All 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
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.
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.