California tenants may wish to unilaterally change their rental unit locks for various reasons, including after losing their keys, suffering stalking, or when their landlord abuses the right of access.  Depending on the specific circumstances, the consequences of changing the locks could range from nothing to an eviction that ultimately puts the California tenant at risk of losing their home.

Does My Lease Prohibit Me from Unilaterally Changing the Locks?

Where one exists, California tenants should look to their written lease agreement to determine whether they can change their locks.  Some lease agreements contain a provision expressly prohibiting the California tenant from changing their locks or doing so without the landlord’s permission.  Where the lease contains a provision regarding the locks, the California tenant must follow it.  Additionally, where the lease includes a “No Alterations” provision – which prohibits tenants from altering their home, typically without the landlord’s consent – the tenant must comply with the provision’s language.

A California tenant that violates a written lease provision prohibiting them from changing their locks acts in breach of their lease.  This exposes them to a potential eviction action should they fail to cure an alleged violation following the landlord issuing a cure or quit notice.  Usually, California tenants may cure the breach by restoring the original lock or providing the landlord with a copy of the new set of keys.

Can I Change My Unit Locks When My Lease Does Not Prohibit or Reference Changing the Locks?

 While a landlord’s failure to expressly prohibit changing the locks in the written lease agreement means the California tenant cannot be held in breach of the lease for changing their front door locks, California tenants should consider that changing the locks prevents the landlord from exercising their access rights in the case of an emergency, such as a flood or fire. Therefore, where the California tenant changes the locks, it is best to inform the landlord of the change, provide the landlord with a copy of the new keys, and ensure proper installation of the new lock so there is no damage to the property.

Although My Lease Prohibits Unilaterally Changing the Locks, When Can I Still Change the Locks to My Rental Unit?

Even where a written lease prohibits changing the locks, exceptions permit California tenants to change them.  Generally, California tenants may change their rental unit locks – even when their lease prohibits changing the locks – in the following situations:

  • The landlord repeatedly abuses the right of access provided under California Civil Code section 1954, including by entering without providing notice or attempting to enter on unlawful grounds;
  • The landlord performs an illegal lockout on the California tenant in violation of California Civil Code section 789.3 (also known as a forcible detainer); and,
  • For leases executed on or after January 1, 2011, a California tenant may change their locks without landlord permission where the California tenant suffers domestic violence, sexual assault, or stalking, and the landlord fails to change the California tenant’s locks within twenty-four (24) hours of a request to change the locks. California Civil Code §§ 1941.5(c), 1941.6(c).

Despite being legally entitled to change the locks, California tenants should still ensure proper installation of the new lock, and, where the landlord is not the cause of the change, provide a copy of the new key to the landlord.

Can I Unilaterally Change My Lock When It Breaks?

Yes, California tenants may unilaterally change their door locks when broken, provided they first complain to their landlord who then ignores the problem.  Schweiger v. Sup. Ct. (Bonds), 3 Cal. 3d 507, 517 (1970) (California tenant protected from eviction for repairing and deducting, including fixing broken back door lock.); Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal. 3d 616, 629 (1974).  However, it is imperative you inform the landlord, preferably in writing, that you changed the lock.