Spring is near, and for many that means it’s time to gear up for construction season. But with unseasonably warm weather in many parts of the country, it appears development is already well under way.
In January, building permits were issued for nearly 1.3 million privately owned housing units in the U.S., an increase of more than 8 percent compared to January 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Whether you live in a downtown area experiencing significant new development of condominium and apartment buildings or in a suburb seeing expansion as more homeowners seek less-expensive property, construction near your home can be a headache.
From early-morning drilling to blocked sidewalks and street lanes, many residents are inconvenienced by construction projects that can last many months, and the growing volume of those projects are cause for ongoing suffering.
Most state and city laws specify that residents have a right to quiet enjoyment of their home, which includes limiting excessive noise from nearby properties under construction.
Construction in Your Building
If you rent and construction is going on elsewhere in your apartment building, excessive noise disrupting your work or relaxation time can feel a little more personal. This kind of disturbance should be taken up with your landlord, who is likely the one who approved the work.
Inquire with your landlord about the duration and expected noise level – whether it’s a single apartment unit renovation, building expansion or heavy-duty maintenance. If it’s a project expected to have intermittent hammering or periodic drilling, you’ll likely have to deal with it, explains Brenda Konkel, executive director of the Tenant Resource Center in Madison, Wisconsin.
“It’s going to be hard to argue that’s a problem,” Konkel says. “But if they’re running equipment that makes a lot of noise all day long, and for more than one day and maybe even past business hours, then it’s going to be a completely different situation.”
The best course of action is to try to work with your landlord to reduce your inconvenience while still completing the construction. If you work from home and live in a large building, it’s possible the landlord can offer you use of a vacant apartment or business center away from the construction during your work hours. Another option is the landlord notifying residents precisely when excess noise is expected.
If the building work makes it impossible for you to continue living there, you could pursue a constructive eviction, which means the landlord has been unable to fulfill your right to quiet enjoyment, effectively ending your lease.
But a constructive eviction is a process, Konkel stresses, and you can’t simply move out and stop paying rent. “The landlord has to be given a reasonable amount of time to try and fix it,” she says. If your landlord disagrees with the constructive eviction claim, you may have to argue your case before a judge, who will determine whether you owe money for the remainder of the lease.
In many cases, city ordinances identify specific decibel levels for various times of day. Any noise that exceeds the designated decibel level is considered a nuisance to the surrounding community.
Construction equipment like a jackhammer or pile driver can easily violate this level, and as a result must be permitted for use with the city so local officials are aware when construction noise will be excessive.
Unfortunately, nearby residents aren’t always notified of permitted loud work going on, even if it’s after normal working hours, which often extend from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. but vary based on local ordinances and are shortened on weekends. When you are bothered with excessive noise, document it by filing a formal complaint with the city. This way, any unpermitted noise can be investigated, while you may also get further details about how long any permitted noise is expected to last.
Who Do You Call?
Many U.S. cities keep noise complaints under the jurisdiction of the police department and recommend residents call the local precinct’s nonemergency line to file a complaint, as you would if your neighbor were having a loud party. Local government websites often provide details on how to file a formal complaint.
The New York City government, for example, has streamlined the construction noise-complaint process by creating online forms to report the location of the noise and time. Separate forms allow you to report after-hours construction, construction during permitted hours that's too loud and noisy jackhammers, which require additional permitting to be used in the city. These same complaints can also be reported by calling the city’s nonemergency reporting number, 311.
Boston handles the noise-complaint process differently. The city delegates complaints about construction sites and equipment noise to the Boston Air Pollution Control Commission and lists construction sites with approved after-hours work permits on its website.
When It’s Not Just Noise
Construction near your home isn’t always just a noise issue, as a nearby worksite can mean blocked sidewalks, damaged roads and even structural damage to your home. Heavy-duty work can cause vibrations in the ground strong enough to damage your property. John Zeigler holds a doctorate in organic chemistry and is the author of “The Construction Vibration Damage Guide for Homeowners,” which serves as a guide to consumers for identifying vibration damage from nearby construction, how to document it and properly filing an insurance claim.
Vibration damage can appear in the form of cracks on concrete patios, slab floors, door or window frames and in the corner of a room, according to Zeigler. He has reports on over 500 different construction projects homeowners believe have caused vibration-related damage to their homes.
“In most U.S. locales, insurers routinely deny coverage under homeowner’s policies by invoking ‘earth movement’ exclusion originally intended for earthquake damage,” Zeigler says.
You’ll likely need to work with an attorney to pursue a claim against either a private developer or the local government – depending on which is funding the construction – especially if the damage is estimated over $10,000.
As with simple noise complaints, Zeigler stresses the importance of documenting the problem with dated photographs, reports from structural experts and any correspondence you have with the city or a developer. You'll want to keep track of the damage itself and equipment and procedures used at the nearby construction site, as well as use a seismograph to monitor vibrations. Otherwise, he says, “any damage claim is virtually certain to be denied.”
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.