Dense living is the future — and the present for thousands of people in urban areas. But the condominium explosion in cities like Toronto has also meant increasing friction between neighbours.
A total of 27,217 new condominium apartments were sold across the Greater Toronto Area in 2016, rising 34% from 2015, according to Urbanation, a real estate market research firm.
In massive condo developments like Toronto’s CityPlace, moving in means you’re sharing the block with 13,500 neighbours. It used to be that a single overgrown hedge could cause a 20-year battle between neighbours. Well now you’re living below, beside and above people.
And they’re pretty much guaranteed to have a different lifestyle than you: servers coming home at 4 a.m., single bankers waking up at 8 a.m., dads chasing toddlers around, university students having house parties — you get the picture.
Noise is the biggest flash point for neighbours
Condos aren't being built with the goal of suppressing noise between units, says Jennifer Bell, founder of Placet Dispute Resolution, a mediation service that works with many condos.
“Condos are being built to code,” she says. “But do the current building codes in Ontario provide the level of sound barrier, for example, that one might expect or need to dampen the noise between units? I think that may not always be the case.”
Servers coming home at 4 a.m., single bankers waking up at 8 a.m., dads chasing toddlers around, university students having house parties
There’s been no shortage of high-profile court cases in Canada in the past few years where neighbours have faced off in the courtroom over noise.
In 2013, Michael Rehmat, a 60-year-old long-time resident of a luxury condo in Montreal’s Côte Saint-Luc neighbourhood, took the drastic action of suing a couple and their five-year-old daughter because he couldn’t bear the sound of the child running.
But Rehmat’s case illustrates how wrongly handling noise complaints can backfire. The Montreal court decided in favour of the couple, saying that Rehmat had behaved in a way that bordered on harassment by continuously calling neighbours, the condo board and police.
In the end, Rehmat’s battle ended costing him, the couple and the condo board a whopping $315,000.
Mediation should always be the first solution
Bell says most disputes should never make it to the courtroom. Ontario legislation demands that you try mediation first, before moving on to arbitration. Court is a last resort.
She says the most common complaints she fields are about noise, pets and Airbnb. Mediation costs roughly between $500-$3,000 for each party and a mediator's role is to guide the parties in conflict to a resolution they can both live with. Arbitration is a much more formal process, involving lawyers and evidence. Decisions for both mediation and arbitration are binding.
She says the most common complaints she fields are about noise, pets and Airbnb
Which route you go really depends on the type of conflict. If it’s something that is specifically against the condo’s declaration or bylaws, like short-term subletting or the weight of pets, for example, it can result in a clear-cut solution: it either is or isn’t allowed and is therefore suited to a binding decision. But other issues, like noise or personal conflict, are far more suited to mediation.
“How would you get compliance? How can you stop making noise and at what level?” Bell says. “It’s hard to make a comprehensive durable order that would address something like noise, and arbitration tends to create a winner and loser, so it increases animosity."
Appeal to a property manager before you go to your neighbour
Bell says the the best first step is always to appeal to the property manager, since most people are reluctant to approach a neighbour themselves.
“It takes a lot of nerve to knock on your neighbour’s door at midnight when you’re already annoyed to complain about the music,” she says. “The most important way that condo conflict is managed is through the property manager. He is really well placed to keep an open dialogue between the two unit owners. He’s such an important resource in term of early management.”
The most important action a property manager can do, according to Bell, is sit down the occupants and create empathy between them — to make them see the humanity behind the infraction. Once that dialogue is open, both parties are likely to be far more open to compromise.
It takes a lot of nerve to knock on your neighbour’s door at midnight when you’re already annoyed to complain about the music
For example, Bell says, “Maybe you have your shift work, so you’re working 12 a.m. to 8 a.m. and when you come home, all you want to do is go to sleep, and you can’t because there are kids going bananas upstairs. But your neighbour may think that at 9 a.m., everyone is at work and having the kids yelling and screaming and playing robot laser tag is completely acceptable behaviour.”
In the end, mediation can save you thousands of dollars in headaches
Cases like the Rehmat dispute in Montreal illustrate how much proper dispute resolution matters in the modern condo jungle.
Opting for creative solutions like adjusting behaviour, reducing noise by putting down padding or carpet or adding bookshelves against the wall can save you — and the condo itself — a lot of headaches. In extreme cases, it can also save you a lot of cash as well.
Illustration by Taryn Gee.