Landlord Self Help: Can’t I Just Change the Locks on a Problem Tenant?

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If you are a landlord, you may have heard the term “self-help eviction” before. Sometimes this practice goes simply by the name “lockout.” In essence, this is the idea that, if you are a landlord with a problem tenant living in your rental property, you can evict the tenant without going through the legal channels by simply changing the locks or shutting off utilities, rendering the property uninhabitable. The problem with this practice is that, in the vast majority of cases, it is illegal.  

Self Help Eviction: Residential v. Commercial

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, self-help evictions are forbidden for residential rental properties. Most broadly, this means that state law does not permit a landlord to retake possession of a rental property without following the legal eviction process. Practically, this means that landlords may not:

  • Fail to pay utility bills, causing utilities to be shut off

  • Change the locks

  • Remove tenant’s personal property from the unit

  • Threaten the tenant

  • Order the tenant to leave the property

Not only will these tactics fail to stand up in court, but they may even amount to landlord harassment. It is important to keep in mind that self-help eviction is forbidden no matter what the tenant does. Whether the tenant has failed to pay rent, destroyed property, or violated terms of the lease, it is still not possible for a landlord to take matters into his or her own hands outside of the formal eviction process.

In commercial properties, the laws are slightly different. Virginia law does not specifically forbid self-help evictions for commercial properties, so it may be possible to evict a commercial tenant by changing locks or shutting off utilities. However, this practice is incredibly risky, and it is not recommended. First, the lease will control. If the lease specifies a procedure for eviction or specifically forbids self-help eviction, the practice will not be permissible. Second, if there is not a valid claim for eviction under the lease, a court may end up siding with the tenant.  

The only legal way to evict a commercial tenant outside of the formal eviction process is a) if there is not a provision stating otherwise in the lease and b) if the self-help eviction does not disturb the peace or use unreasonable force. Further, self-help eviction for commercial rentals only extends the right to remove the tenant, not to remove or seize their personal property.

If you do own a commercial property and are thinking about self-help eviction, we strongly urge you to engage a Virginia landlord-tenant attorney. This is a complex area of law and self-help evictions are very risky. An attorney can help you properly conduct an eviction and to ensure you are complying with both your lease and state law.

Why Can’t I Just Change the Locks on a Problem Tenant?

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, the majority of residential leases are governed by the Virginia Landlord Tenant Act. We have written extensively about the eviction process in another blog post. Here, we will simply cover the basics.

  1. Under Virginia residential landlord-tenant law, landlords must provide tenants (even those who have continually failed to pay rent or who have violated the terms of the lease) with proper, written notice prior to an eviction. To do this, the landlord must file a lawsuit in court and properly serve the tenant.

  2. If the lawsuit is successful, a court will award a judgment for possession of the property.

  3. After obtaining a judgment, the landlord must get a Writ of Possession from the Court, which will allow the eviction to move forward.

  4. A Sheriff is the only person legally entitled to conduct an eviction. After obtaining a Writ of Possession, the landlord must schedule the eviction with the Sheriff’s Office.

How Do I Start? I Want My Tenant Problem Resolved Now!

We say this a lot, but the very first place to start if you are having trouble with a tenant is to look at the lease! The lease was written to provide the guidelines for just such an occasion. If your lease is not clear, or if you are ready to move forward with a formal eviction, engage an experienced landlord-tenant attorney right away. At Wakefield Law, we have 30 years of experience representing landlords throughout Northern Virginia. An experienced attorney can help you evict your problem tenant lawfully and quickly while avoiding any tenant challenges or fines that may come from trying to handle it yourself. To speak with an experienced attorney, give us a call at (703) 771-9740.