10 tips for finding a quiet apartment (© Peter Griffith/Masterfile)

So, things are bad. The next-door neighbor ramps the stereo up to 11. The upstairs neighbor clomps in after the late shift at 3 a.m. and drops his shoes on the hardwood floors above your bed. Earplugs aren't cutting it, and the landlord won't invest in soundproofing. Your misery level is at 11. There's nothing left to do but run.

But wait. Before taking flight to new digs, make sure you're not just trading one noise problem for another. If you're looking for a newer, quieter apartment, do so with your ears open. These 10 tips can help:

  • Look for — and avoid — the big neighborhood noise offenders: airport flight paths, highways, trains, commercial buildings with industrial fans, supermarkets with late-night deliveries. Be suspicious of unlikely suspects, too, such as churches and community halls.
  • Consider the sounds of the seasons. Scoping during the peace of winter? Ask about the street sweepers of spring and the air-conditioning units of summer. "Visit the area many times under different conditions," advises Les Blomberg, director of the Noise Pollution Clearinghouse in Montpelier, Vt.
  • Consider the hour, too. People often show units in the afternoon, when neighbors are at work. Return during the hours you plan to be (quietly) at home. Then you can hear what it's really like.
  • Check for shoddy construction. Knock on exterior doors. Hollow doors let in more noise. Gaps around doors are also bad; sound gets through wherever air does. The same goes for windows, which should be double-paned and well-sealed. Do a test and close one near some outdoor noise.

Remember, any noise still seeping through will seem louder by comparison late at night. Ask the landlord if shared walls have been soundproofed. Do the walls, ceilings and floors have multiple layers with an air break in between? “You could knock on it and it sounds hollow, but what you don’t know is they have two walls separating the rooms," says Alex Gomez, president of SoundAway, in Vista, Calif. "That's a good construction method to isolate sound."

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Nor does it hurt to ask for the apartment's sound transmission class (STC). Most building codes require a minimum of 50, Gomez says. But, he cautioned, "Most landlords won't know the answer, and whatever they do say is questionable."

  • Take a test hear. This is crucial. "It's really hard to know the acoustical properties of a building  just by looking at it," Blomberg says. "You can't see inside walls; you've got to listen." Ask someone to walk upstairs and to talk next door. "If you can hear conversations, that's an indication that there's very little between you and your neighbor," Gomez says. "Even partial conversations aren't good. That means music can come through."
  • Ask about the building's design. Some apartment complexes are intentionally configured to minimize adjoining noise conflict. Your bedroom might be beneath your neighbor's study, for instance, and your neighbor's plumbing wouldn't be against your wall. See if the layout can put you as far away from potential noise sources as possible.
  • Consider the exterior design. Sound bounces off hard surfaces, such as building walls, and collects in the middle. U-shaped courtyards or enclosed lots will add noise.
  • Interview the neighbors. This is the aural detective's most valuable tool. Who knows better about the sound-blocking quality of the building than those who live there? Put on a smile, knock on someone's door and just ask. Better yet, if you can meet the people right next door to the apartment you're considering, a friendly conversation could give you a sense of their noise levels and whether they will be approachable should problems arise."If you were going to employ me, you would check my references," Blomberg says. "I'm struck by people who move into a neighborhood and don't do any of that equivalent due diligence."
  • Stay out of traffic indoors. If possible, try to find an apartment that's far from high-use areas such as elevators, stairwells and meeting rooms. Ask for a top, bottom or outer unit to cut down on immediate neighbors.
  • Be patient and demand answers. Tell the prospective landlord, "If I can't find out how quiet it is, I’ll keep looking." Remember, the landlord might appreciate the prospect of securing a quiet tenant in you. And don't forget, it's worth it: You really do need your sleep.