Sounds like the neighbours

Domestic noise can ruin your life. But people are reluctant to complain. By Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online
If there is anything worse than living with intrusive noise it is the thought that nobody else would even try to. The fear of putting a blight on a house when it comes to selling holds a great many people back from complaining too vociferously about the source of a disturbance.

An acquaintance who lives in the country, is woken up every morning at six by the dogs next door. "They are let out at first light and are then locked in the house all day. They bark almost the whole time. They are clearly unhappy and I feel guilty about not reporting it to the RSPCA, but if we get into a disagreement with our neighbours I am worried we will not be able to sell the house," she explains.

All vendors are obliged to inform a purchaser about a dispute with a neighbour and it is a routine question during the standard preliminary inquiry. Any undocumented niggles, though, can be kept under wraps, which is why some beleaguered owners prefer to suffer in silence and why buyers are well advised to visit a property at a number of different times of the day.

Valerie Gibson, founder of the Noise Network, sympathises with this tendency to keep quiet, but regrets the reluctance householders have about tackling an issue directly. "I know exactly what it is like. At one time we had a woman next to us who played her music very loudly. Buyers would come round but never return. It took a year before we eventually sold and even then we had to reduce the price."

Those who are prepared to enter the legal fray in search of peace and quiet find themselves set on an arduous course. Les Fenner fought a long battle with a south London borough which placed air-conditioning units for a swimming pool at the bottom of his garden. "I was woken up five or six times a night by the machines. After four years of broken sleep, my health deteriorated and we moved last year to the West Country," says Mr Fenner from his new home overlooking the sea.

"When we put our London house on the market, we told our buyers' surveyor about the long argument we had about the machines but that it was now settled. Fortunately, it didn't worry them," he adds.

Even though there are no figures to show that illness can be triggered by domestic noise, it can drive people to the depths of despair. Recently, local authorities have become much tougher on anti-social behaviour. From last month, under the 1996 Noise Act, they have far greater powers to curb noise during the night. Offenders face on-the-spot fines of pounds 100, the confiscation of hi-fi equipment and, if they prefer to go to court, they risk a pounds 1,000 fine and a criminal conviction. But so far, according to Valerie Gibson, only 8 per cent of local authorities have chosen to adopt the full provisions of the Act with a round-the-clock service, although many do provide an out-of-hours hotline and weekend patrols. But as complaints about noise everywhere increase, officers are being met by more aggression. There have been reports of those investigating complaints being abused, spat at and beaten up.

Fear of violence or some kind of reprisal deters many people from approaching their neighbours, Ms Gibson believes. "Most of the people who contact us have made an effort to complain, but some are very scared." While accepting that mediation has a useful role, she is critical of some councils' rush to use it, often forcing complainants into making unsatisfactory compromises.

In the present market conditions, sellers with a relatively small neighbour problem may well be worrying unduly. Agents say that if buyers like a property and the issue appears only minor, they are more prepared to overlook it than they might be during times of plenty. They may even put a row down to an unfortunate clash of personalities.

This may be optimistic when it comes to the unreformable character, but some rows generate an interest all of their own. Take the annual set-to at Garsington Manor, for instance. The 11-week opera season in this Oxfordshire village provokes feelings to rival anything on stage. At the centre of the anti lobby is Monica Waud, whose Georgian home is just an aria away from the manor. Given that the opera is now being prosecuted for breaching noise levels, does she feel this would reduce the value of her house were she to sell? "Far from it," she says. "Opera has such amazing snob appeal, there are no doubt people who would relish the idea of living so close. It's a bizarre situation."

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