Apartment and Condo Door Lock and Security Basics

Many factors affect home security. Homeowner and neighbor vigilance, locking hardware, electronic security, and factors as simple as the residents' habits and daily schedules all play a role. This article deals primarily with units within multi-unit dwellings, but also touches on general home security issues.

Know Your Enemy

Burglars are looking for a little easy money. They want to get in and out fast without getting caught. Therefore any obstacle that inconveniences a burglar works as a deterrent to burglary; how great a deterrent depends on how great the obstacle and how stubborn the burglar. However, burglary is an irrational act, therefore the behavior of a burglar is not always predictable.

Easy Money

They take wrist watches, jewelry, very small, state of the art electronics (such as an iPod), credit cards and cash. Usually, they are taking their loot direct to their drug dealer so that they can trade for drugs. They would take a notebook computer. They would usually not take a desk-top computer. The bigger the thing they steal, the better their chances of being caught.

In and Out Fast

I have heard of cases in which the burglars back up a truck to a suburban house and take every last thing. I have also seen cases in which the burglar obviously did a lot of work to get into an apartment or condo. However, the every-day, run-of-the-mill urban burglar will get into a multi-unit building and break into one or more units, spending minutes in each unit, and be out of the building usually in less than an hour. Typically they use a tire iron or large screwdriver to pry open doors. To get in the front entrance, they will often press all the doorbells. Many people will simply release the door without knowing who rang the bell. If no one answers, they now know that probably no one is home, so they may feel emboldened to pry open the front door. They are generally not skilled but can be persistent.

Different Kinds of Burglars

Some burglars favor breaking into the first place they come to. Others are more strategic, and may elect to break into an upper-floor unit so that they can hear people coming home through the front door in time to make their escape. Most burglaries occur during the day, between the hours of noon and four in the afternoon. For this reason, it is a strong deterrent to a burglar if you or one of your neighbors is home most of the time during the day.

Some burglars observe a building for a few days, watching the comings and goings, before breaking in. Others just go right in with no observation.


They are usually not confrontational, but one should not count on that. They are desperate criminals and might do anything. If you come home and find a burglar in your home, or see that your door has been broken into, leave immediately and call the police.

Secure the Perimeter

In a multi-unit dwelling, security begins at the building entrances, including fire escapes and first floor windows. If burglars can be kept outside the building, there will be no burglaries in the building.

Burglars love to break in through the front door. Going in through the front makes them look like they belong there, as opposed to sneaking around the back or climbing the fire escape - a dead giveaway that they are up to no good. Buildings with an unlocked vestibule are prime targets. The burglar can let themselves in through the unlocked outer door, close the door behind them, and work on the locked inner door in relative privacy. As a locksmith, in buildings with an unlocked vestibule that had a recurring burglary problem, I was able to solve their problem 97% of the time by locking their outer front door. Burglars are much less likely to attempt a break-in out on the street, with all your neighbor's windows looking down on them, right in front of God and everybody. By the same token, once within the privacy of your empty hallways, they feel relatively relaxed about doing their work.

A common question when considering locking an outer vestibule door in cases where the mailboxes are housed in the vestibule is, "How does the mail delivery person get in?" Or, for that matter, how does anyone let in guests? The answer is simple: extend the intercom or door release system to the newly locked outer front door. Then residents can continue to buzz guests in. A special switch operated by the mail deliverer's postal key must be installed so that the mail can be delivered.

Start Off Secure

As soon as possible after you have closed on your condominium or signed the lease on your new apartment, change the locks. By "change the locks" I mean, change the key that opens your apartment. If you are minimally handy, you can probably accomplish this yourself. If you are uncomfortable with tools, you should call a security professional.

Calling your security professional may be a good idea anyway, because they can recommend a plan tailored to your specific situation, and with key bumping now seemingly all the rage among burglars these days, you may want to look into a type of lock cylinder that is resistant to key bumping.

For more info on key bumping please click here.

For info on how to change your locks, please click here.

The reason you need to change your locks is because you don't know who may have your key. Possibilties of who may have your key include the former owner, their lovers and/or friends and/or extended families, your realtor, their realtor, various workmen who may have been hired to work on the place prior to offering it for sale, the neighbors, and whomever else may ever have had anything to do with the place or the former owner. That's why you need to change your locks.

In the act of changing your locks, you can upgrade them. That is to say, you can replace your locks with better ones. You need at least one commercial grade deadbolt on each of your apartment entrance doors. However, before you decide what locks you need, tour your building and take a close look at the situation.

Six Panel Door
Six Panel Door

Assess Your Security

As a locksmith, I can go through a building and most of the time I can tell if units have been burglarized and repaired. I look for filled-in pry-marks, additional hardware that has been added to cover up damage, and wood that has been replaced in the viscinity of the lock. If you see a lot of damage, your building has experienced burglary in the past, and is likely to experience it it the future.

As you go through your building, check out your neighbors' hardware. If your neighbor's door looks more secure than yours does, the burglar may choose your door as an easier target. Impressive looking locks are half the battle. I call that a visual deterrent. It goes to the desire of the burglar to get in and out fast. If your door looks like it will impede that goal, the burglar may elect to leave your door alone.

Your Lock is Only as Good as Your Door

You can have the best lock in the world, but if your door is a wood veneer box filled with gypsum, it will break into pieces around the lock. To see what's inside your door, remove one of the locks and look into the hole.

  • If you see compressed white powder, your best bet is to replace your door before you even think about locks. Large chunks of the door would break off if the door was forced.
  • If your door is made of sheet metal and is hollow, or filled with cardboard or styrofoam to dampen sound, that is not a bad door. This is a commercial grade, hollow metal door.
  • If, however, your door is hollow metal molded to look like it has panels (see six panel door illustration above), this is probably not a good door, especially if it has a wooden strip on the edge. The metal is too light a gauge to properly hold a screw, and the wooden edge is too flimsy to support a lock.
  • If your door is wood, and the inside is compressed wood particles, that is not a bad door. Wrap-around plates are available to reinforce lock installations in doors such as these. The result is pretty strong.
  • If your door is made up of vertical and horizontal wood pieces that have thin panels between them, this is not a very secure door. You might consider applying a sheet of 3/8" marine grade plywood over the panels on the interior side. You can put molding around the edge like a picture frame to improve the appearance, and at the same time guard against someone gaining entry by smashing through one of the thin panels. Also, the outside appearance of the door is preserved, which can be important in a condominium situation where everyone's door must look the same. Just be sure that the installation of the plywood does not interfere with the lock location(s).

Measure your door. It should be 1-3/4 inches thick. If it is thinner, you should consider replacing your door and your door frame.

Speaking of your door frame, what is it made of? If it is wood, the hole that receives the deadbolt needs to be heavily reinforced. If it is metal, that is good. If it is metal filled with concrete, that is really good.

Your door should have three hinges. If it has only two, you should add a third. The third hinge must be the same as the other two in order for the door to swing correctly. You can either bring one of the hinges with you so that you can get another one just like it, or you can buy three new hinges. If you have residential grade hinges it would be good for your to upgrade to commercial grade hinges.

If you have a wood door frame, you should replace one original equipment screw on each hinge with a 3-inch or 4-inch wood screw of the same thickness as the original to increase the strength of the hinge side.

If your door swings out, your hinges need to have non-removeable hinge pins.

Medeco 11 Series Commercial Deadbolt
Medeco 11 Series Commercial Deadbolt
Medeco Segal 666 Drop Bolt
Medeco Segal 666 Drop Bolt
Schlage B660 Deadbolt
Schlage B660 Deadbolt

Deadbolt Recommendations

I recommend that each entrance door be equipped with at least 1 commercial grade deadbolt, such as:

  • Medeco 11 series deadbolt

    Offers unparallelled key control, pick and bump resistance, drill resistance, and one of the strongest bolts on the market. Reasonably attactive, easy to install and use.

  • Medeco Segal drop bolt

    Shown double keyed in this photograph. Use the single keyed version that has a turn knob on the inside for residential applications. Never use double keyed locks in residential applications. Since the vertical bolt interlocks with the strike, this classic remains an excellent choice for hollow metal doors and frames. On hollow metal applications, horizontal bolts such as the Medeco 11 series and the Schlage B660 can be sometimes defeated when the frame and door are spread apart by force. Alignment can be tricky. Install with a Medeco rim cylinder for maximum pick, bump, and drill resistance.

  • Schlage B660 deadbolt

    Available Everest keyways increase pick and bump resistance. No drill resistance in standard configuration. Very strong bolt and bolt protection. Superior reinforcement for wood door frames.

Mag Engineering Reinforced Strike
Mag Engineering Reinforced Strike
Major Manufacturing Cylinder Guard
Major Manufacturing Cylinder Guard
Mag Engineering "Intall a Lock" Wrap-around Door Reinforcer for Wood Doors
Mag Engineering "Intall a Lock" Wrap-around Door Reinforcer for Wood Doors

Lock Accessories

The security value of the above locks can be improved with certain accessories. For example, both the Medeco 11 series and the Schlage B660 bolts are vulnerable to attack from the end of the bolt. To guard against this I suggest the Mag Engineering reinforced strike shown at right.

The Medeco Segal drop bolt is immune to this particular attack, but unlike the other two, it does not have a robust cylinder collar to protect the key cylinder. A cylinder guard such as the Major Manufacturing #103-D, shown at right, protects the cylinder from direct attack.

The Medeco 11 series and the Schlage B660 both can benefit from a wrap-around door reinforcer such as the Mag Engineering model shown at right. It sandwiches the door in a sleeve of sheet metal, helping the bolt to maintain its integrity during attack.

Alarm Systems

Alarm systems and locks serve different purposes. Locks inhibit forced entry. Alarm systems notify someone after forced entry has occurred. Locks can cost the burglar time as they try to break in; alarms can severely limit the amount of time a burglar spends in a place after breaking in.

If the alarm system does not call the police or some other entity prepared to provide an armed response, it is pretty useless. In an urban setting, disinterested passers by are not going to call the police because an alarm is going off. If it bothers them, they might call the police to complain.

Therefore, the best kind of alarm system is called a central station system, and it comes with a monthly monitoring fee. Somewhere in a room, a person sits at a computer waiting to respond if an alarm is indicated. In some systems, the person responds by immediately calling the police, in others the person calls the residence where the alarm is going off. The point is that someone is watching, and the burglar knows it and will most likely leave the premises as soon as they can.

A note of caution: neither the strategies nor the hardware discussed in this article are a guarantee against burglary. Also, there is more intense hardware available for those interested. There are multi-point locking systems, ballistic doors, and keyless electronic locks. However, professional locksmiths know that anything that can be put on with tools can be taken off with tools, given skill, the right tools, and time. The strategies and hardware herein inhibit burglary. We can only hope that they inhibit burglars' efforts enough to make them go away.

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Comments 15 comments

Alex 7 years ago

Do you have any advice on non-keyed deadbolts? E.g., door chains, stoppers, like they use in hotels?



Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 7 years ago from United States Author

The best kind of non-keyed deadbolts are those based on regular keyed deadbolts, for example, the Schlage B680 or a Segal 666 with no cylinder outside.

The week point of a slide bolt is the part that is attached to the door frame.

Any kind of chain or door guard that allows the door to be opened a few inches is just a bad idea.

AC 6 years ago

Tom, you are amazing! I'd love to know how much it would cost to change the doors (to a metal one) and a good lock (with all the plates you recommend) an reinforce the frame. Alas, I live in a very homogenous apartment complex and I'm not sure if they'd allow me to change the door. Can I do anything on the inside? this is really nice you offer these tips.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 6 years ago from United States Author

There are some simple things you can do with a wooden door and wooden frame in a place that doesn't allow extra locks or secure doors. You can put longer screws in the hinges to reinforce that side. You can mortise steel into the frame and attach it with multiple long screws to make your lock as strong as you can. And you can install an alarm system to limit the amount of time a burglar can spend in your place once he or she has broken in. If you have a panel door, you can apply a piece of 1/2 inch plywood to the inside of your door, covering all the panels. That will make it harder for a burglar to break a panel, reach in and unlock your lock.

It is important to remember that it is impossible to be 100% effective in keeping out burglars. Anything that is put on with tools can be taken off with tools. It's all in time and opportunity. Reinforce your locks, making them harder to defeat and alarm your place so once in, the burglar has no time to rifle though your stuff.

Jan Young 4 years ago

Tom , Is there anything that can be used to fill a hollow core steel door that will make it any more secure, plaster, cement, grout rock, etc?

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

Hi Jan. Filling a hollow metal door will not make up for the light gauge metal it is made from and may create hinge problems due to the added weight. Hollow metal doors are not all created equal, however. A lot of the doors out there are 18 gauge - if you get door made from 12 gauge sheet metal you will have a pretty strong door.

If door replacement is not an option, through-bolting a sheet of 1/8 inch galvanized steel over the whole outside surface of the door would be effective. I've done that - it's a lot of work drilling a dozen 3/8 inch holes in steel that thick, but you get a good result. It does, however, result in a weight problem. You could deal with that by using a continuous hinge, as long as the frame is strong enough to support the extra weight of the steel. A continuous hinge is a good idea anyway for added strength.

You can also reinforce the door will smaller, thick steel plates around the lock(s), and placing two deadbolts on the door at 1/3 and 2/3 the distance from the top of the door can also make the installation more resistant to force.

Alexa 4 years ago

Hello, Tom.

The community outreach officer from our local police precinct recommended that I install (or have installed) a metal strip down the edge of the door in order to prevent the door from being pried open. What exactly is that called? I've been trying to find one and I'm using the wrong vocabulary. He did approve of the lock we have now (which we changed when we moved in). Thanks so much for your help.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 4 years ago from United States Author

What you are looking for is called a "latch guard" or "latch protector." Thanks for stopping by.

louromano profile image

louromano 4 years ago

Excellent post. excellent hub.

Brooker 3 years ago

Now a days home security systems plays a very important and vital role in our life.

It’s a really a very good advantages for us.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 3 years ago from United States Author

Security systems and locks play different, but complimentary roles. The purpose of a lock is to dissuade burglars with the appearance of security and to delay them as long as possible should they try to break in. The role of a security system is primarily to notify if a burglar has already broken in thereby limiting the amount of time the burglar is able to remain inside the secured space. Ideally the security system will have notified the police.

The most effective use of a security system is to arm a perimeter opening that has a locked door beyond it. This puts the burglar in the position of deciding whether to attack a locked door while the alarm is already activated.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 3 years ago from United States Author

Thank you, Condominium. I agree that a deadbolt on every apartment or condo unit is an important security measure.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 2 years ago from United States Author

Very inventive! I see both plus and and minus points. A big plus is that it makes every lock bump, pick and drill resistant, however on the minus side it makes one-step egress into 2-step egress, and does not help much against brute force. Still, I think that your device might be useful in some applications. Thanks for sharing!

ipo 8 months ago

I'm not allowed to change locks on my apartment and the deadbolt they have on the main door is opened by a key from the outside. This means the former tenant could have the key or someone could pick the lock - right? I'm not happy that management can enter if I'm inside in the shower or someone could pick the lock and get in. Is it safer to have a deadbolt that isn't keyed from the outside in addition to a keyed deadbolt? That way when I'm inside no one can enter.

Tom Rubenoff profile image

Tom Rubenoff 8 months ago from United States Author

An additional bolt will definitely add security. If it were only operable from inside the apartment it would inhibit those who might try to enter by key, lock picking or bumping while you are inside. In addition to using the key (or pick or bump key) they would need to break through the additional deadbolt.

The fact that your landlord does not allow you to change your lock does not automatically mean that a former tenant has the key. However, it would be reasonable to ask your landlord to have your lock changed for you if you do not feel secure in your home.

The right of the property owner to have a key to their property is pretty much universally recognized. However, that does make the property owner in some ways responsible for the security of their tenant.

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