Lock Lock, Who’s There? The Rules for Changing Locks

Written on September 14, 2015 by , updated on December 3, 2019

Changing the LocksAll sorts of situations can happen between landlords and tenants when it comes to changing (or not changing) locks.

Whether you change the locks or your tenant changes them, you need to know what you and your tenant can and cannot do.

Let’s go through a couple of scenarios to give you a better understanding of your rights.

Two Common Scenarios

1. Abandonment

Your tenant has paid the rent through Sept. 30, but has moved out on Sept. 10… she and her belongings are gone. However, the tenant not only did not return your keys to you, you discovered upon going over there on Sept. 12 that she also changed the locks.

Now you can’t get inside to ready the place for the next tenant. Can you change the locks in this case?

Let’s assume that your lease doesn’t address this issue. (More on that later.*)

What you should do:

Notify your tenant that you intend to change the locks back at their expense and see if she does it on her own accord. If not, wait until Oct. 1, and change the locks back when the lease has ended.

Or change the locks after she doesn’t respond to your inquiry, and notify your tenant that you have done so. Let her know that she can pick up an extra key from you if she would like to enter the unit up until Sept. 30, but if she does, she must return the key to you on or before Sept. 30.

What you shouldn’t do:

Change the locks between Sept. 11 and Sept. 30 and fail to notify your tenant. You can’t do that because she has paid through Sept. 30, so she has the right to have access to the property until then.

Whether you choose to wait until Oct. 1 or change the locks immediately, you can probably deduct from the security deposit what it costs you to change the locks since your tenant didn’t give you an extra key. This varies by state, so check your state laws.

2. Defiant Tenant

Your tenant has broken the lease by not paying rent and by destroying the property. You therefore decide to change the locks to keep out this undesirable tenant, and you put his belongings on the curb.

You can’t do that!

Changing the locks without going through the proper eviction procedures is considered “taking the law into your own hands,” or also known as a “self-help eviction” and it’s illegal in almost every state.

In fact, this deadbeat tenant can sue you for doing that! This tenant could be awarded monetary loss, such as hotel costs and the now-spoiled food that was in the fridge. And depending on your jurisdiction, your tenant could receive even more money that the court considers penalties to you, which could amount to several months’ worth of rent!

Your recourse is the eviction process. Sometimes, however, it might be cheaper and/or faster to pay a tenant to get out. Consider the cost of each. But keep in mind that even if you do offer to pay a tenant to leave, he can refuse. Then, you need to go through the eviction process anyway.

*Add a Lock Policy in Your Lease

Your lease can include language that prohibits a tenant from changing the locks unless you give permission and get an extra key. If your lease doesn’t state anything about locks, tenants can typically change them.

In some states, such as California and New Jersey, tenants can change the locks and not give you a key unless your lease states otherwise!

You should always have a key to your property.

You need access in case of an emergency. You also need access to make repairs (or to let in repair people) when your tenant isn’t home (after you have alerted your tenant about this and have given the proper notice).

If you allow your tenants to change the locks, it’s important to state in the lease that they need to give you a key – that way, it’s a lease violation if they don’t.

Some Thoughts About Changing Locks

Although you might not be required to change locks between tenants, and most landlords probably don’t, you might want to consider doing so.

Even if your last tenant returned the keys to you, you have no way of knowing whether that tenant made extra keys. The only way to be sure the place is secure is to change the locks.

If you don’t want to change the locks when a new tenant moves in, it’s a good idea to allow your tenants to do so if it will make them feel more comfortable. You don’t want to start off with bad mojo.

If the worst happens, and a former tenant did keep an extra key so he could come back and rob or otherwise victimize your new tenant, your new tenant could sue you and would certainly want to move.

You’d be far better off changing the locks or letting your tenant change them.

Just insist they give you a key.

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194 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Janice olson

    When first moved in two years ago had access to back yard. Nothing in rental lease about locks. He was reported to code enforcement by neighbor then he started building wood fence around cyclone fence in backyard then he changed lock. We aren’t allowed to access trash cans have take it with us to dispose of it or drive around to alley way please advise. Thank you.

  • jazz

    i moved in with my boy friend three years ago and one weekend i went to the lake with some friends of mine and when i got home on sunday he had changed the locks on all the doors and every thing i own is still in there he never told me he was going to change them can he legally do that i spend 200 every month for food and do my share of taking care of the house im on the verge of braking up with him at this point in our relationship

    • Ummbenin

      Did you ever receive any legal advice regarding this, I am in a similar situation and she has been destroying my things and throwing others of my things out While she changed the locks and I have no access. Legally this has to be illegal. Please advise!

  • Michell Hunter

    I rent a room in an apartment from some one I thought was my friend. They have have changed the apartment locks and they purposely lock me out everytime I leave. So now I just stay in. Can I remove the lock myself or us that illegal?

    • Jeff Kaplan

      I let a guest into my home because she had no where to go? Now after 12 days I want her to go somewhere else and she won’t lease. What can I do besides having to wait 30 days to get her out?

    • Anthony Manley

      Renting a room in my apartment without an lease 2wks. I want tenant out!

    • Beverly.kelly

      Is it legal for apt mgr to cut storage locks in garage and now contents are gone?


    My lan dlord refused to change my door lock 6 tenner lived here before me
    I don’t feel secure because the old tenner can ransack my flat

  • Donna Clark

    I am a landlord whose tenant has changed the locks on the rental property she is residing in. She refuses to give me a key! I am in the process of evicting her. Oral and written notice given. I gave her 48 hrs. Notice i would be changing the locks and providing her with a set also. Is this legal. Should I just wait for the eviction process?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Donna,
      I’m not an attorney, so I can’t give legal advice. Look up the laws for your state to see whether there are any about locks. For example, most states allow landlords to have their own copy of the key, but other states allow tenants to keep the keys to themselves. Generally, if there are no laws against it and if you have in your lease a clause that allows for you to have a key, then you can change the lock, keep a key, and give a key to your tenant. You cannot, however, change the locks and not give your tenant a key until after they are out.

      • Wanda Revak

        What do you do when your house guest changes the locks on the door while you are away and when you return they call police and say landlord is harrassing them . Now I have to go to court to get them evicted and not allowed in my ownowhouse

    • Carrie Othmer

      I’m in the same situation. We have tenants who won’t pay rent and there’s an inspection coming again to see the inside of their property . They leave each time the inspectors show up. I believe I’m going to post a 24 he notice of maintence changing locks and providing them with a new key for the next month until eviction. Sad ppl gotta be such lowlifes sometimes

      • Noelia

        Im going through the same issue. Tenants haven’t paid in 3 months and they are denying me access to my own house to try to sell it, Is there any recourse in NJ? They are already on the list for eviction but with the courts being closed, who knows how long eviction will take.


    I wonder if anyone can opine please. I live in a converted house (I own my flat) however share the front door with the studio flat below which is tenanted. Around 3 years ago the previously tenant moved out & I approached the landlord to replace the locks a) it was a fire hazard as we only had a mortice & were effectively locked in with a key & more worryingly b) the previous tenant could have kept keys. He was a drug addict, very aggressive and paranoid which resulted in me having to call the police several times. He was vindictive enough to come back and although he didn’t have access to my flat, he would have access to the communal area between the 2 flats. Could I have forced the landlord to replace the locks? He refused to share costs

  • Jay59

    Tenant last day as per court/eviction is today . Yesterday she said she would hand in the keys but did not. Today she claimed to have left them in the mailbox and on my door. Took a picture of them hanging on the door sent me this picture but did not leave the keys. Can I change the lock in the morning?

  • Jean

    Pipe burst. Forced to rent van attempt to remove belongings as mgmt said would throw away. Could not get everything. Mgmt changed locks. Allowed me TWO HOURS to clean fridge. Will not give me key or access. Said could not enter due to repair crew equipment(like I’m going to steal it). Put me in hotel but NEED STUFF IN MY APT(ppwk etc) In Pennsylvania. Help! Can they refuse access. Had prior issues with other tenant so dont want me anyway. Is public housing. I want out now but want MY stuff they are withholding access. They are blaming ME for pipe breaking(during Polar Vortex).

  • Eduardo Rangel

    Good morning. I moved in with my 2 boys mother in a apartment. Now she gets have of my work check and I also pay rent out of my funds whatever is left. Now my name isn’t on the lease, but I have always paid rent. My kids mother decide she doesn’t want me living with her anymore. One evening I was coming home to work locks were changed. What can I do please help

  • Mamie Gross

    My niece rented my guest room I gave her the ok to change bedroom lock for privacy. She is gone for over a month and will not respond to calls or messages to return the deadbolt key for me to enter room. Disabled in the state of ga . What can I do can’t afford to take up door.

  • JOHN

    my home was foreclosed on but i am still living in the home until i find another place. i have not been given any notice to quit or anything and when i came “home” from work, the new owners(not bank, individual) had changed my locks! when i asked for them to let me get the rest of my things, they said that they and the sheriff will be at the house in two days during lunch to get my stuff out! is this legal? i havent received anything in writing or been given any certain date to be out .

  • jaclene clinkenbeard

    I live in NE my home was broken into in November. The locks was never change because my landlord said it be a $75 fee and I just got robbed and did not have the money. today when I opened my door the door handle fell off, when I went outside to the front the door handle fell off. since I feel unsafe un home can the landlord still charge me a fee to change the locks?

  • Stacey

    Hi! I am a tenant and I gave my complex manager permission to enter my unit because of a leak in my ceiling. When I came home my door was unlocked and the lock had been changed. I was not made aware of the change or given a new key either. My two small boys live with me and i was so upset anything could have happened to us! What can i do about this?

  • Johnna Asuncion

    My girlfriend and I went on a weekend getaway and just as we settled into to enjoy our time together I received a phone call from my daughter and she had expressed concern that she had over heard my uncle talking about changing locks and out of curiosity my daughter asked are talking about my moms room? My uncle told her no but my daughter said that she did not trust him. I had left a spare key to my room with my daughter and the next day when my daughter returned home form work she noticed the shiney door knob and the key I left her did not work she immediately called to let me know I know it is illegal for him to change the locks without proper notice. My uncle is demanding money from me but I do not rent from him.

  • Taylor Wright

    I’m glad you talked about changing the locks after a tenant moves out. My brother is the owner of a new apartment complex and needs to find a good locksmith to work with so he can continually change the locks. I’ll show this to him so he can have more ideas to create a safe place for his tenants. https://allamericanlocksmithcf.com/services-products/

  • EOTrees Myles

    This still hasn’t help to give me any consolation in solving this problem, thank you anyway.

  • Aida Candelario

    My manager left a letter on my door that saids that the locks will be changed by the end of march 2020, but it also saids for me to understand that the replacement keys will be provided at my request for $ 18.00 dollars per key. I have to sign it and send it back.
    Is this even legal for me to pay them to replace the locks.Thanks. Aida.

  • janah L wilson

    I gave my roommate a 30 day notice and since then he refused to pay his portion of the utilities and has put a lock on his door without my permission

  • Emma Lee

    The Mother refuses to help us and is holding all of our things hostage. This is Theft! What do we do? We have no clothes, we have nothing. Please help us figure out what steps to take
    We just want our things. With the virus everywhere we are terrified.she has no right to lock us out, we were invited to LIVE there. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. I feel as if it is the best robbery ever. Have the victim move all their things in for you. This is criminal

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