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[Seoul Struggles 4] Inter-floor noise, the scourge of apartment life

Many resort to moving house, as there are few legal options for those suffering from noise disputes

View of apartment buildings in Seoul. (Yonhap)
View of apartment buildings in Seoul. (Yonhap)
Finding a place to live in Seoul was no problem for Seo Jee-sun when she had a full-time job at a massage parlor in Seoul, but the real problem was finding a house where she can sleep at night without having to worry about noise from upstairs.

Living on the 12th floor of an apartment building in Mapo-gu, western Seoul, Seo was happy to find a rather affordable housing option with reasonable monthly rent, except the unit came without an option to sleep comfortably at night.

For the past six months, almost every day until 11 p.m., Seo’s ears have been assaulted by two kindergarten-age children jumping around and screaming in joy, trying their best to keep her awake as long as possible.

“I wanted to jump off the building multiple times,” Seo said. “All I wanted was just seven hours of guaranteed time to sleep.”

Seo is one of many people living in Seoul and greater South Korea suffering from neighbors’ noise. Living in apartment units means taking in some level of noise and ignoring a certain level of auditory displeasure on a daily basis, but in many cases, noise has led to disputes between neighbors.

A 2013 survey from the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission found that 79 percent of respondents living in multi-household residential units were distressed by apartment noise, and 9 percent said they suffered stress from noise disputes with neighbors.

According to data from the Korea Environment Corporation, its apartment noise counseling center conducted 206,320 consultations by phone and online from 2012 to 2020, 22.4 percent of which were from Seoul.

The request for consultations steadily increased over the years but peaked last year, as people spent more time at home due to COVID-19 pandemic. Seoul as a whole had the second most consultation requests in Korea following Gyeonggi Province.

Noise in apartment buildings accounted for 78.4 percent of all requests, while 67.6 percent of the complaints were about walking or running noises from upstairs or downstairs.

Continued noise problems within apartments have sometimes resulted in violence, with both neighbors claiming they are the ones suffering from the issue. Those below struggle with the noise, while the ones upstairs struggle with complaints they don’t know how to address.

“I went upstairs every now and then to ask the neighbor to keep her children quiet during nighttime, and I didn’t want to do that, but I had to,” Seo said.

“At first, the neighbor apologized and promised to keep her kids calm at night, but that only lasted a few days. When this repeated, she started getting mad at me for knocking on the door about the noise issue.”

Even though this line of conflict has grown for the past six months, Seo said she couldn’t do much on her own to keep the noise level down. In the end, she said she just started using earplugs.

In Seoul, those facing apartment noise problems can request a consultation at KECO’s noise counseling center and file an arbitration request with local governments’ noise dispute coordination commissions.

But many people like Seo end up moving to different homes, as resolving the conflict through legal channels is not so useful in most cases.

“Civil suits or arbitration process through commissions can take at least six months, and that’s too long for anybody in need of noise issues to be taken care of,” said Kim Hee-kyung, a lawyer based in Seoul who specializes in apartment noise disputes.

“Oftentimes, people move out to different apartments when they find out the process takes this long, and at the moment, direct negotiation with the neighbor is the most realistic solution to this problem.”

The lawyer said many of the noise complaint cases she faced came from the greater Seoul area, as the region has more high-rise apartments and fewer interactions among neighbors.

If people want to take the issue to court, they can file a civil suit or request for arbitration through central government agencies. But this takes months, and the results are often unsatisfactory.

“There are no clear guidelines as to how much noise can be deemed troublesome legally, and going through the official civil suit process requires a lot of time and money, which not many can afford not knowing how the results will turn out,” Kim said.

While there were a few cases in the past that ended with actual compensation for those suffering apartment noise, these cases also involved harassment, threats and physical violence, meaning apartment noise alone is likely to be less convincing when seeking financial compensation, she added.

Luckily, a legislative revision on the construction law will help people experience fewer apartment noise issues. The National Assembly in June passed a revision that would require new apartments with more than 30 units to be constructed since July 2020 to undergo noise level testing.

The revision would allow individual provincial, municipal and district governments to implement their own standards as to how the noise level is controlled within the new housing units, which Kim believes will be helpful in reducing the number of people suffering from noise issues in the coming years.

Local construction firms in response to the revision introduced new technologies that reduce the amount of noise that travels between apartments, some of which are being used in apartments under construction.

By Ko Jun-tae (