You might, at some point, have a tenant who changes the locks on your rental property because they don't want you to have access. Tenants who do that probably won't tell you what they did, and you might not even find out about it until you try to access your unit.
While you might be able to empathize with a tenant who values their privacy, not having access to your own property could prove to be problematic.
It's usually not a good thing to have a tenant change the locks on you without your permission or without letting you know, and the question remains as to whether tenants can even do this. What are your rights as a landlord?
Can they or can't they?
Whether a tenant can or cannot change the locks on rental property you own is a state-by-state issue. But typically, unless your lease prohibits this practice, a tenant can change the locks on you.
Put it in your lease
One surefire way to make sure your tenant doesn't have permission to change the locks without notifying you, or giving you a spare key if they do, is to spell out this policy in the rental agreement. I have language to this affect in my lease agreement, which reads as follows:
"Tenant will not, without landlord's prior written consent, alter, rekey, or install any locks to the premises or install or alter any burglar alarm system. Should landlord give consent, tenant will provide landlord with a key or keys capable of unlocking all such rekeyed or new locks, as well as instructions on how to disarm any altered or new burglar alarm system."
You don't need to use that exact language to make this your practice. You simply need to state in your lease that if the tenant wants to change the locks, they must give you a key.
The importance of having access to your property
Here are some reasons you might need to access your property. The most common reasons you need a key are as follows:
To conduct a scheduled inspection
If you own rental property, you should probably set aside time to inspect it periodically, at the very least once a year. Some landlords like to make inspections twice a year or even quarterly, depending on the tenant situation and the landlord's business model.
Note: Be careful that you don't go over too often to inspect, though. If you do, you might be interfering with your tenant's right to quiet enjoyment, meaning the right your tenant has to live peacefully in the rental they paid for without constant interference from you.
To let in a repair person
Ideally, your tenants will be home to let in a repair person for a scheduled visit, but they might have forgotten about the appointment or just can't be home to let the service person in. In those cases, you might need to go to the property to let the person in so the work can be done. If you can't get in, everyone's time will have been wasted.
An emergency at the property
There could be a water heater leak, a leaky roof during a rainstorm, a burst water tap or showerhead, or an overflowing toilet. And these are just some examples. If there's an emergency situation at your rental property, you'll need to get in immediately. If not, major damage could occur that could have been minimized had you been able to access your unit. And that could cost you a lot of money in repairs.
A tenant abandoning the property
Maybe you heard from a neighbor or you suspected that your tenant had moved out without giving you notice. That is problematic in and of itself, whether this renter has a lease that isn't up yet or whether this tenant is renting on a month-to-month basis. But matters can become even worse if this tenant changed the locks, preventing you from accessing your now-abandoned dwelling unit.
How to avoid being locked out of your property
Just because your lease has language that prevents tenants from changing the locks doesn't mean it will never happen. If you need to get into your rental property because the tenant wrongfully changed the locks on you, here's what to do.
Call a locksmith
Be ready to show proof that you own the property. Not every locksmith requires this, but many do. Since you don't live at the property, it can be a little more difficult to prove ownership. You can't just whip out your driver's license for proof, for example. But you can show the locksmith the deed to the property. Or, if you're paying a mortgage, you can show proof that you're the one paying for the property.
Once the locksmith rekeys the locks, make sure to provide a key for your tenant if they still have the right to access the property, such as if their lease term is not yet over. Let your tenant know that you changed the locks and are charging them for the expense and that you're holding their key, which they can pick up from you.
If you change the locks without giving a key to your tenant during their lease term, you can be accused of locking out your tenant or resorting to self-help measures (even if you're only reacting to being locked out yourself), and this is generally illegal in most states.
If you do lock out a tenant, that tenant could sue you in court, and if they win, they could be awarded monetary damages for not being able to access the property. Monetary damages could be hotel costs or possibly spoiled food left in the refrigerator, not to mention that you'll need to pay court costs if you lose.
Deduct the cost from the security deposit
If your tenant changes the locks without your permission and you can't access your rental unit when you need to, making it necessary for you to change the locks, you could charge your tenant for your costs of having the locks changed and rekeyed. Most landlords could just deduct the cost from the security deposit.
Even though many landlords choose to change the locks anyway between tenants, there is no national law that says they must. You should, however, familiarize yourself with your state's law on this. The point is, if the tenant changes the lock and doesn't give you a key, you are now forced to change the locks, and your tenant would usually need to pay for this cost.
Types of locks
Some types of locks are easier than others to change. You might want to look for a new lock system that allows you to rekey yourself. This prevents you from needing to use a locksmith or buy new locks.
You also might want to consider installing a keypad. Many multifamily landlords favor this system. A feature many keypads have is the ability to have different passcodes. This is convenient for letting service people in, for example. Many keypads allow you to program them remotely as well.
The bottom line
If having a key to your rental property is important to you, make sure you have language in your lease that spells out your policy. If your lease is silent on this issue, it usually means your tenants can change the locks on you without letting you know. Be proactive to try to prevent an unexpected lock change from happening to you.