Q I recently changed the locks to the front door of my apartment and provided the landlord with a new key. The landlord then sent a letter indicating that I violated the lease by making an "alteration" to the property. Is this correct? There is no provision in the lease about changing locks, but there is a provision that it is a violation of the lease if alterations are made to the apartment without the landlord's approval.

A Property manager Griswold replies:

The proper handling of keys is extremely important for tenants and landlords. There are wide differences in the legal requirements about re-keying door locks, with some states specifically forbidding the tenants from re-keying.

However, even if your landlord is within his rights to require advance approval of any alteration of the property, I believe that it is reasonable for a tenant to want the peace of mind of having changed the lockset. While a lock change is clearly an alteration to the property, it is not merely a cosmetic issue, such as painting the interior your favorite fluorescent color or knocking down a wall to make one room out of two. The primary goals are your safety and the comfort of knowing that only you and the landlord have the key, as it is always possible that there are keys in the hands of previous tenants or their guests, as well as any of the landlord's maintenance personnel or contractors.

If the landlord is concerned about your changing the lockset, then be sure to keep the landlord's lock and replace it upon moving out.

I suggest you respond in writing to the landlord's letter and inform him that you changed the lock to ensure your safety and for peace of mind and that you have given him a copy of the key.

It is reasonable for the landlord to require a key in case of emergency, but you have addressed that concern. So what is the problem? I seriously doubt your landlord will have a legitimate response. The landlord would surely be liable if he forced you to keep the original lock and there was a break-in or serious crime committed by someone gaining access without force. The landlord should be concerned about unauthorized alterations, but not a lockset change when given the new key.

I am the owner of a small rental building with six units. Two of my tenants contacted me recently and informed me that they had concerns about the acorns that fall from a tree onto the ground and sidewalks. They both told me that if anything should happen to them, or their friends, they would hold me liable. Is this true? We have a gardener who comes once a week and cleans up. I am more than willing to trim the tree, as I take care of maintenance issues immediately, but would very much like to know about the liability issue.

Tenants' attorney Kellman replies:

It is your tree on your property dropping acorns on the grounds and sidewalks. Liability laws place burdens on owners of sidewalks to maintain them in safe condition (and on the city if it owns the sidewalk or is charged with maintaining it). Liability laws also place burdens on the people using the sidewalk to exercise due care and watch where they are walking.

In certain conditions, such as darkness or varying terrain, it may be difficult to see those acorns and avoid a fall. Therefore, a good approach is to have a professional tree company assess the situation and make the appropriate recommendations to avoid such problems.

Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

Landlords are not automatically responsible for all the problems of tenants.

Still, you need to be mindful of personal injury lawyers who would argue that because you had knowledge of the dangerous condition, you had a duty of care to your tenant. This would include a duty to sweep and take care of the problem, sort of like the wet floor in the supermarket.

The easy answer is to trim the tree so that the acorns don't fall on the sidewalk. Beyond that, sweep more frequently. That way, you will minimize the possibility of a slip-and-fall personal injury claim.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold and San Diego lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant's Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords. E-mail your questions to Griswold at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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