Q: My daughter is renting a studio apartment in south Minneapolis. We looked at the building on a Sunday when nobody else was around except the building manager, who showed us the apartment. It wasn't until after signing a one-year lease and moving in that my daughter discovered the walls are paper thin. It's a very old building, and the walls seem to be made of plaster. I didn't even consider that noise would be an issue. Her neighbor's alarm wakes her up at 5 a.m. She can hear him talk, walk and even push the buttons on his microwave. It literally seems like there is no wall there at all. He must be able to hear every noise that she makes, too. It is quite stressful for her. She doesn't want to talk on the phone because her conversation can be heard. Can she say that the apartment is unlivable, which would invalidate the lease?
A: Minnesota state law requires that promises or covenants of habitability apply to all rental housing. The covenants include keeping the unit in reasonable repair, fit for the use intended and in compliance with safety and health codes. For a property to become unlivable or uninhabitable, meaning that any reasonable person would move out, then a constructive eviction would occur. Some examples of constructive eviction defects include collapsed roofs, major construction problems and unsafe conditions. Claims for partial constructive eviction also exist, in which the court allows a tenant to pay partial rent until the landlord is able to resolve the problem that is causing their tenant to lose the use and enjoyment of their place. An example of this type of defect may be a broken stove or a room that cannot be used. For a tenant to claim that a noise issue is bad enough to qualify as a constructive eviction depends on the actual noise occurring, and whether the court believes that the noise makes the place wholly or partially unlivable. Many rental apartments and homes have similar noise issues that are caused by neighbors' routine walking and talking around their place. She would have to convince the court that her place is unlivable due to the noise and that her lease should be terminated because of it, which may be difficult to prove. Your daughter would need to send her landlord a letter providing written notice of the problem, and giving them 14 days to fix it. If the noise problem isn't fixed in 14 days, then your daughter can file an action with the court asking that her lease be terminated. Your daughter's biggest problem in going to court is that courts understand that every apartment has some noise issues, as tenants are sharing floors, walls and ceilings with other units, and it is too costly to make them completely soundproof. While I share your daughter's frustration, she will have to overcome that issue in order to prevail.
Another option is to speak with her building manager or landlord directly and let them know about the noise problem. Your daughter can request that soundproofing be installed, since there are ways to lower the noise level by using thick rugs on floors and soundproofing materials between walls. If they aren't able to soundproof her place to improve her quality of living there, then she could request that her lease be terminated early. Most landlords do not want unhappy tenants and will arrive at an agreement to terminate her lease early, which is why many leases contain a buyout clause. You should review your daughter's lease to see if there is a buyout clause. If not, she could still work out an agreement with the landlord to terminate her lease early by paying one or two months' rent. If your daughter does arrive at an agreement with her landlord or the building manager, make sure she gets the agreement in writing and signed by both parties.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 650 3rd Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.