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

Written on September 14, 2015 by

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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173 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

  • 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?

  • FRANCIS

    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.

  • JULIE ORPEN

    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?

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