Can a Landlord or Tenant Change the Locks?

change the locks

When it comes to changing the locks or copying keys of a rental property, the number one goal should be making the rental as secure as possible.

However, as with any other sensitive landlord and tenant subject, we recommend that everyone involved stay on the same page by communicating appropriately and not violate any of the terms of the rental lease agreement.

Rental Property Lock and Key Security Best Practices

Here are general guidelines for landlords to follow to ensure that the rental is always secure:

  • Install deadbolt locks on all main exterior doors
  • Always keep a copy of the key in case of emergency or for repair purposes (make sure to abide by the proper notice provision in your lease agreement prior to showing up at the rental)
  • Replace or re-key locks in between tenants
  • Replace or re-key locks in case of lost keys
  • Consider installing smart keys to reduce replacement or re-keying cost
  • Make sure to have a signed rental lease agreement in place with a “habitability” clause or specific lock provisions
  • Detail the number of keys in the lease or move-in walkthrough move-in checklist
  • Write specific lock and key provisions that you would like your renters to abide by in the rental lease agreement

Renters should take measures as well:

  • Let your landlord know if any keys are lost
  • Ask your landlord prior to making copies of original keys
  • Return all keys to your landlord upon move-out

Renters – keep in mind that even though in some states (for example, New Jersey and California) you are allowed to change the locks without letting your landlord know, we recommend telling them so that you can maintain a healthy relationship.

Important Move-in and Move-out Key and Lock Considerations

As a general rule, move-in keys should only be given in exchange for move-in costs such as security deposit and pre-paid rent.

This serves to protect both renter and landlord from rental fraud, not allowing a renter to move in without paying, and not paying a landlord for the first time without receiving keys.

Some states require landlords to change the keys in between tenants, but as mentioned previously, we recommend doing so even if not required by your state. The removal of liability and peace of mind of a new lock will be well worth the extra cost of replacing the keys, especially if you use smart keys.

Detailing the keys prior to move-in will ensure that all keys are returned upon move-out. Renters should return to the landlord all keys provided when they first moved in, including any copies made during the tenancy period.

Renters should ask permission or inform landlords whenever they intend to make a copy, and should not do so if the lease agreement specifies that they are not allowed to.

New renters should inquire about whether the locks have been changed after the previous tenants moved out, and can ask for them to be changed if not.

Changing Locks and Keys – Special Circumstances

Now that we’ve covered best practices of changing rental locks, let’s take a look at some unique situations that are bound to happen at some point in your landlording career.

Can a Landlord Just Change The Locks Whenever?

The short answer is no. Landlords should avoid changing the locks during a lease without informing the tenants, even if you would like to evict the tenants.

This form of a self eviction isn’t only illegal in almost every state, it’s also not fair to deny someone a place to live, no matter the circumstances.

Doing this will leave you exposed to a lawsuit that won’t bode well for any landlord. You are better off going through the legal eviction channels if you would like to remove a tenant.

What if a Renter Leaves The Property Early and Changes the Lock?

As long as the renter paid rent for the duration of the lease, you are not allowed to change the locks without their permissions to do so in most states.

Depending on the state you are in and your lease agreement, you may be allowed to change the locks and offer your renter a copy of the new keys so they have access to the property until the end of the lease. At that point, the renter would be required to return the new copy of the new keys.

The best thing to do in this case is to contact your renters and ask for a key or ask them for permission to change the locks.

Making Copies and Lost Keys

Renters should always ask landlord permission and inform them that they would like to make a copy of the key. Doing so might be a requirement of the lease, but will also keep the landlord informed of how many keys are out there.

If the reason for wanting a copy is a lost key, renters should inform landlords right away. Since a lost key is a potential security concern, landlords may wish to replace the lock right away.

Final Thoughts About Locks and Keys

Locks and keys play an important role in rental properties, as they represent the security and privacy of your renters. It’s important to follow best practices at all times when it comes to changing locks and keys.

Keep your rental property safe at all times. Use high-quality locks, keep track of all copies made, replace locks as necessary, and abide by state laws and lease provisions.