FML: I’m Locked Out

Locking yourself out of your home can be stressful: a fact I know very well now after locking myself out of my apartment three times. There is no worse feeling than your stomach dropping when you realize you’re standing outside your own door with no way in.

The very first thing you need to do is make a copy of your key. Stop what you’re doing right now, go to Home Depot (or your local hardware store—heck even Wal-Mart copies keys), and get it over with. Go now! They’re open late, and it costs less than five dollars. It took me three lock-outs before I bucked up and got a spare key—don’t let that happen to you.

You have a couple options for what to do with your spare. You can hide the key somewhere nearby, but be smart about it. Don’t just put it under the mat—we all know about that one for a reason! Try to find a reliable friend to hold onto it (preferably a friend in relative walking distance in the event you get locked out without your phone).

Planning for a lockout is easy, but there’s nothing you can do if you’re without a spare key and already locked out. If you have a roommate, you could just wait it out if time isn’t an issue. But if you live by yourself, your roommate is out of town, or you’ve locked the baby you’re babysitting inside, you’ll need to reach out for help. If your building manager lives on site or is easy to reach, there is a very good chance they have a spare set of keys and can let you back in. If you haven’t already, program your manager’s phone number into your phone—this is also just a good thing to have. Unfortunately, my building manager was very helpful but didn’t actually have keys to any of the apartments in my building.

Before you call the dreaded locksmith, you’ll probably consider breaking into the apartment yourself—but wait! Unless you live in the middle of nowhere (where you can’t even walk to a gas station and/or borrow a phone) or it is a life-or-death emergency, DO NOT break in to your house or apartment. Trust me: no matter how much you want to just smash your way in, you’ll regret it. Plus, windows are expensive to replace (especially compared to the expense of the locksmith), one of your neighbors might call the police thinking you are up to something nefarious, and, if you live in a rental, you could be in serious trouble with your landlord.

Okay, so you actually need to call the locksmith. Finding a locksmith is one Google search away: that’s the easy part. If you don’t have a smart phone, call 411 to get the number for a locksmith. If you lock yourself out without your phone, you can either knock on neighbors’ doors (if you feel comfortable with that) or walk to the closest gas station or deli and borrow a phone.

When you call, ALWAYS get a quote over the phone first. The quote depends on location, time of day/week, and what they ultimately have to do to get the lock open. And, as expected with anyone with skills in demand, the locksmith will try to overcharge you if you don’t know what you should pay in advance. There’s a minimum price (a “service fee”) for having the locksmith drive out to you, even if you end up not using their services—usually this is about $50. It will be more if you’re locked out at night or on the weekend, so be prepared for that as well.

ALWAYS ask specifically what the price is for a Schlage doorknob lock (one of the most popular brands of quality doorknobs) or something similar. If you just ask for a nonspecific price, they’ll tell you what it will cost for a ‘minimum’ lock—think a crappy bathroom doorknob. The front door of your apartment is going to be a higher quality lock, not a ‘minimum’ lock, and will, therefore, cost more. The difference could be as much as $50-$100 dollars more! Don’t let yourself get caught off-guard. A typical lockout will cost about $90-$120, depending on where you are.

Don’t be afraid to ask if there is a possible discount if you pay in cash. The answer will almost certainly be yes, and the locksmith might even wait for you to get cash out from a nearby ATM if you ask nicely. If the phone operator tells you there won’t be a discount, ask the locksmith when he or she gets there. Locksmiths may be a bit more willing to work with you than the operator. If you have to pay with a card, unfortunately, this isn’t too helpful.

When the locksmith arrives, he or she will assess the lock before starting work and give you a quote for the work required. Again, this quote may differ from the quote you got over the phone, which is why it’s so important to be armed with the best information possible. DO NOT pay more than $200 to get your door opened, unless there’s a baby or a starving pet inside. Catching the new episode of Grey’s because you forgot to set it to record does not justify paying that much money. (Even for the season finale.) If you’re paying cash, in my experience, you shouldn’t pay more than $120 (and even that is pushing it). The key is to not be afraid of negotiation. The worst thing that can happen is that you get the price as low as they’ll go, even if it’s still out of your comfort zone. Being a bit of a bitch is your friend: embrace it! There’s no set price for what locksmiths do, so there is ALWAYS wiggle room. At the very minimum, tell them you’ll tip in cash even if you have to pay the rest with a card. Remember, they’re looking out for themselves too.

So, you’ve settled on price, and the locksmith goes to work. Every time I’ve called someone out to my apartment, they’ve tried to pick the lock unsuccessfully before telling me they have to drill the lock. While this is absolutely a trick of the locksmith trade, there’s a step in between the two that involves a hammer and a normal key, one of which the locksmith will definitely have with him. He puts the key in the lock and hits it with the hammer until the door opens. Yes this is technically breaking the lock, but once you’re inside, he can reset it with your newly repossessed key. Again, there is no harm in asking (even if you think you’re being more overbearing than necessary). If it works, there’s no lock replacement necessary (which is what would have happened if they had drilled).

Congratulations! You’re finally back inside! And it was only slightly painful, I hope. The fact of the matter is getting locked out can be embarrassing and expensive, but it doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re prepared. There’s always a way to get back in, even if it means paying the “idiot fee” to a locksmith because you don’t have a spare key stashed away yet. Which brings us back to where I started: GO TO HOME DEPOT AND GET A SPARE KEY. Even if you never use it, $5 is a lot cheaper than $150! And tell all your friends to do the same, before you have to deal with their lockouts too.

Photo by Meaghan Morrison

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5 Comments

  1. This is also a big reason to get to know your neighbors. I had an apartment complex where several of us all got close, hung out, had weekly dinners and after about 6 months we all started to exchange spare keys. It saved us countless dollars and made our lives SO MUCH BETTER. Or if you don’t like your neighbors then have a friend who you give a spare to. It’s so much cheaper that way. Just make sure the person is trustworthy and not going to use your place to party

  2. This article was actually extremely useful to me for a slightly unrelated reason: I have both a deadbolt and doorknob lock on my front door. Sometimes I just pull the door closed and the doorknob locks, and I don’t give it another thought. But apparently someone with a key and a hammer could pretty easily get into my apt this way…consider me a converted deadbolter.

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