Locking horns: what to do when neighbours are causing trouble

Tired of barking dogs, screaming children or loud parties going on until 4 am the next morning? When people in your building are really getting under your skin, it can be hard to know how to resolve the situation. We’re here to explain the legal situation and what works in practice.

‘Even the most pious man can’t live in peace if it doesn’t please his wicked neighbour,’ wrote Friedrich Schiller in his drama William Tell. He wasn’t wrong: sometimes even the smallest thing can muddy the waters between neighbours – and spark conflict.

Tolerance in the building: where the lines become blurred

Every tenant is entitled to use their home to do what they want: living, cooking, eating, having guests over, celebrating birthdays, listening to music, doing some DIY, taking a bath or a shower, etc. Where, then, is the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘disruptive’? Being able to say whether a dog barking or a child crying is ‘excessive’ and therefore genuinely disruptive to you is a matter of interpretation. ‘It always depends on the circumstances at hand and the building you are in,’ states Fabian Gloor, a lawyer for the Swiss Tenants’ Association.

For example, barking dogs are more likely to be tolerated in the countryside than in a city where lots of people are living in relatively close proximity. If a tenant moves into an old building, they shouldn’t be too surprised if they end up hearing things through the walls. ‘In an apartment building, it is effectively impossible to avoid overhearing at least a little of what your neighbours are doing,’ states Gloor. Verena B. is a good example of this: she does shift work in a hospital, so she uses her bathroom every day at 5:30 am. If a neighbour were to take offence at that, it would be a matter of interpretation. Common sense dictates that people simply have to accept the sound of showers running in the morning as part of life in a shared building. It would be far too restrictive if the house rules were to state that tenants could use the shower and bath at specific times only.

A dispute with the neighbours: legal guidelines

  • The law requires tenants to be heedful and considerate: the tenant community should ‘show consideration for residents of the building and its neighbours’. (Swiss Code of Obligations [OR], Article 257f.)
  • The other rules may be set out in the house rules (they take binding effect if they are part of your rental agreement, i.e. if you received them when concluding the agreement).
  • Local police regulations vary from community to community. In Switzerland, for example, it is usual to treat the hours starting from 10 pm as quiet hours, and to respect them. That means turning down music and having conversations at a moderate volume.

How, though, should you proceed in the event of a dispute? Generally speaking, making the effort to speak to your neighbours directly is the best recourse. You might be able to reach an amicable arrangement on how loud the next party may be and how long it should go on for. Day-to-day life in the building is much simpler when people speak to each other, explain the situation and take each other seriously. Or, as they say so well in French: ‘C’est le ton qui fait la musique.’ [What you say may be important, but it is the way you say it that counts.] – People won’t be so quick to take a complaint the wrong way if it is reasonable and presented objectively.

A dispute with the neighbours: getting the property manager involved

If, despite all good intent and tolerance, the dispute escalates, a complaint can be submitted to the property manager (setting out and explaining the problem via registered post). The landlord or property manager will then seek to mediate in the matter or remedy the disturbance, whether by referring to the standard quiet hours in the building, the legally specified guidelines, the police regulations or the house rules.

Legally speaking, it is important to differentiate between two things during a dispute between neighbours: if one of the building’s tenants feels as though their neighbours are disturbing them, they can generally rely on the principles of tenancy law. In this respect, excessive noise should be considered a problem. The tenant can request the problem to be rectified (or take legal action to have the problem rectified). Demanding a reduction in rent is one bargaining chip that can be used here.

Similar rules apply even if the source of the disturbance isn’t actually in the same building – it may, for example, be coming from a club next door. In this case, however, the property owner would have to lodge a complaint under the law concerning the respective interests of neighbours and commit to observing the specified quiet hours (Swiss Civil Code, Article 684f., on the interests of neighbours). As in all disputes involving rented property, the local arbitration board is responsible in the first instance (tenancy law). This procedure is free of charge to tenants. ‘A professional approach paired with the right expertise – including on matters of mediation – often means an amicable settlement can be reached with the board,’ states Gloor.

Real-life legal cases: ‘A tenant causing bedlam in Basel’

In extreme cases, a dispute may lead to a notice of termination. Even so, the requirements and the formal steps still have to be assessed carefully. In a case in Basel, for example, the responsible arbitration board – and later on a court – stepped in to uphold a notice of termination for an unruly tenant. This dispute was a most serious one indeed: the tenant in question threw large parties attended by drunk guests every weekend and failed to take out the rubbish or clean up after himself for months. The neighbours complained about the noise and the ‘terrible smell’ for a long time, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. The property owner themselves was even personally threatened.

A representative of the property owner expressed their displeasure at such cases in the media: in the end, it can take months or even years to terminate the tenancy and clear out the residence.

The last resort: terminating a lease

Thankfully, terminating a lease because of a dispute is a rare occurrence. The situation can also be looked at from an entirely different perspective: those who spend their days continually accusing their neighbours of being in the wrong, complaining virtually every day and moaning to everyone can also have a negative impact on keeping the peace in the building. One couple had their lease terminated for exactly that reason: they accused their neighbours of wrongdoing without any evidence and downright ‘terrorised’ them. In practice, then, there are two lessons tenants should follow: first, your duty to be heedful and considerate should be taken seriously. Second, sharing a building with multiple people calls for a certain amount of tolerance on everyone’s part.