QI recently signed a lease for a condo in a large high-rise in Northwest Washington. I am unhappy in the apartment. I cannot adjust to the noise level, which is annoying but not above any legal limits. The person above me walks around in heels beginning at 5 a.m. I have attempted to talk to my upstairs neighbor in person; I left a letter when the door wasn't answered. I have communicated with my landlord about this because I think he was dishonest about how loud it is, but he blew me off. I don't like living in such a large building. Because the lease is so new, I wonder if there is a period at the beginning during which a tenant can back out.
I have also heard that it is acceptable to break a lease with 60 days' notice. Is this true, and if so, could you point me to a source? I dislike it so much that I would be willing to pay two months' rent just to get out of there! Please advise. I know I probably sound like a whiny little brat, but rent is just too high to be miserable. -- Washington
AUnfortunately, apartments are not like clothing. You can't try them on for size and then bring them back with the proper receipt. A lease is a legal document that is binding as soon as you sign it.
No matter how many times I discuss the importance of doing the proper research before moving into a new rental property, people think they are entitled to break a lease for all kinds of reasons.
In general, tenants cannot break their leases without extremely good reasons. Most often, those are military orders that require someone to move out of state, a serious problem that makes a living space uninhabitable or some kind of tragedy or unexpected hardship, such as the death of the principle rent-payer.
Michael Semko, a lawyer for the Alexandria-based National Apartment Association, said that if a period to back out of a lease existed, it would be in the lease.
Leases typically outline the financial penalties for exiting before the term ends; it's in what is called an "early termination clause." A tenant who signed a lease agreeing to a 60-day notice and a hefty early termination fee does not have a good shot of getting out of paying the fees in full. If the lease is silent on early termination, generally the resident is stuck until the term is up.
Additionally, Semko said, it's very difficult to make a case for fraud and prove that a landlord misrepresented his property before the resident moved in. "I would imagine the resident had a chance to look the place over. . . . Was there any warranty or promise in the lease that states there would be quiet from above? I doubt it; a little noise is to be expected in apartment building. If he made verbal statements like, 'Oh, the building is quiet,' that amounts really to sales puffery."
Semko said that if the writer is willing to pay two months' rent, the owner may let the resident out no matter what the lease states. He suggests that she tell the owner she wants to leave and is willing to pay a month's rent, and if the landlord balks at a month's rent, offer two. Also, the owner might be able to offer the resident a different apartment, perhaps on a top floor so there's no footstep noise from above.
Tenants who think they have major cause to break a lease should write a letter of complaint to the unit owner and then file a complaint with the overseeing regulatory board. The theory is that landlords need to be given the chance to correct the problems, at least to a certain degree, because it's their duty to create a safe and habitable atmosphere for their residents. If landlords don't know about problems, they cannot correct them.
And if the problems aren't all that serious, well, best to suffer the penalties and move somewhere else. But do so only after investigating what it will be like to live in the next place by talking to residents about their experiences, spending time in the neighborhood and building, and generally trying it on for size before signing the lease.
As embarrassing as my "problem" may be, I need your advice on my right to watch adult films in my apartment. I live in a small apartment building in Rosslyn. The other day I was relaxing after a hard day's work watching my favorite DVD. I guess I was so caught up in the movie that I didn't notice the volume on my TV. It appears that it bothered one of my neighbors enough for them to complain to my landlord. I got a letter from my landlord saying I had to turn down my movies and that this wasn't the first complaint he received.
What are my rights? They can't make me stop watching movies I want to watch, right? Can I get evicted? I can't even watch TV now without thinking that someone is going to complain. My neighbors blast their music, and I don't mind. I never complained once. Maybe our walls are too thin. I don't know what to do. Can you help me please? -- Arlington
Your rights are simple. You can watch what you want in the privacy of your own apartment as long as you don't force everyone else in your building to listen to the sound by keeping it at a high volume.
Maybe you are embarrassed about your hobby, but what you're watching is probably less of an issue than the volume at which you view it. Just as you value your privacy, your neighbors want the same. They want you to do your own thing, but don't want to be affected by what you do in the privacy of your own home.
Just remember, due to the way many apartment buildings are constructed, noise travels easily. Chances are, if you can decipher what your neighbors are doing in their apartments, odds are someone hears the noise you make, too.
Common courtesy may be the first step in combating noise problems. Often, adding carpeting, thick carpet pads or hanging thick padding behind bookshelves and other furniture that is placed against the walls helps diffuse some of the noise. Because construction in multifamily buildings is such that even with carpeting, neighbors can hear footsteps, voices and other sounds through the ceiling, the best way to reduce the effect on neighbors is to place noise barriers between the source and the receiver to interrupt the path of noise.
Unless you continue to produce excessive noise, you won't get evicted. If other neighbors' noise is disturbing you, tell them, so that they understand noise travels both ways. Thinking about those around you is important no matter what the cause of the noise.
Do you have questions, comments or ideas about apartment life? Contact Sara Gebhardt via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by mail, c/o Real Estate Editor, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.