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

  • Britney

    Im hoping someone can answer this question. My parents did not make a contract for their tenants for almost a year, and they havent been paying rent for a month now. My parents want them out and gave them 3 months to leave and 5 days with an eviction note to quit not sealed or stamped by court. Tenants still refuse to leave. I told my parents to go to the courthouse and do it the proper way and parents are wondering if they have the right to change locks, or wait to get a sheriff and have them serve the tenants and then change the locks? By the way, these tenants arent paying any money for past month and owe several months of rent as well. What can my parents do

  • Sheila Foggie

    I want to know is it legal for our landlord to change the lock to the basement without notifying us and we have belongings down there.

    • Nikie Davis

      My boyfriends landlord did the same thing and i am trying to find answers. if you have found out please let me know

      • Eleanor L Walker

        My landlord walker in on my son with out any notice and we have seen him when we first moved here go into my neighbors apartment with out letting her know I live in chapel hill NC what are my rights I have changed the locks . Because he want give me notice when he comes.,

  • holland ads

    can my landlord put a lock on the furnace room door? Ive been there 7 years and have stored things in this room and now he wants my stuff out and is going to lock it. the only access to this room is through my apartment.

  • Sara

    Hi just had a question. I am renting in AZ I am the tenant . I gave all my copies of the keys of the apartment to the landlord.
    Now I have rented a room out,but I did not add her on my lease. We just made a contract between us. She decided without asking me to change the lock on the door without telling me .
    I understand everyone wants their privacy. I am now her landlord, because she pays rent to me. Shouldn’t she have given me a copy of her bedroom keys so I can give it to my landlord?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Sara,
      Did you get permission from your landlord to rent out a room? Usually landlords need to approve this. They typically want to screen all tenants who will live in their property, and they typically want to put all adults who live in the property on the lease.

      • Sara

        Hi Lara,
        Yes I did tell him I was going to get a roommate. He was ok with that. So the girl I am renting the room called a locksmith because she was locked of her room . I was there in my room . She didn’t even ask if they have a copy of her bedroom key. I mean on my lease it says I can’t make any alterations to doors , windows, plumbing .

    • Ryan

      I am currently renting with a woman who subletted to me without the landlords permission. She had my girlfriend removed from one of my rooms at the house by the police for trespassing. So i went to the owner and spoke to him and he gave me written permission to have anyone in the house because he was unaware i was paying rent. He mentioned selling the house i told him i would like to buy it. A week later the owner and my roommate come down and tell me im trespassing etc. She slandered the hell out of me to him. A week after that he has a neighbor serve me 30 days notice that is a forgery of real eviction. It has on the top IN THE MAJESTRATE COURT OF BEREKLY COUNTY WV. But there is no seal and its fake. Since that She put a lock on baseme

  • Marshally September

    We occupational rented a house for a year and had dispute with the landlord when the sub division of the property was not approved. He wanted us out but told him had to look for new house to purchase and busy with transfer. He them use force able entry by removing the door and window while my two minor children was in the house and move new tenants on top of us in. We got a lawyer to handle the case and remove the new tenants a week later. He now want to increase the rent without notice 20% more. What will happen to him with this illegal eviction case against him. I also lay a police case against him nothing happened.

    I went through hell this past two weeks and his wife make ugly remarks. What can I do next our house is only ready in 2 mth


    Can i change the locks after their 30 day notice is up.Even if they have not moved.

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Nglege,
      No, you cannot change the locks this way. You must go through the eviction process. If they are still not out by the deadline, you need to call the sheriff or local law enforcement to escort them out. Then you can change the locks.

    • Carole Martinson

      Can I change the locks if a tenant has moved out before a 20 day notice and kept the keys

  • Del

    If the mother is out of town, and I have found her daughter living in her apt (unauthorized by manager-me) can I temporarily change the locks until mother is to return home. Unfortunately, I do have to write up the mother. :(

  • Lisa

    My grandma is in the beginning stage of Alzheimer’s and has moved in with my mom but still owns her house. My grandma’s son has live with her for like 15 years and change the locks on her. He doesn’t pay rent or any bells since he’s lived with her he’s not even on the title of the house. Can he legally change the locks on the doors?

  • Robert strohmeyer

    Me and a friend are renting a house in Niles ohio. We let an associate of hers in to help and that associate caused problems. We are going through the process of legaly evicting them. They lost their key too the house, but do we have too legaly give them another copy of the key?

  • Kelly

    My tenant is due to move out the end of this month per a Thirty Day Notice personally served by the Sheriff. Last night her friend, a contractor went up to her apartment to “fix her door”. The tenant said it “just happened today”. Although she has not spoken to me, I advised her she is to inform me about this immediately , I also confronted the contractor and asked if she was changing the locks or making improvements to the apartment without my knowledge. He denied both. What if anything can or should be done.

  • Robert strohmeyer

    Me and my roommate are tired of having too clean up the basement when the person squatting trashes it. We are going through the process of legal eviction but Can we legaly lock the basement of our house? It has a washer and dryer in it but other than that, is unfinished.

  • Sandra Andreson

    A tenant of mine failed to pay Dec rent until Jan 5. Jan rent was not paid until I served her with 3-day quit or pay. Now she is due Feb rent but has refused my agent entry to do regular maintenance (reasonable notice given in compliance with Agreement). I think she has changed the locks on my home. Can I have tenant arrested for theft of my premises? Her children are sleeping on the floor on a filthy blanket. My agent took pictures last Friday on his inspection. There are no beds except tenant’s bed. the home was spotless at move-in (inspection and photos taken). Now it is filthy and trashed. I feel sorry for the 3 children.

  • Sandy

    Are landlords required to change locks between tenants in Pa.?

  • Renee Morrow

    My landlord had entered my house without asking so I changed the front door lock. After moving out he said he could not get in so he hired a locksmith to pick it. I replaced the original lock back on the door before moving. Now he’s charging me 15 days rent and 10 hr labor at $20.00 hr. Is it required for him to change locks anyway? Renee In Clearlake

  • Rita

    I rent a lake home right across from my landlord’s residence. This is a year-round rental, not a temporary rental. I’ve known since I moved in about four months ago that my landlord has been coming in and checking the whole house at least once a week. At first, I sort of excused it thinking he’s just checking to make sure I’m a tidy person – knowing, of course, that it still doesn’t give him the right. Well, four months later he is still going through the house at least once a week. Here is video from my surveillance camera: https://youtu.be/A7X7EiOWw-0

    I stopped at the police department and they recommended I move. This landlord has two months rent for security and without access to it, I don’t have the money to move. Suggestions?

  • Carmen Taylor

    I’m set to move on April 1, 2018. The property management company came in to do a walkthrough 2/12/18, and changed the locks without notifying me first. My children were standing outside in the cold (we live in MN) locked out after school. The person that is showing the property to prospect tenents stands outside while strangers walk through my unit. When I complained to the property management company, I was advised that keys were given to my son. THEY DON’T EVEN KNOW WHO MY SON IS!!! I found a note written on a piece of card board saying “new keys”, I assumed they were to the outter door considering this is a duplex. I got no notification of a lock change, the keys were allegedly given to someone. Is this legal?

  • Lisa Macdonald

    We went to inspect our AZ rental house and were denied access to a locked bedroom. She had no permission to change the bedroom lock. We then had our property manager give 24 hour notice to access the house to inspect the locked room. A lawyer lives there and is now claiming harassment , giving us notice to vacate and receive a month’s rent in damages.

  • Monica

    My tenant broke the least terms stipulating a ‘no pet’ policy. He has given his 30 day notice.

    I’m willing to be tolerant until he gets a new apartment.

    However, as I drove by the place to check for damage after the latest storm I noticed a different lock on the door. He has yet to contact me to give me the new key. Do I have cause for eviction?

    I live in Southern NJ.


    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Monica,
      I’m not a lawyer, but here’s what I know. A tenant breaking a lease term, such as bringing in a pet when the lease prohibits pets, is cause for eviction. However, in your case, you say the tenant gave their 30-day notice. So there is no need to evict. If you need to get in while your tenant is away, perhaps to show the unit, ask the tenant for a copy of the key, and give at least 24 hours notice before you come in.

  • Betty Wiezer

    I am in Philadelphia Pa and my tenant of 2 years changed the locks and there are 2 doors with proper access to evacuate in case of emergency but he replaced the locks with key locks not deadbolt and it’s dangerous in case of emergency tenants will have to look for the key to exit the property..Actually that is 2 questions and Thanks for your reply

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Betty,
      Do you have anything in your lease that prohibits the tenant from changing locks? If not, put that language in your lease before this tenant or the next tenant signs the lease. If you do prohibit this, and it’s in your lease now, change the locks, charge your tenant for the cost, and keep a copy of the key for yourself.

      • Betty Wiezer

        Thank you for your reply and since our last text message my tenant has changed the locks to as I requested but his lease is now only monthly and until June at that point I will be issuing a new lease and increasing his rent and enclosing that he provide me with a copy of the key in case of emergencies..The person who took it upon there self for the 1 st time since I purchased this building 24 years ago under charged this tenant for this area by less than 350 per month over 2 years and I instructed them that effective ( a Trust Estate is being dissolved after 18 years )June there will be no. Interfering with the way I maintain this building not to mention that prior to the past 2 years every other tenant has paid the going rent rate …

  • Lilly

    Hi so I’m in Puerto Rico on vacation and left my 17 yr old brother in law watching over my apartment and I guess they been complaints about him so my landlord decided to change my locks and lock all my windows even removed the fan I had in my window. Is that legal?

  • Sam

    If I’m on the lease and I put a lock on my room door. Can the head of house hold have housing remove my lock with out my permission or knowledge?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Sam,
      What does your lease say about that? If nothing, then general rules apply. Generally, landlords can have a key to the property, in this case, a room. But they can’t just come in whenever they like. They need to give notice. Or you can negotiate an arrangement that you prefer and have that added to the lease as an addendum, if the landlord agrees.

      • Sam

        We live in housing.
        Three roommates. Siblings
        We all pay equal rent
        The oldest sister changed the lock to the the other sister so she can lock her out her room.
        Can she keep her for getting her stuff or have a key to her property n stuff.

  • Robert Peterson

    My roommate moved out of my house. She paid through the end of the month. However none of her property is left behind. She refuses to return the house key to me. Is it safe for me to change the locks now although she’s paid rent through the end of the month?

  • Alicia


    I was recently evicted for a pretty foolish reason and the apartment complex has a habit of overcharging in anyway they can (cleanings especially). Landlord hires management to run the place and they said they are required by law to change the locks after an eviction (Utah). Is this true? I haven’t been find anywhere that it’s true and I know they’ll charge a ridiculous amount to me for changing the locks even though I’ve kept no keys.

    Thank you

  • Becky Schofield

    I am a landlord I have tanant s that have changed the locks to the home. They have not giving me a copy of the key. In the lease areement is say they cannot change of alter anything in the home is this something she can do legaly?

  • Janice olson

    Landlord changed lock on door that goes out back door exit can he do this and not give tenants key. Doesn’t want anyone in backyard because of the disorder in it first want anyone to see it. But can he change that lock and not give tenants a key. Please help

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Janice,
      Read your lease to see what it says about access to the backyard. I once rented a house and had to leave one room off limits, which I kept locked and did not give the tenant a key. That was in the lease, and the tenant agreed to the arrangement before moving in.

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