been far, far more helpful than our neighbors were.

  • I have an old rowhouse, and when I’m in the basement, I can hear the cats walking around up there. Little 10 pound cats! It sounds loud, too. Something about these old houses just carries all the sound into the basement. There’s nothing the upstairs or downstairs tenants can really do, it’s up to the landlord to do something structural.

    At least you’re trying to be reasonable, the last time I was a renter in this situation, the loud party (blasting music at 1 or 2 am, mostly weeknights) would just turn up the volume when I knocked on their door. It got to the point that I just called the cops on them over and over and over and over again… One of the many reasons I now have a house.

  • Contact your ANC commissioner they may be able to do something. Otherwise, I’d try 311 or the Mayor’s office.

    • DC can only help with the first 10 feet of the property DC owns

    • Speaking as an ANC commissioner — sorry, that would be a waste of time. The District doesn’t have any authority within this private residence.

      I suggest you buy an inexpensive sound meter (Radio Shack), and document that you’re not being unreasonably loud. If this gets really unpleasant, talk to a lawyer. The city isn’t going to be helpful in this situation.

  • i rented a condo a few years ago and could hear my neighbors upstairs. They were rude foreign (french) people with a toddler that ran around on the wood floors and a younger kid that would roll around on his scooter. We could hear them all the time and didn’t know if the had a dog or a baby so we name the creature making the noise “dogbaby” . I confronted them more than once and they didn’t care. The happiest day of my life was when they finally moved out and i had a peace and quiet.

  • I had a similar situation in my last apt., unfortunately my upstairs neighbors were not as considerate as you are. I literally thought they had two large dogs and was shocked to find out they had just a small cat! The building management made them buy rugs, which didn’t really help too much. Later, they made them get and carpet pads and they really do help. You can get them cheap on Overstock. I think you should talk to the landlord about paying for them.

    • Allison

      Haha I wonder if their cat is the same cat I used to live below. That cat got a perverse pleasure out of shoving every heavy object off of every surface (piles of books, mugs, appliances) while its owner was away.

  • Sounds like the most persuasive reason I’ve ever seen for why townhouses should remain single family dwellings.

    • Really, it’s an argument to soundproof. The more single family dwellings exist (rather than divided homes), the higher the average person’s rent will be.

  • my upstairs neighbors at my old apartment would have 30 seconds of sex every morning.

  • Maybe were only hearing the last 30 seconds. I know that I like to keep it slow and sexy in the beginning, and then really pick it up towards the end. For the Climax. The big “O”. Y ou know what I’m saying.

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