3 Situations When a Landlord Can Change the Locks on a Tenant
Having issues with your tenant may lead you to want to take some serious action. After all, it's your property, right?
Yes — and a little bit no.
While it's your property, your tenants did sign a lease. They're technically borrowing your property. It's theirs for the term of the lease, but there are still rules to follow. The lease should map out specific consequences for certain behaviors, giving you specific scenarios where it's OK for you to change the locks.
But rather than question if a landlord can change the locks, you might want to get ahead of any possible issues. Know for sure when it's OK and when it isn't.
When a tenant moves out
The easiest scenario where it's OK for landlords to change locks is at the end of a lease. Your tenants did everything right, and the day after they moved out, you go and change the locks for security reasons. It's well within your rights as the landlord to do this. The property, until you sign a new lease with new tenants, is 100 percent yours.
Even if your tenants return the original set of keys, you can't be certain they didn't make copies. To be safe, and ensure they no longer have access to the property, you should change the locks.
This isn't a scenario where you'd charge the tenants, unless you've put a lock policy into your lease. It's a precaution you're opting to take, so it's on you as the landlord. But if you've specified that this charge falls back onto the tenant, make sure you send a copy of the service invoice to them and inform them you're deducting the cost from their security deposit.
When a tenant abandons the property
If you discover your tenant has left without notifying you and taken their keys with them, you should consider changing the locks for safety reasons. However, to be transparent — and the bigger person — notify your tenant first.
Technically, even if they're not living in the house, the tenant is still protected by the lease to enter to the property. The first question you should ask them is whether they plan to return. If so, they can legally access the property until their lease expires. Keep the locks the same and remind them you need the keys back.
If they tell you they're not returning, which means they won't be giving you back their keys, notify them of the specific date you're having the locks changed.
Even if you don't hear anything, you should still wait until the lease is up before taking any action. If that makes you uncomfortable, reach out a second time and let them know you haven't heard from them and are changing the locks. Should they want access to the home, you're happy to give them a new key as long as it's returned.
The only other piece of information you need to communicate to the tenant is whether you're deducting the cost of the lock change from their security deposit. You most likely can only do this if it's listed as a consequence in the lease of not returning the original keys you gave out.
When a tenant is evicted
Changing the locks is the last thing a landlord can do during the eviction process. It's not something you can decide to do without going through the legal process of eviction either.
If you have a tenant who's not paying rent, or has breached the lease in some other significant way, you must get an eviction judgment before even considering changing the locks. From there, the tenant has a certain number of days to appeal the judgment, depending on the state. It's only after the judgment and the appeal process have expired that you can change the locks.
Every state has its own set of landlord-tenant laws, including the specifics of an eviction procedure. Whether a landlord can change locks legally is a question best answered after consulting your state's laws. You may also want to talk to an attorney to ensure you're doing everything right.
Can a tenant change the locks, too?
Rules about changing locks vary, but they include stipulations for both landlords and tenants. Most lease agreements prohibit tenants from changing locks, at least without landlord permission. After all, you need to ensure you get a copy of the new key.
You don't have to know the reason, specifically, that the tenant wants to change the lock, but you do need advance notice and a way to get back into the property. You don't want to get left without access if you need to make a maintenance call or even once the tenant moves out.
If you want, you can specify the situations where a tenant could potentially change the locks — with proper notice. These options are usually more serious situations, such as losing their key or needing to keep an old roommate from entering the property, etc. You're free to list these scenarios in the lease.
What to do if your tenant changes the locks without permission
If you've discovered your tenant changed the locks on your property without notification, your first step is getting access. Ask them for a copy of the new key and remind them that they needed to have asked you first. If they give you a key without any issues, you may decide to resolve the situation there. You can count it as one strike but not a reason for further consequences.
Technically, changing the lock means the house isn't left in the same condition it was in upon move in. Even though you got a key, this may give you enough reason to deduct the cost of changing the lock back from the tenant's security deposit.
It's when your tenant doesn't give you access that there's potential for problems. If an emergency situation arises, such as a fire or leak, and you can't access the house, you're within your rights to call a locksmith or even break down the door. However, you can get into trouble taking this extreme type of action in a non-emergency, so try to avoid things getting to this point.
Sometimes, it's as easy as explaining why you, as their landlord, need access to the rental. You can even include this information in the lease so they have it for reference. Mention things like scheduled inspections, maintenance requests and emergencies. Even people who own their own home usually give another person a spare key, just in case.
Can a landlord change the locks? Sometimes
There are extenuating circumstances when you can change the locks as the landlord. However, it's best to handle things with as much communication with your tenant as possible and take proper legal action when it's necessary. Hopefully, you won't ever have to deal with an abandoned property or an eviction, but should that happen, you're covered when it comes to the locks.