They might make excellent fodder for television documentaries, but neighbours from hell – or even those with thin walls and too much energy – are affecting more than 21 million homes in the UK, almost a third of the population. And not only is being disturbed by those living nearby annoying, noisy neighbours can, apparently, even kill you, or at least speed up the process.
Over-zealous, inebriated or tonally-challenged neighbours are not merely detrimental to our sanity, according to a report commissioned by the World Health Organisation, they can damage our health too. "Strong annoyance by general neighbourhood noise is associated with significant and high increased risks for many diseases" reads the conclusion of the report, which also asserts that being persistently disturbed by your neighbour's nocturnal activities – be it snoring or sex – can lead to an "increased morbidity".
In the UK, the statistics go some way to revealing the extent of the problem. In a recent Home Office survey, one in three Brits said they considered noise from neighbours a problem, while one in 12 classified it as a serious one. The Citizens Advice Bureau received more than 39,000 inquiries from individuals seeking guidance about problems with neighbours and environmental issues in 2006 – the last time they collated figures on a national level.
Noise specialist Mary Stevens, who works for the charity Environmental Protection UK, confirms the impact it is having on people in this country. "We conduct a survey every year. This year it's shown that more than half a million people are moving home because of noise problems," says Stevens, who helps co-ordinate Noise Action Week, an annual event aimed at raising awareness about the negative affects noise can have. "We want the Government to change the current legislation so the effects of noise are considered in all aspects of planning," said Stevens.
But who is really to blame and what can be done? Obviously inconsiderate neighbours come high on the list of offenders. Sound-proofing specialist Stuart Brown says snoring, screaming children, barking dogs, televisions, music, parties and extreme sexual activity ("that's one we get a lot") are some of the reasons why he has been called in.
It is a misconception, though, that boisterous neighbours are the lone culprits, in fact, wooden floors, cracked walls and poor insulation all aggravate the problem. Houses built after 1920 are typically half the size of those built before and are generally poorly insulated. Brown, whose company, NoiseStop Systems, includes Nato among its clients, attributes up to 40 per cent of their business to combating domestic noise problems. He says a large aspect of the problems with modern homes is the financial constraints placed on builders by developers.
"A developer will say to a contractor that they want a block of flats built for a million pounds, but the only way the contractors can do it and still make a profit is by cutting costs. Usually this happens with the soundproofing," says Brown. "I've been in buildings where nothing separates the homes apart from plasterboard."
The Government has attempted to remedy these problems and has, to some extent, succeeded. In 2002, they introduced building regulation Part E, which means that all conversions or new-builds must comply with an approved level of sound insulation. However, this only refers to houses built after its introduction. So if you are living in accommodation built before the regulation came into affect in 2003, and are blighted by the discourse of others, there are typically three options available. Try and reason with your neighbour, call in the council or have additional soundproofing installed.
The old-fashioned method of talking things through should never be discounted – it's far less costly to your mental well-being and your bank balance for a start. If things are a little strained, you can always call in a mediator, a free service, who will try and work out a mutually beneficial situation.
The reality is that people are stubborn and selfish. Chartered building surveyor Roy Ilott, who is a spokesman for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors says: "More and more people are more concerned with their rights rather than their responsibilities. They think 'it's my home and I should be able to do what I like'."
Brown agrees: "It's a very British thing – my home is my castle and I can do what I like." He also offers an example of why many people are unwilling to confront their neighbours. "I've seen some terrible fights. I've been on Kilroy and I sat next to a guy in handcuffs. He had gone upstairs and thrown his neighbour's stereo out of the window, then he'd thrown them out after it. He got seven years."
Fortunately, there are easier ways to solve the problem, thanks to the fact that councils are obliged to investigate all noise complaints. An Environmental Health officer will visit on three occasions to try and discern whether the complaint is valid. If they don't hear anything they will leave recording equipment. Those found to be excessively loud can be served a notice to desist and continual re-offenders can eventually be evicted. But this process can be lengthy and disruptive. And, as is often the case with noise, it may be that you are the one inadvertently causing it; be it a child, a pet or those new wooden floors, it might be that you have to reinforce your noise insulation. Don't be deterred by the word sound-proofing, even if it conjures images of recording studios. Advances in technology have meant the additional padding added to a wall will only have to be 18mm thick to give you a 40 per cent noise reduction. If you are living in an apartment and having problems with noise from above, or if you are causing the noise, floorboards can be raised and sound insulation installed.
Brown says that if you are living in a semi-detached property, the entire joining wall – floor to roof – could be insulated for around £5,000 and you can install it yourself. It is an additional layer that can be wallpapered over as though it were plasterboard once it has been affixed to the wall.
Given the current state of the property market and the ever dwindling amount of space available to build new accommodation, particularly in cities, detached houses are becoming a rarer and more expensive proposition. Legislation enforcing the noise constraints can only go so far. Ilott is despondent about there being any one solution: "You will always have noise problems, it's not about old or new buildings – there will be cracks in walls, windows that are open. Sound travels, it vibrates." Which means we may all just have to get used to being a little more considerate to each other.
Gauri Dehadrai, 25, is an advertising accounts manager. She lives with her husband Rahul Jaisingh, 31, an investment banker, in London
We recently bought a flat in a tower block in St John's Wood. As soon as we moved in we realised we could hear everything the couple upstairs were saying, every conversation. We learned the guy is Dutch and the girl is Italian. We could hear every intimate detail from upstairs. They also used to go out and come home drunk a lot and make loads of noise.
We did some research and found out that all second-floor flats built after the Second World War must have carpets if they have a wooden floor, so we tried speaking to our neighbours [about the noise problem]. We asked if they would not walk around with shoes on and be more considerate, but they were just very rude.
We took it up with the management company who sent notices, through their solicitors, but nothing changed and now the owner has agreed to kick them out. He has promised he won't change his mind, but he has refused to put in carpets or new flooring, or do anything about the sound because he says it will be far too expensive. He has said he will put rugs down but it depends on the new tenants – they may choose to roll them up and stick them under the bed and there's nothing we can do about it because there's nothing in the tenancy agreement.
Nick Grange, 40, PR executive, north London
I've lived in my flat for three and a half years and in some ways it's the perfect home – I have a garden, I'm just over the road from a park, which my daughter loves, and the couple who live in the house upstairs are great. But for the last couple of years I've had real problems with the residents of the property next door. It's divided into a number of bedsits, most of which are short leases that are rented out to students and people who are just passing through the area.
This has meant I've had to put up with endless late-night noise, constant comings and goings, and general madness. The main issue has been the flat adjacent to mine, where the tenant works nights in a casino and invites people around every week after work to party. I've spoken to her about the noise on a number of occasions but she argues that she works late so she should be able to socialise late – in some cases until 5am on Sunday nights. Recently it has got so bad that I considered moving, but in the current climate I'm very reluctant to do so. However, I just found out that the owner of the property next door lives nearby so I went to talk to him about the unacceptable levels of noise. He has been very sympathetic and says he will speak to the problem tenants. I hope this will make a difference – if not I intend to contact the council and my solicitor to find a long-term solution.
Dai Hughes, 33, is a designer and his wife Polly, 28, is an events organiser. They live in east London
We live in an old block of flats. There are sound problems because it's from the 1930s, with no insulation. We are the middle flat with one above and one below and before we did any work we could hear conversations, through the floor and ceiling, and actually clearly make out words.
We had an extra ceiling fitted. I think it usually costs between £5,000 and £10,000 but we knew someone in the trade and managed to get it done for £2,000. We weren't going to do anything about the floor but the architect advised us to. We put alternate layers of materials underneath the floorboards. It's a lot better, it really has dampened all the sound. But you can't stop it completely.
Jenny Edwards, 63, IT consultant, Southend
My neighbours had a hot tub positioned right up against the brick wall dividing our houses and they left it on 24 hours a day. The vibration and noise was awful. I invited them in so they could experience my discomfort and all I got was a shrug of the shoulders and told I'd get used to it. I had to go to the environmental health department whose officers ordered them to move the hot tub. It's much better now.
They also used to drill and hammer, day and night. One day, I found the worse possible radio stations and turned them up full blast. I then went out for a couple of hours. I haven't had any trouble since.
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