Them next door

Germany’s odd lack of clarity on neighborhood noise pollution

Neighbors At Backyard Barbeque
"If you play the Bee Gees at 3am again, the next iced tea will be a Russian nerve agent." Source: Getty

There are 8 million stories in the naked city. And a lot of them are about noisy neighbors.

There’s the one about the couple renting an apartment above a bar who were paid “hush money” – around half of their monthly rent – so that they wouldn’t complain to the authorities about noise from the boozy clientele below. Then there’s the family who were congratulated by their German in-laws because they had found a flat on a floor between Spanish and French neighbors. It had nothing to do with cultural enrichment. It was because foreigners don’t complain about the kids making noise like Germans do, their in-laws said.

And then there’s the drummer with the drum set he can never play, the upstairs tenant who complained that the downstairs tenant had sex too loudly, protests about tourists’ suitcase wheels on cobbled streets and the woman who insisted the new occupants above her flat “stop walking around.”

Unwelcome noise from the neighbors is a bigger problem than you might think. Almost half of all Germans say they have had problems with noise at home. German neighbors tend to call the police and ask questions later: Unwanted sounds are the cause of three-quarters of all conflict between neighbors.

One of the biggest problems when it comes to resolving those conflicts is that the rules around them – that is, about what you have to endure and what you don’t – are not particularly precise

Rent reductions due to noise

It all starts with the definition. What’s the difference between a horrible, screechy racket that may lead to the murder of the novice saxophone player upstairs, and the normal noise of life in the big city? Nobody in Germany can tell you.

There are rules about aural pollution and these are often found alongside laws on environmental and atmospheric pollution in both federal and regional legislation. But mostly they pertain to noise made by businesses: That includes the guy with the pneumatic drill who appears punctually outside your bedroom window every morning around 7 am (the rules say he is not allowed to start work any earlier).

Rules that apply to ordinary citizens tend toward the piecemeal. Most have arisen after court cases where the complainants demanded rent reductions because of what they considered unbearable noise. If your obviously underemployed neighbors are having a loud party every day, you may be eligible for a 10 percent rent reduction until the issue has been resolved. Any rent reduction is dependent on the loudness and frequency of the disturbance. If somebody’s playing music so loudly that your windows are shaking every hour, then you may even be eligible for up to 50 percent off, according to a 1989 decision by a court in Braunschweig.

Courts have also decided that music on the stereo and TVs and radios should not be played any louder than “Zimmerlautstärke” – which basically means not louder than the normal volume you’d need to hear them in a room. But what the judges could not agree on was how many decibels “Zimmerlautstärke” actually was.

If an apartment alongside a train track emits more noise than its neighbors and the trains, then there’s obviously a problem, according to Ulrich Ropertz, the head of the German Tenants’ Association. But again, even Ropertz admits it is wholly dependent on circumstances.

Jeremy Spencer
Welcome, neighbor! Source: AP

Regarding the aspiring saxophonist upstairs, German courts have come out with several different rulings about those friendly neighborhood musicians who insist on practicing at home. The rule of thumb is two to three hours a day during the week and one to two hours at the weekend. But it can also depend on the instrument. A judge at a district court in Kleve, in northwestern Germany, believes that accordions should only be played for 90 minutes a day. A Frankfurt district court felt the same way about pianos. And in Nuremberg-Fürth, they don’t like drummers (who does?), restricting the ear bashing to just 45 minutes a day.

The most recent ruling was about trumpets and came from the highest court in the land, the Federal Supreme Court. It decided that a professional trumpeter in Augsburg should not be restricted by the district court, which had reduced his practice hours after neighbors’ complaints. But they also said the local judges needed to work out anew if the trumpeter was still allowed to give lessons at home. They needed to consider if students were just playing scales over and over, and how many wrong notes they were hitting, the Supreme Court argued, with no apparent irony.

Babies part of normal “emissions”

The racket emitted by smaller humans gets preferential treatment. Although tired parents probably disagree, Paragraph 22 of Germany’s Federal Emissions Control Act says the sound of babies crying and kids playing is something that “usually doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment.”

Unusually loud child-related noise does though, the Federal Supreme Court decided in 2017. A Berlin district court had said that an angry renter would simply have to deal with what she had colorfully described as the “stamping, jumping and crashing about” of the kids upstairs, as well as the father yelling at them, for between one to four hours a day. “In the kitchen, pots rattled on the shelves and doors shook in their frames,” a dramatic statement to the court said. The complainant wore earplugs but could still hear the family, it noted.

As a result, the Supreme Court overturned the Berlin court’s decision dismissing her claims for a rent reduction, saying that the intensity and duration of child-related noise was also relative and that neighbors’ concerns needed to be considered. Once again: subjective.

The skyscraper next door

What about the guy with the drill? Depending on the circumstances, rent reductions are regularly given if there is work going on in your own building. Unfortunately German courts have generally decided the same does not apply if the drilling is being done in the house over the road, or if a hole in your street needs fixing, or if – worst case scenario – somebody decides to take a year to build their skyscraper next door.

“If you have moved into a building next to a vacant lot, you should expect that at some stage, it will be developed,” says Beate Heilmann, a lawyer with the working group on tenancy laws and real estate at the German Association of Lawyers, pointing out that recently courts have been leaning toward pro-landlord decisions in this particular area.

Most of the time, rules about noise come down to money. Landlords obviously don’t want to lose half of their rental income just because one tenant has the urge to play Black Sabbath every half hour. “When unjustified noise causes complaints, it is a breach of [the rental] contract,” says Gerold Happ, head of the nationwide property owners’ association, Haus und Grund. On those grounds, that Black Sabbath fan could be evicted and the landlord could even try to sue them for the money lost, due to reduced rents.

Matthias Streit is a financial reporter for Handelsblatt. Cathrin Schaer adapted this article into English. To contact the author:

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