Lock Lock, Who’s There?

What landlords should know about changing keys.

Locks and key devices have been around for time immemorial, first discovered in the ruins of Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria. Although they have evolved somewhat over the centuries and now sometimes use “smart technology”, their purpose remains to secure the premises and keep unwelcome people out. The law, on the other hand, has advanced much farther, so we wanted to give a refresher to Bay Area landlords on the rules surrounding locks, and permissible reasons for them to be changed by the landlord or tenant.

You can’t change the locks, just because you can.

It should go without saying that unilaterally obstructing a tenant’s access to the property is never permissible, whether it is locking them out, terminating utilities, removing doors or windows, and the like. California Civil Code section 789.3(a) and 789.3(b) prohibits such heavy-handed tactics. Some landlords, nonetheless, hastily decide to bypass normal legal protections and take immediate action to protect the property from a tenant’s destructive behavior.

To this group of rental property owners on their whit’s end, we say that no matter how egregious the tenant, severe consequences can result.

Under Section 789(c), the self-evicting landlord must pay the tenant’s actual damages and a fine of $100 per day of the violation, and in the eventuality of a tenant prevailing in a lawsuit, Section 789(d) affords the locked-out and dismayed resident to seek attorney’s fees and costs, as well.

Generally, for a landlord to evict a tenant, they must engage in the legal process of an Unlawful Detainer Action. An exception can be found in Civil Code Section 1946.5, when the tenant qualifies as a single lodger. When the lodger is given 30-day written notice of termination and fails to leave, they are considered a trespasser, but we don’t want to belabor the point, so let’s move onto the tenant’s legal standing to change locks.

California is a state that allows tenants to change the locks and not share a key with the landlord, unless the lease states otherwise. A properly drafted lease will restrict alternations to the premises without the owner’s permission or consent and specifically restricts the changing of locks without the landlord’s permission. Yet a recurring theme we see at Bornstein Law is landlords using stale or templated lease agreements that may not include this provision.

The owner needs access to their property.

We noted in an earlier article that while a tenant enjoys a right to private enjoyment of the premises and the landlord can only enter the rental unit under limited circumstances with proper notice given, one such permissible reason is to access the dwelling when an emergency arises, a rather compelling one at that. When an unexpected or sudden problem occurs like a fire or flood, a leaking waterline and the like, the landlord’s ability to access the rental unit becomes critical to preserve life or property.

If the tenant continually refuses to provide a copy of the key, a Three-Day Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit may be necessary, noting that performance requires the tenant to give you a key. If the landlord does not get a key within the three days covered by the notice, an unlawful detainer action can be commenced.

In rent controlled jurisdictions where a tenant can be evicted only by “just cause”, the tenant’s refusal to grant the landlord access to the rental unit may qualify as one of the enumerated reasons for eviction — the stakes are higher in cities that implement rent control, making it even more important to seek the guidance of an attorney.

When locks matter the most.

When there is an incoming tenant, it’s prudent for landlords to hold onto the keys until they have collected and cashed a deposit and any pre-paid rent, but what about a move-out?

Since a landlord’s fundamental responsibility is to provide a secure property, they should rekey locks between every set of renters. Even if all keys are turned in, there is no guarantee that extra copies were not made.

A landlord or property manager is tasked with standards of care, and if an incoming tenant claims that he or she was robbed or injured by someone who had a key to their apartment, it’s conceivable that they can point the finger to you. If the trier of fact sides with the aggrieved tenant and believes that a reasonably prudent owner or manager would have changed the locks when the former tenant vacated, you can be held liable.

Like most other legal subjects, we’ve only scratched the surface here, and there is a myriad of other rules. Victims of domestic abuse, for example, may be entitled to have the locks changed under certain conditions are met, and the landlord is often in a quandary as to when they can change locks if a tenant prematurely breaks the lease and abandons the property, topics we’ve reserved for other articles.

Changing locks is a fairly simple mechanical task, but the law is anything but — when you have questions, Bornstein Law is here to answer them.

Managing landlord-tenant relationships