Mary's condo is in a nice neighborhood, attractively decorated, and offers killer views from a wall of windows.
But look closely, and you might notice the pillow stuffed under the bathroom counter, the four sound-deadening machines tucked into corners, the rugs placed on top of other rugs. It's not something you'd see in Architectural Digest, but it serves a purpose as she tries to quiet the din from her neighbors next door and below.
Her eardrums are bombarded with their loud music, raised voices and what seems to be a herd of elephants dancing around. Even everyday noises, such as shutting kitchen cabinets and drawing baths, echo maddeningly in her unit.
She loves her condo's high ceilings and sunny rooms, but she's ready to move, even though she hates the idea.
Mary has a lot of company. Noise from next-door neighbors is the No. 1 complaint of Americans living in condo, town house and apartment complexes, according to a survey by Charlotte, N.C.-based National Gypsum. Although loud music was named as the most annoying noise, respondents also complained about everything from neighbors arguing and having sex to dogs barking and toilets flushing.
The problem is only going to increase in coming years, says Les Blomberg, director of the Vermont-based Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group promoting "peace and quiet." The reason: growing demand for condos and other multifamily residences.
Some of the demand is coming from baby boomers who are retiring, downsizing and looking for low-maintenance living. Some is coming from people starting their first jobs. Some is coming from people who can't afford single-family homes.
But too often, builders don't focus on sound abatement, and hapless town house or condo owners or apartment dwellers are left in a quagmire that means moving, or staying put and spending a lot of money to rectify the situation.
Those in older units are particularly affected, but Blomberg cites a 2005 Census housing survey that found that more than 700,000 units built in the past four years were reported to have noise problems.
So what can be done about it?
The smartest thing is to buy or rent in a development that was built with sound-abatement features. Making a unit soundproof during construction is much cheaper than trying to quiet things down later, experts say.
R.J. Steer of Centennial Collaborative, a Colorado Springs, Colo., architectural firm, firmly believes sound mitigation should be part of initial construction.
"If done correctly it doesn't add much extra, costwise. But if a consumer has to do it afterwards it can be expensive," he says.
He notes that many builders have been paying more attention to sound-muffling technology in recent years. One reason, he says, is that condo owners have been filing more lawsuits against builders because of noise problems.
It doesn't take any longer to build a home with noise-abatement features, and the new products on the market make it easy to do, says Randy Carpenter, vice president of sales for Pulte Homes. Pulte, he says, builds town houses so that each unit has its own set of walls that are separated by air space. They also use 1-inch-thick fire-rated wallboard to help.
And if you do buy, get to know your neighbors.
"I tell people that the first thing they should do when they move into a townhome is to invite the neighbors to a party, or at least get to know them," Blomberg says. "Then it's harder for them to be rude to your requests."