Smoking on rental home balconies – ok or not ok?

When a neighbour is smoking on the balcony, a non-smoker may feel quite uncomfortable. Although more and more apartment buildings have a no-smoking policy, smoking on the balcony is still permitted in most home buildings. How should smoking be approached and how does, for example, rental housing provider SATO deal with the challenges arising from smoking?

Fewer and fewer people smoke these days. According to data from Tobacco statistics 2021 of the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, only 12% of people aged 20–64 in Finland smoke daily. This downward trend indicates that smoking on the balcony is probably also less and less common.

Now that smoking is no longer such an everyday and everywhere habit, tobacco smoke entering your home from next door may feel even more unpleasant. Online searches relating to balcony smoking increase particularly in the spring when both non-smoking and smoking residents want to catch of bit of sun on their balconies and it would be nice to have your windows open for a bit longer. But is balcony smoking really a big problem in rental apartments?

We at SATO went through responses to our customer satisfaction survey for the past year and took a look at feedback relating to smoking in particular. We also conducted a small smoking survey in four buildings in Vantaa – two with a full smoking ban and two where smoking is permitted on the balcony. It turned out that traditional balcony smoking does not annoy people nearly as much as could have been assumed.

Indoor smoking is permitted in very few rental apartments

SATO has around 25,000 apartments in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area, Turku and Tampere and, since 2008, our new lease agreements have contained a clause banning smoking indoors in the apartment. This applies to traditional tobacco as well as electronic cigarettes (vaping) and water pipes.

“Unfortunately, we still receive complaints about people smoking in apartments,” says Service Manager Heidi Lindholm from SATO. “But fortunately, the resident often understands from the first written warning how serious the matter is.”

In addition to tobacco smoke that spreads from one home to another causing problems and cigarettes causing a fire risk for residents, the apartment surfaces will also be stained, and any repair costs usually have to be paid by the smoker.

“The repair costs of a smoker’s apartment may be pretty high. In the worst cases, we’ve had to strip the apartment down to the concrete surfaces,” Lindholm continues. “This is equivalent to a full renovation of the entire home, and for larger rental apartments this may end up costing more than 50,000 euros.”

Even if smoking is allowed on the balcony, the smoker should make sure the smoke will not end up indoors in their own or their neighbour’s home.

As a rule, in SATO-owned buildings smoking is only permitted in the outdoor areas and on the balconies. If the building has been fully renovated or completed in or after 2017, the entire property, including balconies and outdoor areas, are a non-smoking zone.

So what about balcony smoking?

In our big customer satisfaction survey, smoking-related responses accounted for less than 4% and balcony smoking did not come up in them to any particular extent. The responses to our small smoking survey included many non-smokers living in a building where balcony smoking is permitted writing that, when the rules are clear, they do not mind about people smoking on the balcony.

“When I still used to smoke, it was a luxury to be able to have a cigarette on your balcony,” wrote one respondent. “When someone wants to smoke on the balcony, then they can smoke on the balcony. I myself don’t smoke, but it doesn’t bother me that my neighbour does,” wrote another respondent.

Of course, people smoking on the balcony hardly want to deliberately inconvenience their neighbours. Ensuring tidiness, checking which direction the smoke flows and taking the neighbours into account are the key things smokers should remember. Survey respondents mentioned that things such as chain smoking, smoking during the night and chucking cigarette butts down from the balcony to the grounds and, in the worst case, to the balcony of someone living underneath them, are those that cause the biggest nuisance.

“I’d also like to point out that an ashtray that’s left in the sun on the balcony may smell so strongly that the neighbours can also smell it,” says Heidi Lindholm. “Especially if there’s water in the ashtray due to rain or to ensure the butts won’t catch fire.”

Those respondents who stated that they also smoke responded almost without any exception that they comply with the smoking rules of their home building. It is only icy conditions on the grounds or extreme subzero temperatures that have made them ignore the rules – in both cases people have had a cigarette on their balcony instead of the designated smoking area outside the building.

Keeping the grounds tidy is something everyone should take part in. Please remember to carefully put out your cigarette butts to ensure they will not cause a fire and then drop them in a bin or an outdoor ashtray.

Banning balcony smoking

What if a resident wanted to make their home building a fully non-smoking zone? Could balcony smoking be banned?

Under the Tobacco Act, the municipal health authority may, following an application submitted by the housing company, impose a smoking ban on apartment balconies and apartment indoor areas if smoke may spread from a balcony or indoor area to a neighbouring apartment.

“The process is quite long and requires measures such as hearing all residents and a decision by the general meeting of shareholders,” Lindholm says. “There are a few SATO home buildings that have been turned into non-smoking zones in this way, and we’ve also been included in the process in situations where we only own some of the rental apartments in a building.”

Challenges of fully smoke-free buildings

Our small smoking survey showed that breaking the rules in a building designated as smoke-free causes a lot more upset and contacts to the rental housing provider than in buildings where balcony smoking is allowed. When non-smoking buildings have issues to do with smoking, this is also strongly reflected in the Net Promoter Score (NPS)* used to measure residents’ likelihood to recommend the building.

“In such buildings, the NPS may drop by more than 40 points, whereas in so-called ordinary buildings smoking-related issues have a lot lower impact on the score,” Lindholm says. “On the other hand, in those non-smoking buildings where rules are obeyed, the NPS is higher than in ordinary buildings. And the good thing is that the majority of our non-smoking home buildings are exactly like that.”

According to residents, any problems at non-smoking buildings are often to do with there not being a smoking area on the building grounds. People go out to have cigarettes on the street side underneath people’s windows and, as there are no ashtrays, they chuck the cigarette butts on the street. In such cases, the smoke nuisance affects only few homes, but it affects them a lot more strongly. This is why a designated smoking area has now been assigned for some of the non-smoking SATO buildings. This may sound strange, as the no-smoking policy applies specifically to outdoor areas, too.

“Smoking areas are not set up if there’s even a slight chance that smoke will end up in people’s homes,” Lindholm says and adds: “On large building grounds it’s often possible to assign a smoking area, especially if smoking-related problems have been detected in a smoke-free building.”

“A separately designated smoking area is also a sign for visitors and passers-by that the building has restrictions concerning smoking.”

What is the response to those who break the rules?

In most SATO buildings – non-smoking ones and those that allow balcony smoking – things are fine. Monitoring compliance with smoking rules is a natural part of the duties of, for example, House Experts, contractors, security guards and maintenance companies.

“There are lots of SATO employees whose work involves visits to home buildings,” Lindholm points out. “If we detect any indoor smoking or spot someone smoking on the grounds of a building with a no-smoking policy when we visit apartments, we address the matter by having a chat with the resident.”

A total of 30% of residents responding to the smoking survey said they would contact SATO directly if they detected a problem, whereas 25% would first bring the issue up with the neighbour breaking the rules, 6% would put a note on the notice board and 35% would not respond in any way to the matter.

“Direct communication with your neighbour is the best first step in this, too. That’s often enough to solve the problem, which means there may be no need to take the issue any further,” Lindholm says.

If a resident breaks the smoking rules repeatedly, they will be issued a written warning of the rescission or termination of their lease agreement. If the problem persists and depending on how serious the case is, they may even have to move out of the SATO home.

“It’s really important for us at SATO that our residents enjoy living in their home. We encourage people not to hesitate getting in touch with us if they notice that someone isn’t complying with the rules agreed for the building,” Lindholm says and adds: “OmaSATO is a quick way to send your message to the right address and alert us to take measures.”