Question: I have just bought an apartment building with four units and am a first-time landlord. The previous owner gave me a set of keys for the units. When I tried to enter one of the units recently when the tenant wasn't home, the key did not work. I suspect the tenant changed the lock without telling me or the prior owner. I was thinking about just having a locksmith come to the property and change the lock. Would I be within my rights?
Answer: A landlord has a right to access a rental unit and a right to a key to the unit to gain access. If there were an emergency such as a broken sewer or toxic leak, for example, the landlord has a duty to take immediate action and would need a key.
It is a good practice to include a provision in your rental agreement requiring a tenant to provide a workable key to the unit. However, we believe you can enforce this right even without an explicit clause in the rental agreement. If you've asked for a key without success, the proper method to enforce your right is to serve a written three-day notice to "Perform Covenant or Quit" directing the tenant to provide a workable key. If the tenant fails to comply, you may proceed with an unlawful detainer action in Superior Court to evict the tenant.
But you don't have a right to unilaterally change the lock. Such an action would be viewed as a "forcible entry" prohibited by California Code of Civil Procedure Section 1159. You also could be subject to $100-per-day damages.
You didn't indicate why you wanted to access the unit. As a new owner, you might not be aware that you have no general right to enter one of your rental units. Under Civil Code Section 1950.4, you are allowed to enter only for specific reasons, such as to make repairs or to respond to an emergency. You must give 24 hours' written notice of your intent to enter unless there is a true emergency or a court order, and your actual entry should be restricted to normal business hours. If you comply with these requirements, you can enter whether or not the tenant is actually home, which is another reason you are entitled to a workable key.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.