Don't Lock Out or Freeze Out a Tenant -- It's Illegal

Landlords are subject to penalties if they change the locks or shut off utilities to get a tenant out of rental property.

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As any experienced landlord will attest, there are occasional tenants who do things that are so outrageous that the landlord is tempted to bypass normal legal protections and take direct and immediate action to protect the property. For example, after a tenant's repeated destructive behavior, a landlord may consider changing the locks and putting the tenant's property out in the street. Or, a landlord who is responsible for paying the utility charges may be tempted to simply not pay the bill in the hopes that the resulting lack of water, gas, or electricity will hasten a tenant's departure.

Why You Shouldn't Lock Out a Tenant

Landlords who take matters into their own hands often think that their behavior will be excused by the tenant's egregious conduct. However, the fact that the tenant didn't pay rent, left the property a mess, verbally abused the manager, or otherwise acted outrageously will not be a valid defense -- and in fact, a landlord may well end up on the wrong end of a lawsuit for trespass, assault, battery, slander or libel, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and wrongful eviction. Defending this lawsuit will cost far more than evicting the tenant using legal court procedures.

Landlords or property managers who are tempted to take the law into their own hands to force or scare a troublesome tenant out of the property should heed the following advice: Don't do it! Shortcuts such as threats, intimidation, utility shutoffs, or attempts to physically remove a tenant are illegal and dangerous. So, although the eviction process can often entail considerable expense and delay, consider it the only legal game in town. (For information on the steps you must take to evict a tenant legally, see How Evictions Work: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers.)

Avoid Penalties and Money Damages

Virtually every state that forbids "self-help" evictions also imposes penalties for landlords who break the law. When tenants sue after being locked out or frozen out, they can not only sue for their actual money losses (such as the cost of temporary housing, the value of food that spoiled when the refrigerator stopped running, or the cost of an electric heater when the gas was shut off), but they can also sue for penalties, such as several months' rent. In some states, the tenant can collect and still remain in the premises; in others, tenants are entitled to monetary compensation only.

Even in states that have not legislated against self-help evictions, landlords who throw tenants out on their own run a risk of serious practical and legal entanglements. The potential for nastiness and violence is great -- picture the arrival of a patrol car while tenant and landlord wrestle over the sofa on the lawn.

Landlords who lock out their tenants often find themselves sued over the "disappearance" of their tenant's valuable possessions. The tenant will claim they were lost or taken when the landlord locked them up or removed them. Using a neutral law enforcement officer to enforce a judge's eviction order will avoid these unpleasantries.

For a comprehensive and up-to-date legal and practical guide for residential landlords, get Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Ralph Warner, Marcia Stewart and Janet Portman (Nolo).

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