You signed the lease. You cut the check for the security deposit. And the truck with all your stuff just pulled in. The leasing agent welcomes you and hands you the keys to your brand new place. But the key looks like a weird piece of plastic. And you’re not actually sure how it locks and unlocks doors. When did apartment keys get so complicated?!

Different types of keys mean different types of security. And that makes it harder for just anyone to gain access to buildings and units.

Many buildings now have electronic locks that log when a door was opened and whose card was used to open it. Others keep security by keeping close track of who has keys. Some use keycards and what the heck is RFID?

The good news is any combination of any of these locks, when used correctly, is a tested, secure and effective way to protect you and your home. And each method of security brings with it its own set of guidelines.

Metal keys

metal keys

Tried and true, metal keys will go through the wash and dry cycle and come out just fine. You can drop them, lose them, toss them and they’ll never let you down. Metal keys are the reason we don’t really think about them much. Cheap to make and as long as you can keep an eye on them, they’ll last forever.

But are they really your keys? Or are they the property of your landlord? You’ll want to check your lease, especially if you want copies made. Are you even allowed to get copies of your keys made? Well, if you look closely on your key, and see the words DO NOT DUPLICATE, you think you’d have your answer. But the truth isn’t that open and shut. (Open and shut. Get it? Because of doors? Never mind.)

You may need to go through your leasing office or landlord before you make the trip to the hardware store. Your landlord may have spares for free. And what happens if you lock yourself out of your apartment? Can your building’s superintendent come by and let you in? Or do you need to call a locksmith? As with all things for your apartment, check with your landlord.

Key cards

key cards

Convenient, skinny jeans-friendly, inexpensive to replace, the keycards you use to get into your building are just like the ones you use to get into your office. The only thing missing is an embarrassing photo of you on your first day. But not all key cards are the same.

Key cards are programmed by entering your information onto a card that’s read when it’s swiped or scanned. That information is either encoded on a magnetic strip on the back of the card or it’s loaded onto what’s known as a radio frequency identification (RFID) chip in the card.

A small chip containing your information is inserted into a plastic card and is powered by an induction circuit. When the card comes close to the scanner, it converts the electromagnetic field emitted by the scanner into electricity. That electricity powers the chip, which is then read by the computers. RFIDs are more secure than magnetic strip cards because the strips can become damaged more easily.

Key fobs

key fob

The key fob is just like an RFID keycard, only smaller. The fob is meant to be clipped onto your keyring so it’s always with you. These are quickly becoming a popular option with many new construction buildings, not only for garage and mailroom access but also for individual units. The fobs are small and also use a tiny induction circuit, so there’s never a need to change batteries or reprogram them.

The downside is these little plastic doodads can be expensive to replace. And you have to remember to have your keys with you all the time. So, if you’re the kind of person who frequently loses things and locks yourself out of your house, this may not be the option for you. And make sure you don’t lose it! Replacing these things can be expensive. Your landlord could charge a few hundred bucks for a replacement.

Key codes

key access code

Sometimes your apartment key might not be a key at all — but instead a code. Apartment communities have been using access codes for years for visitors to dial into your building. Some are using this same technology outside of your door.

Simply punch in your code, just like you would at an ATM, to unlock your door and enter your unit. In most cases, you’ll be able to select your own code. Just make sure it’s one that you’ll remember!

Bluetooth-digital combination

bluetooth phone key

This is the high tech solution many landlords are now considering. Besides your keys, what’s the one item everyone takes with them everywhere now? Your phone. In this case, your phone acts like a fob. Except instead of a small induction circuit powering it, it’s simply your phone that connects to the door lock via Bluetooth. Digital locks like these often use a backup code to get inside if you ever accidentally lock yourself out.

But as great as these digital locks sound, they aren’t perfect. Digital lock scanners need to be hard-wired to the building’s main electrical system in order to work. So, if the power goes out, that will be a problem.

And if they’re not connected to the main electrical system, they can also operate on small backup batteries built into the units. But there’s no telling how often those batteries or replaced, so you could find yourself locked out.

Safe home, happy home with apartment keys

Whether your apartment keys are old school or new, they should help keep your home safe and secure — provided you use some basic common sense and good practices.

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