Many landlords retain master keys to the apartments they manage in order to enter the apartment to make repairs or in case the tenant loses his key. The tenant agrees to give up some rights when renting an apartment, in that the landlord is allowed to enter the apartment under certain conditions, such as after giving adequate notice. Also, the tenant typically cannot change the locks himself under the lease agreement. At the same time, by keeping keys to the apartments the landlord owes a duty to the tenant to protect the keys. If the landlord’s key is used to unlawfully enter the premises, the landlord may be liable for any damages that result.
The landlord has a duty to protect the keys as a reasonable landlord would, and the failure to do so may be considered negligence. This means that the landlord must keep the keys secure and locked up where they are less likely to be stolen, and should change the locks after a tenant moves out since the old tenants may have retained copies of their keys. If a key is left out negligently and then stolen, the landlord may be held liable by the tenant.
Other steps that a reasonable landlord may be required to take include:
- Keeping the keys in a locked key box;
- Coding the keys so that they are not labeled by unit number;
- Keeping the code sheet and key box separate;
- Keeping a log of who checks out a key;
- Locking the room where the key box is kept;
- Setting all alarms in the office where the key box is kept.
The laws regarding landlord-tenant relationship as well as negligence can vary from state to state. If a landlord has been negligent with your key which led to a break in, an experienced landlord-tenant attorney can advise you of your rights and options under the law. A lawyer can also represent you in court if needed.