If you know nothing else about landlord-tenant law, know this: In nearly every state, landlords cannot lock you out.
Even if you have no right to continue to live in the property, landlords cannot take self-help measures to get you out. They usually need to legally evict you through the court system. Whether you should let your rental situation get to this point is another matter (hint: you probably shouldn't), but that isn't the point of this article, which is to tell you what to do if you have been illegally locked out.
Landlord requirements regarding lockouts
No matter what you've done to get your landlord to the point of locking you out, the point is that your landlord probably doesn't have the right to do so. The most common reasons landlords lock out tenants are:
- Nonpayment of rent.
- A lease violation (sneaking in a pet, subletting, etc.).
- Damage of property (hoarding, installing a skylight, painting the walls black, etc.).
- Illegal activity from the premises (selling or making drugs, etc.).
- Staying on after the lease expires without being invited to.
If any of those apply to you, your landlord might lock you out. Maybe they don't know it's illegal, or maybe they're willing to take the risk. Once they find out they're not allowed to lock you out or that you know they're not supposed to, they should let you back in. But you can probably expect that your landlord will now go through the formal eviction process to get you out, if they have cause.
Why most states don't allow lockouts
When states require landlords to go through the eviction process, tenants have a chance to defend themselves, something that can't happen if landlords are allowed to just lock tenants out. Even if the tenant has no defense, there still needs to be a method for tenants to defend themselves. Otherwise, unscrupulous landlords could take advantage of tenants, perhaps locking them out because they could get more money from someone else.
Lucas Hall, head of industry relations at Cozy, shares another reason such lockouts are problematic: "Lockouts become a big issue when a landlord prevents a tenant from accessing their belongings, such as medicine, work supplies, food, car keys, etc. Even though the landlord owns the house, they don't own the stuff inside."
How tenants can know their rights on lockouts
The best way to learn your rights as a tenant is to look up the landlord-tenant law for your state. Some bigger cities often have additional laws, so if you're in a big city, you might want to look up your state law and your local city ordinance. Just search online for "landlord-tenant law [your state]" and "landlord-tenant law [your city]" to find out.
Most states do not allow landlords to lock out tenants, but Texas, for example, allows lockouts if handled correctly. That's why you should look up your local law to know for sure what your rights are.
What to do if you've been locked out
If your landlord locked you out, and you live in a state where that isn't allowed, you have the right to re-enter the property. The question is how. Although you might be tempted to break in, don't try it. For one, you could hurt yourself. And for another, the landlord can (and probably will) charge you for any damage you cause trying to break in.
Call the leasing office
The better way to get back in is to call the leasing office if you live in an apartment complex. Someone from the leasing office would most likely have a master key and can let you in.
Contact the landlord
If you live in a property without a leasing office, like a single-family home, you can try contacting the landlord. Let them know the state law. If your state doesn't allow lockouts, tell your landlord they need to let you back in.
Hire a locksmith
If you can't get a hold of your landlord, or if they refuse to let you in, call a locksmith. In most states, you can get a locksmith to let you in even if you have no proof that you live there. But many locksmiths will ask you for proof of residency. You can prove you live there by showing your driver’s license with the address, a piece of mail addressed to you, or a copy of your lease agreement.
While the locksmith can get the door unlocked for you, you still won't have the keys. If you want to change the locks so you will have keys, you can probably do so, but read your lease first. It might have language regarding this. For example, you might be allowed to change the locks but only if you give a key to the landlord. Landlords usually want to have access to their property.
Sue your landlord
Once you get back in, you might want to think about suing your landlord. This is usually done through small claims court. If you win, your landlord will most likely need to pay you damages. How much you're awarded depends on the state in which you live.
The bottom line
Landlords usually don't have the right to resort to self-help measures to get a tenant out. That means your landlord probably can't just lock you out. If that does happen to you, find out what your rights are and then do your best to get your landlord to abide by them.