Owners' complaints of condominium noise fall on deaf ears

Angela called this morning looking for a resolution to a common-area problem the association at her 60-year-old building has had for a year now. The air conditioning condenser bangs and thumps at all hours of the day and night, preventing about 20 residents from a good night’s sleep.

Angela’s looked into the problem through the condominium board and found that a poor mounting of the roof condensor was the culprit. How bad is the problem? She likened it to “sleeping under 20 commercial washing machines full of work clothes.”

The developer who converted the building to condominium ownership has known about the problem since last summer yet has been unable or unwilling to correct it. Around $10,000 reportedly has been spent to repair the system, but nothing has changed for those living with the noise.

“What an odd problem to have with a new development,” Angela said, lamenting her purchase. “Several of us have purchased ear plugs in order to deaden the noise in our new condominiums. Just what was I thinking when I bought this unit.”

Angela’s complaint is not new or unusual in the home inspection business: everyone complains about noise. Developers know this, for it’s always in the top three on lists of new-home buyer complaints. Trade associations such as the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) track such concerns, and the national Open House Book designates noise as the most common problem discovered in new construction in the country.

During a recent training, lecturing building department heads from the City of Chicago Code Enforcement Team explained city standards for new construction. These standards include a mandatory city review of blueprints, especially if heavy equipment, such as chillers, water towers or elevators, is supported by the roof. You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to realize that a 15-foot condenser eight feet high can create more than a little noise and needs special detailing for proper installation.

The condenser on Angela’s building should have been properly sound-isolated by a professional installer. I told Angela to call the city and check for the specialized drawings. Figuring she wouldn’t meet with much success on the telephone, I suggested she walk over to city hall and plan on spending the day there looking for the amended blueprints with notes for the condensor installation.

If she could locate the prints and convince someone to show them to her, she could check the “sound-deadening detailing” required by the city and compare it to what she had. If it was wrong, she might be able to initiate some change at no cost to the owners.

The International Residential Code 2003 edition includes a commonly used standard for noise: “air-born sound insulation for wall and floor-ceiling assemblies shall meet a sound transmission class (STC) rating of 45 (DB).” The same standard can be found in the Chicago Building Code. In the city code, air heating plants are restricted to a 35 decibel noise standard at the furnace, a lower standard than the national one. Failure to meet this standard is a code violation.

Given these requirements in both the city code and the International Residential Code you would think Angela would be able to solve her problem. Frankly, nothing could be further from the truth. Angela made the mistake of not registering the complaint with the city before the “transition” or “common area turnover.” She was told by the city that it was her problem now because she hadn’t complained before the developer turned the common area ownership over to unit owners, even though no one lived in the upper floors until after that transition and it would have been impossible to discover the problem.

Why isn’t there a provision in our building code that warrantees common area installations for at least a year after the last unit owner moves in? In Evanston developers are required to place a percentage of the building’s worth into a repair escrow account. This money would be available to fix the condenser in Angela’s building if Chicago had a similar standard.

Noise pollution is a far more pervasive problem than you might think. Some city buildings have construction standards written into the condominium by-laws prohibiting the installation of ceramic tile or hard wood floors over existing floors without a layer of sound-deadening material.

There are solutions to noisy units, such as installation of a “Z” channel, but some developers find them too expensive. The important thing is to find out exactly what measures have been taken to protect your privacy and peace of mind in a new development – before you close on your unit.

Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.

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