Playing Russian Roulette When Buying a “Stacked” Condo or Townhouse


by Beth Grimm –

Here’s another in my series on real problems brought to me by real people. This one has to do with noise. To imagine how very serious this “game” can be, substitute the stacked units for a loaded gun.

Here is an excerpt from the email sent to me prior to the consultation:

We bought a unit in a beautiful area, spending more than we ever have on a home, with plans to retire in peaceful bliss. Who could ever imagine that something like this could occur? The noise level can only be described as a nightmare from morning to night, and the thought that this may continue for years is untenable.”

If you live in an apartment and the noise becomes “untenable”, you can move, right? What if you buy a condominium and pour thousands of dollars into it getting it just the way you like it? Then you find out there is no way you can live in it.

This is what happened to my client. The condos are in a very nice location and are beautiful. In the original sales, the developer had offered, at a premium upgrade price of course, to substitute beautiful wood flooring for carpeting in all units. My client bought a lower unit. There was a low-key statement in the information provided by the homeowners’ association escrow disclosure that said, “noise transmission between some of units has been reported.”

Lots of people think, “I love this location so much and this is such a beautiful home I can put up with a little noise.” There you have it, the loaded gun.

My clients find themselves in an “untenable” position where they will have considerable difficulty selling their unit, recouping their costs, and even renting the unit to someone else. Sure, they can expect a buyer will get the same generic disclosure from the HOA but they know the situation is much worse. If they aren’t honest about the disclosure when they sell, or rent, and anyone else moves into their unit and feels the way they do, my clients will become the target of uncomfortable threats and/or legal action.

If my clients try to live in the unit, at their age, or at any age for that matter, they will probably get sick. Excessive stress commonly leads to negative behaviors and/or illness. Prolonged noise has been shown to make people sick and exacerbate existing health conditions.

If you think you can escape the negative effects of offensive and prolonged noise transmission by purchasing an upper unit, think again. My own daughter and her family purchased a townhome  upper unit in a place where the developer extracted premium dollars for hardwood floors. They lived happily for a year or two until they had children and then began the nightmare because the man who lived below them worked at home, hated child noise, and banged on the ceiling with a broom, called the police when they had company over for dinner, and glared at their family when coming face to face. The children lived in fear of this man and the parents lived in agony over what to do. They tried many different things to alleviate the stress such as adding padded area rugs, taking the kids upstairs early in the evening to their bedrooms to play, leaving on weekends, and talking to the neighbor and the homeowners’ association. They allowed sound testing which proved negligible and still suffered the broom pounding and the embarrassment and frustration of police at their door in the middle of the day more or less apologizing. Ultimately, they took the financial hit giving the proper disclosures and moved into a single-family home. I remember the day they first fell in love with a brand-new townhome and put up the shield, not absorbing any of the loving warnings I tried to offer about the four flights of stairs and the hardwood floors. The age old power struggle story of adult children’s (or any age after 2 for that matter) resistance to parental advice, right? They were buying a top unit. That was their security blanket.

Anyway, if you are looking to buy a stacked condo or townhouse in the development that allows hardwood flooring or the HOA fails to do anything to enforce the nuisance clause in the covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&Rs) when it comes to forcing modifications to mitigate noise, you are playing Russian roulette with your peace of mind.

You may think, “That won’t happen to me.” But “that” could happen to you. Things may be fine for years but then somebody’s washer and dryer get old and start to rattle the floors. New people move in with kids and dogs, and the exuberant behavior of the kids, the clacking of the working mother’s high heels, and the dog’s toenails on the hardwood floors begin to drive you crazy. Someone moves in, upstairs or downstairs, that decides big speakers on hardwood floors combine to make a great “surround sound”. The person upstairs suffers some health problem, which might be just old age, and needs to wear hard soled shoes, and eliminating the risk of tripping over area rugs removes them, and clunks around using a walker without the benefit of tennis balls or wheels. A neighbor (upstairs or downstairs ) decides to give music lessons and has a piano delivered, thinking that it would also be good to have lots of company and sing-alongs. The neighbor gets a new job and needs multiple loud alarm clocks to wake up at 4:30 AM, and then complains about your noise after 8PM since he or she now needs to go to bed early in order to get up at 4:30 AM. You, being tired, agitated and frustrated from being awakened at 4:30 AM every morning decide to retaliate and turn your TV up at night and leave it on later. And the war begins.

Yes, all these things have all been placed on my table over the years. There is one particularly sad case where a retaliatory war between two owners lead to a worst possible scenario for one of the parties.  At the time I was attorney for the HOA which was subject to ongoing “demands” of the parties to step in and punish the other owners for bad behavior. But since both parties were stubborn, the HOA had to remain neutral in an unwinnable war and by grace was able to avoid the eye of the storm.  In fact, The unfortunate couple, even after experiencing the noise above first-hand in a walk through before the sales transaction came to fruition, moved in to their new lower condo unit with the most positive intentions. They truly believed that they could make friends with anyone and that taking a tray of cookies upstairs to become friends with the “stomper” (elderly lady who walked with heavy foot in hard shoes on hardwood floors) would lead to resolution of the noise issue. However, rather than finding an aged compliant widow who needed friends, they found themselves living below a crotchety old woman who did not want downstairs neighbors and so determined to make their lives miserable. And they in turn chose fight over flight and gave “tit for tat”. A year later after both parties had engaged in multiple retaliatory behaviors and protracted litigation, the worst possible thing happened – the downstairs husband’s health had deteriorated so badly from the stress that he had a heart attack and died and the woman, finding herself a widow with a condo with necessary disclosures created in part by bad behavior, had to sell low and move back East to live with her children.

So choose with care, and if considering buying a stacked condo or townhouse that has noise issues (conversions are the absolute highest risk, and condos or townhouses that allow hard surface floors in upstairs units the next highest) ask what your tolerance level might be, and decide if you want to proceed in a game of Russian Roulette. The odds against you may seem low, they are there.  And get real. Plunking down thousands of dollars for hardwood flooring upgrades may not be a wise move, whether you are buying new, or upgrading on your own. You could be buying yourself misery on the one hand, and even a lawsuit on the other.

I could go on but as it is, I intended this to be a short blog. This is not a light topic. And I have written about it many times. It keeps coming up because it always gets to me when people suffer at the mercy of others who are either purposeful in causing grief, or money hungry as in developers who charge premium prices for “upgrades” in hard surface flooring or owners who upgrade themselves without providing sufficient sound barriers in the design process and without regard for the ultimate consequences.

Don’t let your dream of a house become your nightmare. Choose wisely.


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