Landlords and tenants both wonder the same question - can a tenant change the door locks without the landlord's permission? Is it against the law? Against their lease agreement? Do they need to provide a spare key?

You may think it's logical that a tenant should ask their landlord for permission to change the locks. However, many don't do it. They'd instead do what they want and face the consequences later.

It's like the old saying, "Shoot first, ask questions last."

Why tenants want to change their locks

As a landlord or property manager, you may wonder why a tenant wants to change the locks in the first place? There are some valid concerns they may have, including but not limited to:

  1. Ensuring no one else has a key to enter their apartment, including landlords, property managers, and previous tenants. As a landlord, make sure you follow the turnover checklist and change the locks, key, or security code after every tenant.
  2. Putting a smart door lock so they can let in friends, family, or contractors and vendors like housekeepers, dog walkers, exterminators, and more.
  3. Making duplicate keys if their current key or lock doesn't allow for duplicates (like some high-security keys sold by Medeco and Schlage).

Once you can understand their reasoning, you can find common ground when writing your lease agreements and making the rules.

Keep in mind - if you're too strict, tenants may not want to renew. It's in your best interest to be as empathetic and understanding as possible.

Legal precedents

There are laws regarding changing the locks on the doors of a  rental property.

However, the laws on changing locks vary for each state. Despite many legal disputes in court, there is no clearly defined precedent covering the law's broad spectrum. The unique situation of each case dictates the manner in which cases get resolved.

The good news is, we can extract some bits of wisdom and can give generic advice. Please note - we are not attorneys and are not giving you legal advice. Please contact your attorney to check for local state laws.

So can a tenant change the locks or not?

Generally, tenants do not have the right to change the locks. They can not exclude the landlord from their property without a reasonable cause. If the landlord has changed the lock or key from the previous tenant, the new tenants should not have any motive or purpose for changing the locks.

Although the terms of rental agreements are different between tenants and landlords, there are some common reasons as to why tenants are not permitted to change the locks:

  • Landlords might face difficulty while entering the property to fulfill their obligations related to a rental agreement, a significant number of which are legal obligations. If you're a landlord, you have a responsibility to inspect the property at least once a year.
  • It prevents landlords from accessing the property in emergencies. A water pipe could burst or a roof could leak, which are just a few of the various maintenance problems that might occur at a property. Most likely, the tenants would be at the property to let the landlord know of such issues. What if they're not? A landlord might need to be present at the property to allow the repairman in, only to find out that the property locks have changed, resulting in a waste of everyone's time and significant damage that could’ve been avoided.
  • Tenants are not allowed make changes to the property without permission, including changing the locks. Although the exact law varies from state to state, the landlord is required to change the locks with costs covered by the tenant if the tenant changes the lock without informing the landlord.

When you tell the tenant your side of the story and your reasons as a landlord, they will hopefully understand.

Some unusual and rare situations also occur, making the tenant feel the need to change the rented property's locks. Landlords cannot disturb tenants without their permission.

Although landlords are legally allowed to have reasonable access to the property, it doesn't allow them to show up at the property every other day, breaching the tenants' privacy.

When a tenant may change the door locks

Such situations might allow the tenant to change the locks on the rented property:

  • The landlord has been unresponsive and unsupportive on the issues faced by tenants. A tenant might have a genuine complaint about the existing locks not working correctly, and even after raising the problem with the landlord, the landlord has not taken action.
  • If the tenant does change the locks without permission, the tenant should keep the original lock fittings. Changing the locks should be done by a qualified locksmith. Any damage caused to the door or the door frame is a cost the landlord will claim from the tenant. A tenant should not attempt to change the locks themselves. Although the task might seem quite simple, it may cause damage to the door, and in some cases, the property becomes less secure than it was before the new lock change.

A smarter way to change locks

Instead of constantly changing your locks every time a tenant moves out, you can look into two options:

  1. Re-keying - Some door locks, like Schlage, allow you to easily re-key the door lock to a new set of keys so you don't need to replace the entire lock each time.
  2. Smart locks - Get a digital smart lock that allows you to quickly change the code. I personally use and recommend the Schlage Connect Century Touchscreen Deadbolt because it offers both a digital keypad, and an actual physical key if the battery dies.
Can tenant change the door lock?

Make it clear in your lease agreement

Many standard rental agreements forbid tenants from changing the locks. Suppose there's no specific term mentioning the locks or specifically about changing the locks. In that case, there's usually a term about prohibiting making changes to the property, which may be interpreted for locks too.

If the tenancy agreement forbids explicitly changing the locks or making changes to the property, the owner is entitled to change the locks again and charge the tenant for the expenses incurred during the process. The costs are deducted from the security deposit of the tenant.

Since lock and keys are of serious importance in a rental situation for both the tenant and the landlord, the most sensible way is to write the terms regarding changing locks in the rental agreement. A landlord can make it evident in the lease if they have allowed the tenant to change locks, to which the tenant can either agree or disagree, hence leaving no room for this issue to come up in rental situations in the future.

As a landlord, make sure you always include all the relevant lease clauses in your lease agreement.

Whatever the case may be, locks and keys are a crucial part of keeping a rental unit safe. Both the tenant and landlord should be proactive in discussing the terms of rental agreements to avoid any problems and hassles.

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David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his three children, he's writing articles here!

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The information on this website is from public sources, for informational purposes only and not intended for legal or accounting advice. DoorLoop does not guarantee its accuracy and is not liable for any damages or inaccuracies.