November 2009

When to Change the Locks

At what point during the eviction process can I change the locks on the apartment doors?

After a drawn out eviction trial, there is no better feeling than winning your case and having a judgment granting you possession of your apartment. Sometimes the judgment will also include monetary awards, such as back rent or attorneys fees. But realistically, the most valuable part of the judgment is for the possession of the apartment. Your apartment is the important asset you want emptied of the old tenant as soon as possible, so that you can re-rent to a new tenant who can actually pay the rent.

Many landlords believe a judgment for possession means that they can immediately change the locks. This is incorrect and could subject a landlord to a costly wrongful eviction lawsuit by the soon to be ex-tenant. While the judgment means the court has ordered that possession be returned to the landlord, the landlord is not the one entitled to carry out the order. That role belongs to the San Francisco County Sheriff. In other words, the landlord is not actually entitled to possession of the rental unit, and by extension, change the locks, until after the sheriff has removed the tenant, or if the tenant voluntarily vacates prior to the eviction date.

The process for regaining possession and changing the locks to the apartment is as follows. After a landlord wins his unlawful detainer lawsuit and obtains a judgment for possession, she must file a Writ of Possession for Real Property with the court. This is usually done on the same day the judgment is granted. The writ is a document which actually orders the San Francisco County Sheriff to enforce the judges decision to physically remove the tenant from the apartment and return possession to the landlord. Once the writ has been filed with the Court, it is then brought to the Sheriff who schedules the actual eviction. It takes approximately 2-3 weeks from the delivery of the writ to the actual day the Sheriff comes to the property to remove the tenant. Part of the reason for this delay is because in San Francisco, the Sheriff only performs evictions on Wednesdays. The tenant is legally allowed to remain in the property during this time period.

The Sheriff will post a notice on the tenants door approximately five days before the actual eviction date, giving the tenant the opportunity to vacate voluntarily. If the tenant moves out of the apartment during these five days, and has surrendered the keys to landlord, it is usually safe to call the Sheriff to cancel the eviction, and change the locks. However, if the landlord isnt sure if the tenant has left, it is wiser to proceed with the actual Sheriffs eviction.

If the tenant has not vacated by the eviction date, the Sheriff returns and will physically remove the tenant from the apartment. It is strongly recommended that the landlord and a locksmith be present when the Sheriff arrives on the eviction date. After the sheriff has removed the tenant from the apartment, the landlord can change the locks without repercussion, as now possession of the Premises has been officially restored to the landlord.

-Marina Franco