Your home is your castle, right...or is it? Are your residents reasonably safe once they get inside your rental unit and lock the door? Everyone agrees that in an open society you cannot guarantee the personal safety of your residents. However, in the past ten years the courts have said in a loud and clear voice that rental housing owners and managers need to become more proactive in making their properties reasonably safe from violent criminals. According to insurance industry data, rental housing properties have been successfully sued more often for inadequate security claims than any other type of commercial property. In an effort to change this undesirable trend, it is worthwhile to review some important premises security steps here.

Premises Liability

In my experience, many landlords and property managers received adverse verdicts because they could not convince a jury that they had a reasonable security plan in place at the time of a criminal attack. Plaintiffs will argue that their rental house or apartment should have been their sanctuary once safely locked inside. They will further argue that since they did not have full control over their rental unit, they relied on property management to have a system in place keep them safe. Most jurors obviously agree.

By far, the most common claim against landlords are allegations of defective locks and latches on the rental unit that contributed to a criminal getting easy access to your resident.

Doors and Locks

As a landlord, to prevail in a premises security lawsuit you need to be able to prove that you acted reasonably and had a security plan in effect to protect residents. Proof of acting reasonably usually requires three things: 1) documentation, 2) documentation, and 3) documentation.

The best time to inspect the door security of a rental unit is: 1) before you rent it, and 2) at turnover. A good policy is to walk the apartment with both the incoming and outgoing resident to inspect and test each locking device. This inspection should be documented on the resident walk-through form and the resident should be asked to initial each locking device entry.

The most common way used to force entry through a door with a wooden doorjamb is to simply kick it open. The weakest point is almost always the strike plate that holds the latch or lock bolt in place. The average door strike plate is secured with only 1/2-inch wood screws set into soft doorjamb molding. These lightweight moldings are often tacked on to the doorframe and can be easily torn away with a firm kick. Because of this construction flaw, it makes sense to upgrade to a heavy-duty four-screw strike plate. They are available in most quality hardware stores and home improvement centers and are definitely worth the extra expense. Install this strike plate using 3-inch screws to cut deep into the doorframe stud. This one step alone will deter or prevent most forced entries through the front door. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.

Sliding Glass Doors

Sliding glass doors are usually installed at the rear of an apartment, making them good candidates for entry by a criminal. In warm climates, an experienced criminal knows that sliding glass doors are often left standing open for ventilation or for pet access. Since they slide horizontally, it is important to have a secondary blocking device in place to prevent the door from being fully opened from the outside. This can be easily accomplished by inserting a wooden dowel or stick into the track thus preventing or limiting movement. Other blocking devices available are metal fold-down blocking devices called "charley bars" and various track-blockers that can be screwed down. These track-blockers can allow a door to stand open 6-inches but block further movement. It’s a good policy for landlords to provide these devices and request, in writing, that residents use them. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.

Sliding glass doors are notorious for failing to prevent a forced entry attempt, especially in apartment buildings. This is because of the wear and tear they receive and due to the inadequate nature of many of the latching mechanisms. Sliding glass doors do not have locks on them, only latches. The latches are made of aluminum and become worn or go out of adjustment. The most common methods used to force entry, aside from breaking the glass, is by prying the door near the latch or lifting the door off the track.

The blocking devices described above solve half the equation. To prevent lifting, you need to keep the door rollers in good condition and properly adjusted. You can also install anti-lift devices such as a pin that extends through both the sliding and fixed portion of the door. There are also numerous locking and blocking devices available in any good quality hardware store that will prevent a sliding door from being lifted or forced horizontally. Place highly visible decals on the glass door near the latch mechanism that indicates that an alarm system, a dog, or block watch/operation identification is in place, if applicable. Apartment managers should be careful not to misrepresent that these devices are in place, if they are not. Criminals don’t like alarm systems and definitely dogs.

Windows

Windows are left unlocked and open at a much higher rate than doors. An open window, visible from the street or alley, may be the sole reason for an apartment to be selected by a criminal. Ground floor windows are more susceptible to break-ins for obvious reasons. Upper floor windows become attractive if they can be accessed easily from a stairway, tree, fence, or by climbing on balconies. Windows have latches, not locks, therefore they should have secondary blocking devices to prevent sliding them open from the outside. Inexpensive wooden dowels and sticks work well for horizontal sliding windows and a through-the-frame pin works well for vertical sliding windows. For ventilation, block the window open no more than 6-inches and make sure you can't reach in from the outside and remove the blocking device. These window-blocking devices should be capable of being removed easily from the inside to comply with fire codes.

Like sliding glass doors, anti-lift devices are necessary for ground level and accessible aluminum windows that slide horizontally. The least expensive and easiest method is to install screws halfway into the upper track of the movable glass panel to prevent it from being lifted out in the closed position. Place highly visible decals on the glass door near the latch mechanism that indicates that an alarm system, a dog, or block watch/operation identification system is in place, if applicable. Apartment managers should be careful not to misrepresent that these devices are in place if they are not. The Landlord should supply these additional security devices and request, in writing, that the residents use them. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.

Key Control

In Texas, a jury awarded a woman $18 million after being raped and abducted by a man who gained access to her apartment unit by using a management back-up key. The rapist broke into the management office and found the correctly numbered back-up keys hanging unsecured on a hook.

Many other very large jury awards have been made to former residents because of negligent control and use of the master key. The negligence issue is always the same. If you require a resident to supply an extra key to their apartment unit, then you must take reasonable steps to safeguard that key. If you maintain a master key that unlocks all the units, you must take even greater steps to control access to this key.

The legal theories are simple. A resident gives up some rights when they move onto a rental property. On most properties, the resident, per lease agreement, cannot add or replace the deadbolt on their door unless management is given an extra key. By doing this, the property manager assumes the responsibility of key control. The other legal theory is one of reliance. The landlord supplies the locks and keys and therefore, a resident must rely on management to have re-keyed the door lock and to have secured the back-up and master key. Key control, by definition, requires restriction and documentation of those who use the back-up keys and master keys. Of course, you should document this important step because it is proof of you acting reasonably.

Here are 10 proven steps to follow for better key control and resident security:

Premises Liability Surviving Lawsuits



Books on Security Management and Liability