The keys to your rentals are an important trust. The people who live in your properties know that you have copies of the keys to their homes. In their homes are their possessions—usually worth thousands of dollars. They also want to feel safe in their homes, to know that no one else is going to be able to simply unlock the door and walk in.
It isn’t complicated or difficult to ensure the security of the keys to your units. What follows are the things you need to do to make sure you and your current tenants are the only ones who have access to their homes.
Who is a danger?
Obviously your ordinary thieves are a big danger, but they are most likely to simply break in, unless, of course, they happen onto your supply of keys. More likely to be a problem are former tenants and their sleazeball friends, employees, employees’ friends and family, and people who do work in your units.
Employees, such as resident managers, are a special concern. Under no circumstances should you hire anyone with a criminal record or history of drug use. You are responsible for the acts of your employees as much as the employees are.
You also have the issue of the relatives of employees. All too often the manager is just fine, no criminal record, no history of drug abuse, just an upstanding citizen. But somehow she has married a low-life jerk and who is definitely a problem. He takes the key to apartment and rapes the young woman who lives there.
While you can’t refuse to hire on the basis of the sins of a spouse, you can certainly create a system that would not allow a spouse to be able to figure out which was the key to which apartment, as long as your employee kept her mouth shut. More about how to do that later.
Always re-key or replace any door lock at turnover.
That eliminates problems with former tenants or their friends simply using an old key to let themselves in. You can find lock systems that use interchangeable cores, but they are expensive. One of the easiest things to do is use the same brand of lock on all your units and keep a couple of extra sets. Then on move out simply exchange the lock with one of your extras.
Never allow a tenant to re-key or change the locks on a unit. Write it into the lease or rental agreement that doing so is grounds for immediate termination of the tenancy. To allay the concerns of your tenants explain your key and lock system in detail. It is important that you always have access to your properties. Changed locks don’t allow that access and would require that you hire a locksmith to get you in when tenants move out or in an emergency. It also means that you don’t know where the keys are, even if the tenant gives you a copy of the key to the changed lock, unless, of course, you change it back to the original lock.
Some brands of keys cannot be copied except by the company or agents of the company that makes them. These keys and the locks are, of course, extraordinarily expensive, and using them is akin to hitting a carpet tack with a sledge hammer, since they are designed for buildings with higher security requirements than apartments and rental houses. Even so, if your property is in a high-crime area, they might be a worthwhile investment, since you would know immediately who got copies of keys.
You can also have a locksmith stamp on all keys “Do Not Duplicate.” That will work with some places that cut keys, but not with all of them, of course.
Eliminate or limit the use of a master key.
Lock systems that use master keys are handy, but multiply your liability by the number of your properties.
Keep back-up keys in a locked keybox.
Keep the keybox in a separate room or closet, if possible. Always lock the room or closet that houses the keybox when not occupied.
Once your keys are safely locked in a keybox, code them so they do not reflect or identify a unit number.
It’s pretty easy to do, just avoid creating codes that have any relationship to the addresses of the units. For example, coding 1234 Main St, Apt. 1 as main1 or 1234-1 is a “secret” code that even the most dimbulb crook could figure out. Rather get creative. For example, 1234 Main St. could be X and each apartment have its own letter as well, so make Apartment 1 be Z. Thus, 1234 Main St., Apt. 1 would be XZ.
Write all the codes in a book. Under no circumstances keep the codes and the keys in the same place or in a computer database accessible from the building site. In fact you would be well served to either lock the code book in a safe or keep it in another building entirely.
Maintain a log of whoever checks out a backup key.
Create a sheet with columns for the date and time both out and in, and name of person checking the key out. Of course, always make sure you get keys back. It’s a good idea to get all keys back at the end of every day. There is no reason for a contractor to keep a key overnight Ctoo many opportunities for something to “happen” to the key. If he or she will require access a second day, simply check the key out again.
If you own a key cutting machine, be sure it and key blanks are secured.
Carelessness with keys is the surest way to end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit. It is your fault if your system makes it too easy for bad guys to access your properties’ keys.
Part of our responsibility as landlords is to help our tenants have safe and secure places to live. One of the most effective things we can do is to protect access to their homes with careful key control.