No noise annoys like a noisy noise

Felicity Cannell has a warning for post-pub party people and midnight mowing maniacs: your days are numbered so, TURN IT DOWN!
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The Independent Online
How much do neighbours affect the value of your house? In the city centres many residents claim never to have seen, let alone exchanged one word, with those in the flat next door.

Maybe disturbance in the city is all part of the charm of living there. NO! shout residents tearing their hair out over those parties churning out bass-heavy music all night long. We don't mind the first tube shaking the bed at 5.30am. We knew it was down there when we moved in. But even in a solidly-built semi it is amazing how thin the walls are at 3am.

Years ago irate neighbours called the police. That responsibility then fell into the hands of the Environmental Health Office (EHO). But as the problem became larger in scale it became almost impossible to get anything done without a great deal of effort.

Sue and Alan McCarthy found no immediate help from any quarter. They were perfectly content in their semi-detached house in outer London until their neighbours went abroad and rented out. The new occupant was the proverbial "neighbour from hell". "Almost every night, he and his girlfriend would arrive home in the early hours and play the stereo at full blast," says Sue. "Initially we changed bedrooms, but that didn't really diminish the noise. Night after night of seriously disturbed sleep ... sent us crazy."

Could anything be done? The Environmental Health Office advised them to attempt to sort it out personally. "When I confronted him he initially seemed very apologetic, and genuinely unaware of the noise level. But the next night it happened again."

The next step is to keep a diary of times and dates of disturbance.

"When presented with this information, the EHO then advised us to phone when the disturbance occurs and they would send someone to monitor the noise. But as it was always 3 or 4am there was never anyone on the end of the telephone!" After six months the McCarthys put their house up for sale.

But when you find a buyer you are likely to receive a very detailed pre-contract questionnaire from the purchaser's solicitor, which covers relationships with neighbours. If you make an official complaint about neighbours you are obliged to disclose it to potential buyers, or you could face litigation when they discover the next-door neighbour mows his lawn in the middle of the night.

The Noise Act, of September 1996, now in force, has taken this sort of problem very seriously. Local authorities now have new "Powers of Confiscation" over noise making equipment, and some have already acted. Kensington and Chelsea EHO recently visited a property with a warrant and removed the stereo - the offending noise maker! "These powers are obviously not used in one-off circumstances," says Martin Fitzpatrick, spokesman for the EHO in Kensington. "It is a final action after a pattern has been established of anti-social behaviour, and all other informal and mediatory action has failed."

Statutory Nuisance Laws were previously non-explicit, but now any excessive noise at night from domestic premises - houses, gardens, sheds, garages - is forbidden between 11 pm and 7am, with legal action in the form of fines.

Procedure differs between boroughs, but in the London borough of Newham, noise is such a problem that the EHO has a night patrol. Kensington and Chelsea also has a 24-hour complaints service, as do a large number of other local authorities.

This coming Wednesday, 23 July, is National Noise Awareness Day, organised by the National Society for Clean Air (NSCA). Are we are talking clean air as opposed to air turning blue with the language of neighbours at breaking point?

The NSCA is encouraging local authorities to promote the problem of noise, and 180 local authorities throughout the UK are participating. The London Borough of Enfield is promoting its new night time noise patrol. Southwark is putting on a puppet show - Punch beating his noisy neighbour over the head perhaps? For details of events in your area ring your local EHO.

The Society also produces a leaflet "Bothered by Noise", which will soon be widely available through libraries and Citizens Advice Bureaux. Environmental Health Offices encourage people to approach neighbours themselves, initially, to try to solve the problem amicably, with mediation and monitoring as a last resort.

For long-term problems the charity, Mediation UK, will get involved to try to sort out bad relations between neighbours.

Although noise is the most common complaint, many other incidents and practices could affect not only the value but also the ability to sell.

A Bed and Breakfast sign swinging in the window next door may not be too off-putting to potential purchasers, particularly the more garrulous ones, always someone new to talk to. But supposing your neighbour decides to do B&B canine style. No one in their right mind likes a dozen or so voluble dogs installed in the kennels at the bottom of the garden.

And one man's pleasure is another man's poison. If you bought your house because you like being sandwiched in between two pubs you may find a limited market when you come to sell, especially if one of them gets a licence for live bands upstairs.

Does being within sight of the country club, with its golf course and other leisure facilities, count as a plus or a minus when facilities also include two nightclubs? John Lowman, manager of Epping Forest Country Club, had to camp outside a distant neighbour's house, with a noise detector, to check the club wasn't breaking the law. It wasn't, but he nearly got arrested for loitering!

So if you're buying, don't bother talking to the neighbours, talk to their neighbours. Sit outside at one in the morning. Go back two weeks later in case they were on holiday. And buy in the summer months when windows are open and life spills out of doors.

Halifax Property Services advises "any potential buyers to view the property (and its surroundings) thoroughly and if possible at different times of the day," says John Wilson. "The duty to assess the property and surrounding environment ultimately lies with the buyer."

Sellers, take heart. The law is changing fast. Neighbour problems are reaching such heights that further legislation is expected before the end of the year. Soon councils will be able to impose on-the-spot pounds 100 fines on nuisance neighbours.

My neighbours are moving. The garden boasts a stunning ornamental pond with some seriously large and valuable fish. I bet they haven't told the new occupants about my three-year-old's penchant for playing Captain Ahab with the end of the garden parasol. Koi carp go well on the barbecue.

National Society for Clean Air 01273 326313

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