Can Tenants Change Locks on Rental Units?

One question that comes up regarding rentals more often than landlords would like is, “Can tenants change the locks on rental units?” 

As a rental property owner, you might have had a tenant who changed the locks for any number of reasons. It may have been because they didn’t want a previous tenant to possibly have the keys to the place still, or it may have been to simply deny you access. 

Most likely, the tenant wouldn’t have told you that the locks were changed. You may not have even known about the switch until you went to access the unit. While renters do have a right to privacy, when tenants change locks, landlords become faced with the problem of not having access to their own property. 

Can Renters Change the Locks?

So can tenants change the locks on rental units, or not? The answer may surprise you.

It’s important to know that the answer actually depends, and laws regarding this issue vary from one state to another. However, in general, unless the signed, legal lease actually and explicitly forbids it, tenants indeed can change the locks.

How to Protect Access to Your Own Property

There is only so much you can do to prevent a tenant from changing the locks in the first place. However, you can make sure that you have legal recourse after the fact, should a tenant decide to make a switch.

Put It in Your Lease

The best way to make sure that you are not stuck with a property to which you lose access is to make sure your tenants don’t have permission to change those locks. 

You should have in the leases either that they cannot, under ANY circumstances, change locks on their rental units, or that they cannot change them without giving you a spare key and notifying you about it. Spell it out very clearly in rental agreements if you require them to get your approval beforehand. 

Adding Additional Locks

The same holds true for adding locks. Many people may want to add an entirely new lock to what is already there for additional security. You will need to decide if tenants are able to add additional locks or not, and under what conditions they can do so. 

Whatever you decide to allow, you must, to protect your rights, clearly state in leases exactly what tenants can or cannot do.

Letting Tenants Change Locks Is Risky

It’s very important that, as a rental property owner, you are able to maintain access to your own property. There are several good reasons for this, which you should become familiar with. Feel free to explain these reasons to a tenant if and when necessary. 

To Carry Out Maintenance Needs

Ideally, tenants would always be home to allow entry to maintenance personnel when repairs are needed. This, of course, is not always the case. 

Whether a tenant has to work during the repair time, leaves and forgets about the repair time, or just isn’t home for any other reason, the maintenance still must be done. If the tenants change locks this could cause a delay.

To Conduct Scheduled Inspections

Every rental property should be inspected periodically, whether it’s once a year, every six months, or quarterly. The frequency of inspections depends on the tenant’s situation and the business model of the landlord. 

Be careful that you do not inspect too frequently, however, because you’ll be risking interfering with the tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment.

To Tend to an Emergency at the Property

Whether it’s a leaky roof, a burst water faucet, or a water heater leak, there are times when an emergency situation demands unexpected entry into a rental unit. If entry is denied, serious (and expensive) damage could result to the property itself and also the tenant’s personal property.

If You Do Get Locked Out of Your Property

If you find yourself in a situation where your tenants change locks, you should call a locksmith to help you gain entry. Never try to tamper with the lock on your own. Be prepared to show proof that you own the property, whether you use your mortgage or the deed to the property.

Be absolutely sure that if you do have to re-key the lock, you immediately give the new keys to your tenant. This will prevent an accusation against you of locking out your tenant, which is illegal in most, if not all, states.

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