Changing the locks on a rental unit can occur for a variety of reasons. Regardless of the reasons, California law requires that a landlord provide a safe living environment for a tenant during his residency. Landlords and tenants can rekey the locks to rental units anytime during their relationship, but specific procedures and permissions must apply to make doing so legal. A lease agreement can outline how rekeying locks works for both parties.
Responsibilities of the Parties
A landlord bears the responsibility for paying for locks if they break due to age during a renter’s tenancy. If a landlord wishes to upgrade a lock to a new type of mechanism, such as a smart lock, he must pay for that as well. Rekeying or changing locks becomes the renter’s responsibility if he requests the change, or if he or his guests break the existing lock.
Rekeying Before a New Tenancy
There is no California law that requires a landlord to rekey a unit after a tenant has moved out. It is, however, prudent to do so for the safety of the incoming renter. Even after a tenant moves out and hands in her keys, there is no guarantee that she didn’t have an extra set made during her tenancy. When a new tenant moves in, the landlord is responsible for a certain standard of care regarding that renter. If something happens to the new tenant, such as a robbery or injury because the landlord failed to rekey the locks when the apartment was vacant, he may be held liable.
Also, before a new tenant has moved in, a landlord can hold onto the keys to the unit until she has collected and cashed any prepaid rent and security deposit from the new tenant. If during his stay in the unit, the tenant loses his keys, the landlord may replace them or the locks with money from the security deposit. The landlord can charge a tenant whatever it costs to have a locksmith rekey the lock or she can choose to charge a rekey fee. Whatever she decides to do, the landlord can specify the terms in the lease agreement.
Rekeying Locks During Tenancy
When a landlord finds himself with a tenant who exhibits destructive behavior, she may wish to take matters into her own hands to protect herself and her property by rekeying the unit. However, according to California Civil Code Section 789.3, a landlord cannot obstruct access to a renter while he is still in residence. No matter how egregious the tenant’s behavior, if the landlord keeps the renter from entering the unit while he’s bound to his lease, she faces possible consequences of a $100 per day fine while she is in violation and possible attorneys' fees and costs for herself and the tenant.
According to California Civil Code Section 1941.3, a landlord can change the locks during a resident’s tenancy if the tenant is the victim of domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking. If the tenant produces a request to change the locks in writing, along with a copy of the restraining order or police report documenting the incident, the landlord must do so within 24 hours of receiving that information. If he does not change them within that time, the victim can change them, but must give the landlord a key within 24 hours of doing so. If the victim and abuser live together, the victim can still have the locks changed, but must give the landlord a copy of the restraining order that excludes the abuser from the residence.
Tenant's Rights When Rekeying Locks
California law allows tenants to change their locks when they wish to do so. They do not have to share a key with the property owner unless the lease states that they do. If changing the locks is a concern of the landlord, he can include a clause in the lease agreement prohibiting this particular alteration to avoid conflict and legal issues later on. Some landlords will use a templated rental agreement and do not know that they have this option.
Tenant's Right to Privacy
A tenant has a right to privacy, which means a landlord cannot enter a unit without proper notice to the tenant, which is usually 24 hours. However, the landlord can access the unit immediately under emergency circumstances, such as when a fire, flood or other situation arises that is detrimental to the life of the tenant or to the property itself. In this case, if the tenant changes the locks, it may be prudent for her to give the landlord a key. If the landlord requests one and the tenant refuses to provide a copy, the landlord may give the tenant a 3-Day Notice to Perform Covenant or Quit. If he still does not get a key, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer action to evict the tenant.
Read More: Invasion of Privacy in California: Landlord-Tenant Law