Texas Landlord Rights: Can I Legally Lock Out a Tenant?

By White & Mejias on May 25, 2024
As a Texas landlord, can you legally lock out a tenant?

As a landlord in Texas, you might encounter tenants who consistently fail to pay rent, violate lease terms, or cause disturbances. Imagine you have someone who hasn’t paid rent for months, and despite numerous warnings and attempts to resolve the issue, the situation remains unchanged. This kind of challenge is common for many landlords, and it raises the question of how to legally handle problem tenants.

Understanding the eviction process is essential in these situations. Evicting a tenant involves specific steps and regulations that must be followed to avoid potential legal repercussions. Failure to follow these laws can lead to costly fines, lawsuits, and prolonged disputes that could have been avoided with proper knowledge and procedures.

So can a landlord legally lock out a tenant in Texas? This question often arises when landlords feel they’ve exhausted all other options. In this blog, we will explore the legalities surrounding tenant lockouts in Texas, the risks involved with unlawful eviction practices, and alternative approaches to resolving tenant issues within the bounds of the law.

Legal Risks of Unlawful Eviction Practices

When dealing with problematic tenants, it’s essential for landlords to understand and closely follow Texas eviction laws. Eviction is a legal process governed by specific statutes, including Texas Property Code Chapter 24 and Rule 510 of Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, so unlawful eviction practices, such as changing the locks or removing a tenant’s belongings without a court order, can lead to severe penalties, including:

  • Financial Penalties: Landlords who engage in unlawful self-help eviction practices may face hefty penalties. Texas law allows tenants to sue for wrongful eviction and recover actual damages, one month’s rent, and $500, in addition to reasonable attorney’s fees and court costs.
  • Lawsuits: Tenants subjected to illegal lockouts can file lawsuits against landlords. This not only results in financial penalties but can also damage a landlord’s reputation and rental business. Courts typically side with tenants in cases of unlawful eviction, making it essential for landlords to follow proper legal procedures.

In this respect, following due process is not only a legal obligation but also a practical necessity. 

What You Should Know About Locking Out a Tenant

The act of locking out a tenant is often misunderstood. Some landlords and property managers believe it to be a quick method to evict a tenant, while others think it forces the tenant to pay delinquent rent to re-enter the property. However, a lockout is not an eviction, and improper use of this tactic can lead to serious legal issues for landlords. 

Under the Texas Property Code (§92.0081 – §92.009), landlords are restricted in how and when they can change the locks on a rental unit. One important point is that you can’t change the locks for nonpayment of rent unless the lease specifically includes written notice of this right. Even then, you must follow strict procedures and provide new keys to the tenant upon request, regardless of whether the rent has been paid. This law aims to prompt communication between landlords and tenants rather than serve as a tool for eviction.

Here are the key legal requirements and limitations regarding lockouts:

  • The lease must include written notice of the landlord’s right to change the locks.
  • The tenant must be behind on rent for a lockout to be considered.
  • The landlord must provide written notice before changing the locks.
  • The tenant must be given a new key upon request, regardless of rent payment status.
  • Landlords of apartment complexes that receive housing tax credits cannot lock out or threaten to lock out tenants.

While it may seem tempting to use a lockout as a quick solution for dealing with delinquent tenants, the legal and ethical risks far outweigh any short-term benefits. Following proper legal procedures ensures that you stay compliant with Texas laws and maintain a professional relationship with your tenants.

The Lockout Process Explained

When the locks are changed, the landlord must place a written notice on the outside of the tenant’s front door stating the following:

  • The on-site location where the tenant can obtain the new key 24 hours a day, or a telephone number that is answered 24 hours a day to arrange key delivery within two hours.
  • The fact that the landlord must provide the tenant with a new key at any hour, whether or not the rent is paid.
  • The amount of rent and other charges the tenant owes.

THIS SCENARIO REALLY ONLY COMES INTO PLAY FOR COMMERCIAL PROPERTIES. BE VERY CAUTIOUS IF YOU ARE TRYING THIS METHOD FOR A RESIDENTIAL PROPERTY AS OFTEN TIMES IT IS NOT APPLICABLE. 

A landlord may not change the locks under the following circumstances:

  • On, or the day before, a day when the landlord or on-site management office is not available for the tenant to pay the rent and late fees.
  • When the tenant or any other legal occupant is inside the dwelling.
  • More than once during a rental payment period.
  • To prevent the tenant from entering a common area of the rental property.

What Happens If You Don’t Provide a New Key?

If you fail to comply with the lockout laws, the tenant can:

  • Recover possession of the rental unit or terminate the lease contract.
  • Recover a civil penalty of one month’s rent plus $1,000, actual damages, court costs, and reasonable attorney’s fees.
  • Recover an additional civil penalty of one month’s rent if you demand rent as a condition of reentry. 

By understanding and following these legal procedures, you can avoid the pitfalls of unlawful lockouts and ensure you act within the bounds of Texas law.

Alternatives to Locking Tenants Out

When dealing with delinquent tenants, landlords have several alternatives to locking them out, the most effective of which are mediation and eviction. These methods can help resolve issues while maintaining legal compliance and fostering better tenant-landlord relationships.

Mediation

Mediation is a process where a neutral third party, called a mediator, helps the landlord and tenant communicate and negotiate to resolve their disputes. Mediation is voluntary, confidential, and non-binding until an agreement is reached. Its benefits include: 

  • Cost-Effective: Mediation is often less expensive than litigation or formal eviction.
  • Time-Saving: It can be quicker than going through the court process.
  • Preserve Relationships: The process encourages cooperative problem-solving, which can help maintain a positive relationship between landlord and tenant.
  • Flexible Solutions: Mediation allows for creative solutions that might not be available through the court system.

Pursue Eviction Proceedings

If mediation does not resolve the issue, you can pursue a formal eviction. The eviction process in Texas, which is structured to protect the rights of both parties and ensure a fair resolution, consists of the following steps:

  • Notice to Vacate: You provide the tenant with a written notice to vacate the rental property. This advance notice typically must give the tenant at least three days to leave unless the lease agreement specifies a different period.
  • Filing an Eviction Suit: If the tenant does not vacate after the notice period, you can file an eviction suit (forcible entry and detainer) in the appropriate justice court. The filing must include a copy of the notice to vacate and a statement of the grounds for eviction.
  • Court Hearing: The court will schedule a hearing where both parties can present their cases. If the court rules in your favor, a judgment for possession will be issued.
  • Writ of Possession: If the tenant does not vacate after the court’s judgment, you can request a writ of possession. This writ authorizes law enforcement to remove the tenant and their belongings from the property.

Speak to an Evictions Lawyer in the Woodlands Today

Difficult tenants can be challenging for landlords, but understanding the legal risks associated with unlawful eviction practices and exploring alternatives such as mediation and the formal eviction process can help resolve disputes while ensuring compliance with Texas law.

If you find yourself dealing with a problematic tenant, the experienced eviction lawyers at White & Mejias can help you protect your rights as a landlord. We will review your situation and recommend the best course of action for your particular situation, whether it be a legal lockout, mediation session, or eviction through the court system. For more information or to schedule a free consultation with an experienced lawyer, call (713) 818-7116 or contact us online today.


Category: Evictions