Most tenants are not going to go to the trouble and expense of changing the locks in their rental home, but you should be aware that it can and does happen on occasion, especially in aggravated eviction cases. Before you blow your stack and head over to the property with two mates and a sledgehammer, read on to find out whether your tenant is justified in changing the locks, what you can do about it, and how you can recover your costs if the worst does happen.
Why Tenants are not Allowed (Usually) to Change the Locks
Landlords have certain statutory obligations they must fulfil. These include ensuring a rental property is safe for tenants, which means conducting regular boiler checks and making sure smoke alarms are fully functional. If the tenant isn’t at home, a landlord with a key can let tradespeople in to carry out essential work.
It’s also essential that a landlord has a key in the event of an emergency. For example, if the police need to enter the property to carry out a welfare check and nobody is answering the door, the letting agent or landlord can use the key in their possession.
Imagine there is a reported gas leak and the tenant is sunning themselves in Costa Blanca – if you have no key to allow emergency workers fast access to the property, you might soon be looking at a pile of smoking rubble.
In addition to these scenarios, most standard tenancy agreements clearly state that a tenant is not allowed to make changes to the rental property without the landlord’s permission.
Newsflash: changing the locks is a major change. It’s not like painting the walls a nice shade of vermilion, (and no, a cheap tin of magnolia paint from the local discount store won’t solve this problem.)
For the avoidance of doubt, do check your tenancy agreement, just to be sure what it says about changing the locks. Ideally, there should be a clause about making material changes to the property (which any person with half a brain will know also covers changing the locks). It’s a good idea to draw your tenant’s attention to this clause if they change the locks and you believe it’s without justification.
What Happens if a Tenant Changes the Locks?
Firstly, depending on how laid back you are, either the red mist will descend and you’ll spend the next few minutes, days or weeks talking yourself down, or you’ll utter a few choice words and consider your options over a nice cup of green tea.
The good news is that unless the tenant can justify their actions – see more below – changing the locks on a rental property without the landlord’s permission is a breach of the tenancy. It could even be classed as “criminal damage” but take legal advice on this before you start threatening the tenant with court action.
When a Tenant CAN Change the Locks
There are some circumstances where a tenant can argue they were justified in changing the locks. It is a grey area, so you may have to argue the tenant was out of order if the case ends up in arbitration. However, it’s best to ensure you don’t end up ticking any of the following boxes:
The Landlord Keeps Accessing the Property Without Giving Notice
Landlords usually retain a key to their property, so they can enter in an emergency or let the tenant in when they have lost their key). In theory, there’s nothing stopping them from popping over and letting themselves in for a quick look around. However, just because your name is on the property deeds, it doesn’t give you the right to visit on a whim.
Tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment” of their homes. This right is enshrined in law and, therefore, not negotiable or ‘optional’.
Landlords must give reasonable notice to tenants before entering a rental property to carry out repairs or do a routine property inspection. We’ve covered this issue in more detail here, so have a read if you’re not sure what the protocol is.
The law states you cannot enter a tenant’s home without permission unless certain conditions prevail (i.e., it’s an emergency).
If you persist in visiting the property unannounced, whether your intentions are innocent or not, your tenant may feel sufficiently threatened to change the locks to keep you out. Your actions could be construed as harassment. Even if the tenant can’t claim they feel threatened (for example, they are a 6’4” bodybuilder and you’d blow over in a strong wind), it’s still out of order and a tribunal will probably take their side.
There is a Security Risk
Tenants have a legitimate reason to change the locks if their keys have been misplaced or stolen, and you, the landlord, don’t move fast enough to call a locksmith. It’s not OK to tell your tenant you’ll sort it out “at some point”. Remember, any insurance policy they have will be invalidated if the property cannot be secured. It’s also advisable to change the locks when a new tenant moves in, especially if the old one was problematic. If your tenant expresses any misgivings about the previous resident of their shiny new rental home, don’t ignore their concerns – call a locksmith. Otherwise, the tenant might decide to take matters into their own hands, and you’ll be left without a key.
How Much Does it Cost to Change the Locks?
It’s not a massively expensive job but expect to pay around £85+ to change a standard cylinder lock on a uPVC door. If you need to change the locks out of hours because a tenant lost their key down the pub and is now concerned the local riff-raff might show up to rip off their HDTV, factor in a hefty call-out fee.
For a tenant on a low income, splashing the cash to change the locks on two external doors (front and back), is likely to be more than they can afford. However, they may be willing to fork out the money if they feel threatened or they want to keep you – the landlord – out for some nefarious reason.
Why Would You Need to Claim Damages When a Tenant Changes the Locks?
A professional locksmith knows their stuff and you won’t have a clue if the locks have been changed until that awkward moment when the key doesn’t work. And no, WD-40 isn’t a miracle cure!
Sadly, some tenants are labouring under the delusion that their DIY skills are amazing.
“Changing a lock? Hey, no problem! I can do that for sure. I’ll watch a few YouTube vids and it’ll be fine…”
[two hours and 15 beers later]
“Pass me the hammer, babe!”
[CRACK! The door splits in two]
OK, so we made up this fictional scenario, but don’t assume it won’t ever happen! You might not have a clue your hapless tenant has been practicing their DIY on your front door until you come to check them out and discover a front door held together with duct tape and a prayer. Oh, and your key no longer works. At this point, replacing the lock isn’t going to cut it. Instead, you’ll have to fork out for a brand-new door.
Timber external doors are not too expensive – expect to pay around £110 for a traditional hardwood six-panel door. However, you will probably need to find a joiner to fit the door, and their time isn’t cheap, so add this to the running total, plus the cost of hardware (locks, handles, etc.).
If you decide to upgrade to a swanky new UPVC door, it costs around £800 for the supply and fit of a cheaper model.
Depending on how much deposit your tenant paid when the tenancy started, this could leave you out of pocket and madder than a box of frogs.
Claiming Back Your Costs
If the worst happens and you discover the locks have been changed, you have the right to claim back your costs for putting the matter right.
It’s customary to deduct these costs from the tenant’s deposit when the tenancy ends, so keep a record of any costs incurred, including your time spent dealing with the matter. If you end up in court, you will need to provide evidence of the money you spent to put it right.
Evicting a Tenant for Changing the Locks
Without access to the property, you can’t do maintenance, check up on the tenant or gain access for emergency purposes.
It should go without saying, but if a tenant changes the locks without your permission and isn’t justified in doing so or is refusing to allow you access to conduct essential repairs, your best course of action is to start eviction proceedings. You can read more about evicting your tenant here.
We sincerely hope you never end up staring at a door you can’t open, but if this has happened to you, please do get in touch and tell us how you handled the situation. We’d love to hear more!
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