Landlord self-help: why changing the locks on your tenant is a bad idea

You are a landlord and your tenant hasn’t paid the rent for the past few months. She won’t answer your phone calls, emails or text messages. Your mortgage is still due on the building and you need to get a new tenant in place or get the rent paid. You are thinking of changing the locks or turning off her water in order to get her out. Do not do it! This is called landlord “self-help” and in Pennsylvania it is generally unlawful. It may sound counter-intuitive but if the landlord takes any self-help actions against a tenant he will be the one in hot water. Let’s take a look at some of the lawful and unlawful ways in which a landlord can take back his property.

Actions a landlord can lawfully take to reclaim her property

The law used to allow a certain degree of self-help in evicting tenants from a landlords property. Not anymore. Today, in Pennsylvania, self-help is generally banned. In order for a landlord to take his property back he must move through the court system and with a judge’s approval. The procedure in Pennsylvania for landlords to evict is the following:

  1. Give the tenant a written notice to quit
  2. Follow it with a landlord/tenant complaint to the district magistrate
  3. A formal hearing
  4. A judgment for eviction from the magistrate
  5. If the eviction is granted a sheriff’s deputy can remove the tenant

This process is long and both parties get to present their arguments along the way, but it is the primary way a landlord can get an eviction in Pennsylvania.

No self-help: actions a landlord cannot lawfully take to reclaim his property

Do not do any of the following:

  • Padlock the doors or change the locks
  • Turn off any of the utilities
  • Remove the tenants personal property from the premises
  • Threaten the tenant with physical harm
  • Remove the doors or windows or other fixtures on the property

A landlord should not take any of the above actions in attempting to reclaim his property. The law forbids these actions and the landlord may have to pay money damages if the tenant’s rights are violated and/or her personal property is damaged. Additionally a landlord may have to pay pain and suffering damages and could even face criminal charges if the action is illegal under the criminal code.

Choose the slow and steady lawful procedures over self-help

A landlord who is having trouble collecting rent from a tenant, or who needs to remove a problem tenant, should never resort to self-help in Pennsylvania. There is a legal process in place for removing tenants and if a landlord takes action outside of that process he may be subject to money damages or criminal sanctions. Always follow the lawful process that includes the court system. In order to ensure that you can quickly and peaceably navigate that process have a carefully crafted lease that protects the rights of everyone involved. Contact a local attorney with experience in the field to obtain a fair and favorable lease agreement.[1][2]

[1] Landlord/Tenant Law Overview, Northwestern Legal Services (2008),

[2] Landlord Self-Help Evictions, Southwestern Pennsylvania Legal Services, Inc. (2006),