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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188 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Sheila

    We have gone to digital keyless locks and will never go back to keys again.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Interesting Sheila! Does anyone complain and prefer keys?

      • Sheila

        Nobody has complained.

        I and one of my neighbors have put them on our personal homes. We love not having to keep up with keys.

        My housekeeper has her own code. It is easy to add/delete codes. Very helpful to not need to make keys and/or change locks.

        • Ehsan

          With digital locks eblnsure you have an electro magnetic lock one that is always engaged. That way a thief can’t emp flash it and open it since it uses its power to unlock instead of lock. Not really common for a thief to employ those tool now but in the near future, consider the possibility

    • Samantha

      I have a question I am hoping you can answer. I recently had a person walk into my house, who evidently had a key, as the doors are always locked. My landlord had sent a clean up crew, (that she failed to tell me about,) and they were threatened by this person and witnessed them walk into my house. Now I suspect that the previous tenant, who was evicted as my landlord informed me, may have been responsible. That being said, isn’t it true that the landlord has a responsiblilty to change the locks if the tenant was evicted? I have two children living with me and am very concerned about this matter. Thank you.

      • Laura Agadoni

        Hi Samantha,
        If a cleaning crew were in your house, they may very well have left the door unlocked, so the person who walked in could have just been a random stranger and not the previous tenant. You’re making a lot of assumptions here. Talk with your landlord. Maybe they did change the locks before you moved in. If you feel more comfortable changing them, and if you do change them, you need to give your landlord a key.

  • Puddy Prop:

    To the POINT —- I am so tired of hearing about changes, who and where is the somebody who finally justifies the law being FAIR and EQUAL????
    Once again WE would be the ones getting sued if an old tenant robbed the new ones but by god no one would go after the robber, or if they do they find out they are on SSI and can’t be touched.

    We need SO many laws changed to make it fair. I feel like a entitlement program where I keep losing money. ENOUGH

    • olga

      They go after the easy target like us, LLs. Law does not protect us who pay the f TAXES but the people abusing our property. I just got these tenants who placed THREE cats and possibly a dog without saying a word to me. I found the cats when came to check the claimed “odor” and asked them to either remove the animals or move out. The contract says NO PETS. The animals had been in the apartment four months before I discovered them! I did not even penalize them, just asked to move. They removed all their furniture and belongings but refused to return the keys. They’re supposed to be out by October 1st but they threatened to destroy my property now unless I return the deposit! CAN I CHANGE THE LOCK? They’ve no belongings in the apt.

      • Laura Agadoni

        Hi Olga,

        You don’t need to return the security deposit before the tenants move out. Check with your state to determine how much time you have. It usually varies from 14 days to a month to even 60 days in some places.

        So let them know that on Sept. 30 (I assume that is their last day) you will do a walk-through. And tell them they will get their full deposit back only if there are no damages and if they return the keys. Let them know you will return any security deposit owed to them by your state’s time frame. If they do damage the place, and it’s more than the security, let them know you’ll sue.

        If you don’t get the keys back, you can deduct the cost of changing the locks (and any damage they might do) from the security deposit.

        • olga

          They lost their security deposit. The contract says no pets or they forfeit their security deposit otherwise. I am losing now for indefinite period of time till I found new tenants. I am not returning the deposit. I’ll return the last month pay but not the deposit. It’s unfair to the LL to suffer damages because of the tenants who do not honor the contract.

          • olga

            If there are damages I can sure sue them, but I will have to first find their new location which I doubt I will be able to. LL are absolutely unprotected against tenants’ abuses.

        • Puddy Prop:


          Change the damn locks! Laura why the law or your suggestions don’t work, because even if we win a lawsuit we have to know where they now live, then we have to know where they work, then we have to possibly garnish their wages ONLY to find out they claim bankruptcy and all is lost. Remember we can’t even say in our lease that we have the right to collect attorney fees —– WHO passed this s–t? we need a senator to change the laws to make it fair. This would be a good start —- change the locks and make them take YOU to court —– do we get 30 days to comply? start pushing the system people and let the judge’s start hearing our complaints.

          • Laura Agadoni

            Good point, Puddy. It’s often difficult to locate tenants who owe you money. I’ll post something on this topic soon.

            • Justin Case

              I would NEVER tell a tenant before they move out that I plan to keep the whole deposit. I assure them I will return any part that isn’t used for cleaning, damages, or utilities. I have 14 days (in my state) to return the unused deposit, along with a list of what was withheld and why. The 14 days starts when they give me their new contact information.

              But further, if they know they won’t get any deposit back, they will likely do much more damage, and certainly won’t clean anything.

        • Charlene Sharpe

          I HAVE NEVER MISSED A PAYMENT YET ONE DAY I COME HOME AND THINGS ARE MISSING AND I KNOW WHERE I STORED THEM. SO I GO TO THE STORE AND RE BUY WHAT I COULD NOT FIND! Someone had the keys to my apt and they let themselves in and took what they wanted! I talked to management and they say they CHANGED the locks but they did not. I ACTUALLY went and paid for my own locks and I AM moving and when I DO I will take my locks off and put the other ones back on! I really think IT is a aweful way too do business! APARTMENT living is not my thing anymore I am looking for a more respectful place now and I FEEL SO BAD BECAUSE THEY DID NOT CARE ENOUGH FOR THE SAFETY OF A RENTER THAT NEVER EVEN MISSED A PAYMENT! I AM Done with APARTMENTS I AM TRULY HURTING!

  • Laura Agadoni

    I hear you Puddy Prop. It’s not as if the landlord robbed the new tenant.

    But it’s the landlord’s responsibility to make the place safe. So if there is a possibly of being sued, it’s in your best interest to protect yourself.

  • Dan Kelly

    All of my houses have quick key locks on them, and If I get a new house I change all the Locks to Quick key lock system. Now all I do is re-key the lock. I can re-key 3 dead bolts and 3 door knob set in about 3-5 min or less. Just have to have one or two sets of extra keys. anyone can do it.

    I do have the clause in my lease that say they can not change the locks out, on any unit.

  • Laura Agadoni

    Thanks for the advice, Dan! I just installed that system on a property I just bought based on what I learned from reading Landlordology! And I will now add the clause to my lease saying tenants cannot change the locks, as well.

  • Puddy Prop:

    Here is the other problem people —- non of it matters. Say they change the locks or allow pets when the lease says they cannot, what is our recourse? to evict? laughable because we now lose money and the ability to collect for at least 60 days until they are gone. WE NEED PENALTIES simply put. They break the rules and we get NOTHING out of it, all this must change where upon we have the right to collect a Monterrey sum for them breaking an agreement. I tried NO LEASE, NO PAPERS
    judge asked if I handed them the keys, yes I said —- then that constitutes an agreement and WE still have to give 30 days and follow all procedures. However if you file an eviction notice etc; and it is wrong OUR paperwork gets tossed out of court.

  • Laura Freitas

    I have a tenant who has been in my studio condo for over 20+ years. Was handled by a property manager for years. Always pays the rent on time. The problem is the property manager went out of business a few years ago, then my husband was handling everything. He passed away in June of 15, and I realize I have no keys to the condo. Any suggestions?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Laura,
      If I were you, I’d explain this to your tenants. Tell them that now that you are in charge, you need to have a key. Get a key from them, make a copy for yourself, and return their key. If they ask you to rekey everything, I would do that. They might not feel confident that their key is not floating around out there somewhere.

      • Superior

        The issue is that landlords are not trustworthy, and they come into apartments when tenants are away and snoop/steel things, they do not deserve to get the keys, if they want to come in during the presence of tenants to make repairs or such that’s ok, but not during their absence!!!!!!!!!

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Superior,
          Landlords are not allowed to snoop or steal. If that has been your experience, you can sue your landlord for coming in without permission, and you can report theft to the police. But the house belongs to the landlord, so the landlord had the right to come in for a variety of reasons after giving proper notice. Changing locks to prevent the landlord from entering could get you fined or evicted.

          • Momof3

            Here a question.. I live in NJ and my tenants moved in this April of 2016 at the recommendation of another tenant. Since April, they have paid no rent, not given my keys to the apartment we have filed for court eviction and are still waiting for a set date. In the past month they have had “a leaky drain” that has flooded the tenants below. I have a plumber willing to go and complete the repairs, and these tenants refuse to be home to give him access. Can I legally break the lock for the plumber and change the locks, leaving a note for them to contact me for their re-entry?

            • Laura Agadoni

              Hi Momof3,
              I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give you legal advice. If, however, you have a situation in your unit that is flooding other tenants, it seems reasonable to call a locksmith so that you can get in for the purpose of rectifying the flooding situation. And you are correct in that you need to let these tenants know how they can get back in.

  • Joseph

    Hi Laura:

    Question I have a friend who was living in my house without a leasing agreement but did pay rent, unfortunately he fell behind more than a month so I ask him to leave my house with a 30 day notice, he since as move out leaving behind some funiture in my house, my question is can I change the locks and grant him permition to come and get the rest of his furniture?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Joseph,
      To be safe, wait until after the 30 days are up, and then change the locks. You could also write him a letter stating that he needs to get his furniture out by X date or you will dispose of it.

  • Phil S

    I have received a second judgment for eviction to collect over $7,000, with a previous judgment for a similar sum on this tenant that has nor paid rent since August 2016.
    I do not have a keys to the property, and was not able gain entry to the property in a timely manner from the sheriff – locksmith was not there at the time.
    Now, can I advise the tenant by “Certificate of Mailing” letter of my intent to re-key the locks, and a date and time when I plan to do this, offering a set of keys after doing this?
    Is that illegal to do, if they do not avail themselves to be present?
    Do I have to have witnesses, when I do this?

  • Joe

    Hello. I was involved with a domestic violence case, in which I was the victim. And unfortunately my father in law is also my landlord. So I’m wanting to know if I can change the locks without giving a key to him, but relinquishing all keys if I move out, or if repairs are needed etc.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Joe,
      I’m sorry to hear that you were the victim of domestic violence. You probably need to provide a key for your landlord. This depends on your lease and the state in which you live.

      • Joe

        I figured, but it was the point to know they can’t get in without me there. Thank you though for the quick response.

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Joe,
          Your landlord is not allowed to enter the property without giving you proper notice unless there is an emergency in the house. You can probably break the lease if that happens.

  • Brenda

    I have a room renter that threw boiling hot water at me and the case is pending then, she got scared and moved out on the 10th her rent is paid til the 30th. Can I change the house locks and not her room lock ? She completely moved out except a picture remains.

  • Donna

    4 people are moving into an apartment in NYC in which all are on the lease. The landlord will only provide 1 key (a magnetic one) and said the others will cost $25.00 for each set. Now this is not a key that you can go to the local hardware store to copy. It is not stated in the lease either that keys will need to be paid for. I feel that that is the right of the landlord to provide each tenant with a key free of charge especially if they are all listed on the lease. Is this wrong of him to charge>=?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Donna,
      It’s usually normal for a landlord to provide tenants with their own keys. But some landlords choose to give one key and have tenants make copies made from that. You can check to see whether there are laws specific to NYC.

  • Amy

    My roommate text me after she was gone a week an said she was not coming back and she would get her stuff as soon as she could being that she still had my keys and she had been deceitful and still had not paid her rent and I wasn’t sure who she gave keys to plus found out she was a pot head and had shady friends I changed my locks since she told me she was not coming back because I travel alot she was only there 30 days. while I was out of town she showed up at my house wanting her stuff and she couldnt get in. now she has took out a civil summons but I was told by the law I could change my locks since she said she was not coming back. but could not touch her stuff until I evicted her. how can she take me to civil court

  • Marlo

    Hello, hopefully you can help me with this situation. I specifically stated not to change the locks in my policy and the tenant anyway did it. I want to evict her because of that reason. How do I do that? I live in Texas

  • Mari A

    My tenant said he and his family has moved they left a couple of things behind no clothes in there room it looks abandoned but they keep coming back everyday washing clothes and still looking using my shower it’s been 30 days since the eviction notice should I still continue with the eviction process or what should I do?

  • Christine

    I have everyone’s worst nightmare living in my condo. I am in the process of evicting her. In the lease with her I have the right, with a 24 hour notice to go in and inspect the property. ( I believe there is damage to the air conditioner) In the state of VA after serving her with the 24 hour notice if I go there and the locks are changed, am I allowed to have a locksmith open the door and then the locks will be changed. A new key will be given to the resident who will be charged for the service. Thank you for your time!!!

  • Brenda

    We have been trying to reach our tenant in Indiana since the middle of July. He had locked himself out of the unit and I brought him our set of keys to his unit. He promised to get another set made the next day. We have not heard from him since then and it is now Aug 8, 2016. We have sent texts and phone calls so we could get our set of keys back with no response. He lives by himself and had always been very good about responding to our phone calls or text up until now. After 3 weeks we had a locksmith change the lock so we could check to see if he was alright. I still have not been able reach him so that we could get him the new set of keys and he also hasn’t checked his mail or paid rent for Aug. What should I do? Help

  • Gail johnson

    Can I change lock tenant has move but refuse to give me the key because she has belonging in there so I can’t get in the own property

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Gail,
      This depends on the circumstances on which she left and the state you are in. Check with your local jurisdiction on what you should do depending on your circumstances. For example, did she leave after giving you a termination notice? Did you give her a notice? Did you evict her? Did she just disappear?

  • Katrina

    We were advised by an attorney a few years ago that we could deduct the cost of purchasing new locks and having them installed from the security deposit when a Tenant vacates. Now that we have a roommate situation and have no idea of how many keys are floating around, we feel that changing/replacing the locks just makes good sense and offers security/peace of mind for us and the new tenant.

    When trying to find information about this now, it looks like this can be done upon signing a new lease and charging the new tenant? Does anyone know whether or not the cost can be deducted from the security deposit? or do we hold off and charge the new tenant?

  • Cristina Ramos

    I’m not sure if certain states have different rules when it comes to changing locks but if i changed my locks because my key continued to get stuck in the door, is my lanlord entitled to a key?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Christina,
      If your lease states that you must provide a key for the landlord if you change locks, then you need to give your landlord a key. Otherwise, you can check your state law.

  • Adela Haskoor

    On May , 20 16 I gave notice to my tenants to move out of my house do to the fact , that they broke the lease more then three times , I gave then 60 days notice to move out , on July 27 2016 they told me that they needed one more month so I gave them till August 31,2016. They moved out on August 29,30 , 31. The whole house is completely empty . But they did not returned the key .
    I called the tenant told him to please return the key if he was done moving out that I need to get in he never let me in to do an inspection of my home . He told me he was working he has been busy . I need to get in my house with out braking a window to get in and unlock it & to check to see hopefully they didn’t do any demadge . What can I do please help !

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Adela,
      Call a locksmith. The money you spend on the locksmith letting you in comes out of your tenant’s security deposit. Change the locks before the next tenant comes in. (Your expense because you should always change locks between tenants. I recommend Kwikset.) And always keep a key so that you can enter your own property in case of emergencies, to make requested repairs, or to show the house before you sell.

  • Breanna

    What should I do if I paid 1st, last & deposit as well as have a non-notarized signed contract to move in on the first and the landlord never gave me a key before she moved out & won’t answer my calls. It’s now the 4th and I don’t know if it’s legal or not to get a locksmith to unlock the door for me in CA.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Breanna,
      This could be a scam. Call the police.

      • Breanna

        Yeah that’s what I figure Because the lady doesn’t seem to want to move out & when we go to the house she doesn’t answer the door either. See, we had signed a year contract with her & she was initially supposed to move out & stay with her sister before her court day. But now she doesn’t want to move out anymore or even answer the door or phone. But your right, the lady does seem like she’s trying to scam us. Thanks for your comments of help.

  • Shauna

    Hello! I just came across your website and figuredmaybe you could give me some advice on a difficult situation. A few months ago we decided to rent 2 rooms from friends having financial difficulties. Long story short, our ‘friend’ended up basically screwing is over and now wants us out (mental breakdown). Since we just moved 4 hours away to rent from them, we needed time to find a new place. This just happened 4 days ago. Now they are blatantly harrassing and doing malicious things to us (turning off ac for long weekends while away/cutting power to our rooms, etc). Police have been informed but nothing they will do. Can we change locks on our bedrooms? What can we do to protect ourselves? Please help!

  • Amanda

    What if your parents moved you in after your divorce. Never asked for rent just wanted me to work on getting my life in order. Then after a verbal argument they changed locks and required me to call to be able to come in. What if my phone dies or I dont have it ?

  • Shyloe

    I allowed my father to move into my property in Illinois where I have paid rent. I’ve been speaking with the property owners about leaving. My lease was up and rent was suppose to go up as well. They were receiving a partial check from the section 8 housing authority upon me going to Texas helping my mom with here health. I try to go back to Illinois every weekend. Waiting on the rental agency for the new amount seeing my lease was up I never receive I have not paid rent in 2 months due to no amount particularl amount has benn given. The janitor came in told my dad he had to leave and changed the locks no eviction or 30 day notice has been given now my dad is homeless is this illegal?

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