Two years ago, we chose the best lockbox after spending hours on research, interviews, and tryouts, and shadowing professional locksmiths as they mimicked burglar break-ins. For this update, we scoured the field for new entries that could meet our standards—and we found none. Our original pick, the Kidde AccessPoint KeySafe, remains hands-down the best lockbox available. It’s the only affordable lockbox with a combination dial, which our professional locksmith testers found much more difficult to pick than the wheel-style or push-button locks you see from the competition. Unless you spend more than $400 for a professional kit, you can’t find another like it.
Other unique features include a sturdy, quarter-inch-thick zinc alloy exterior, a door with an unusually tight fit to the box, and unique sloping sides that deflect prying and striking tools. The roomy, robust wall-mounted design is also more secure than the shackle-style mounts you see on other models. No competitor has come up with—or even tried to come up with—a better mix of security features and value.
For 2015, we’ve eliminated our previous step-up pick for wall-mounted units, the Knox Box Master Key retention system. It’s no more secure than the Kidde AccessPoint line—and costs six times as much. We’ve also added a deeper explanation of who needs a lockbox—and, just as important, who doesn’t. Last, we did not address smart lockboxes (as promised in the original guide), but we’ll be giving them their own guide in the near future. The field is growing rapidly and deserves an independent review.
Simply put: not too many people.
When we talk about lockboxes, we’re referring to secure combination boxes—miniature safes, basically—where spare keys can be stored. Most often, they’re used by home sellers (so realtors can enter when showing the property) and rental-property owners (so guests can let themselves in upon arrival). Some outdoorsy types also use vehicle-mounted lockboxes to store keys while they’re afield or aswim. If any of that describes your situation, you may need a lockbox.
Despite their limited market, lockboxes come in a bewildering variety of forms and are sold under multiple brand names. To cut through the tangle, we first spoke with locksmiths and realtors for advice. Our conversations revealed a consensus: The most secure lockboxes are wall-mounted models made of solid metal and attached by concealed screws. A determined thief with a crowbar or sledgehammer might consider breaking into one, but actually doing so would cause a scene and draw too much attention—and quash any burglar’s grand plan.
These wall-mount boxes make a mockery of the alternative: shackle-style boxes with a U-loop that goes over a doorknob or gate for convenience. We categorically reject these for use on homes and rental units. As one locksmith explained, a quick snip with bolt cutters will get through the loop on most models. Then the perp can take the box away and use all of his faculties to break in without worrying about onlookers.
Our locksmiths then helped us decide between locking mechanisms. There are three common types: wheels, which employ tumblers marked with numbers or letters; push buttons, on which you punch in a numerical code payphone-style; and dials, on which you enter the combination with a rotating dial, like on a classic school padlock.
Wheel models dropped out of consideration almost immediately: Our locksmiths emphasized how easy it is to insert a thin metal shim between the tumblers and work out the the combination by feel.
Push-button boxes are simple to operate—kids can do it, which is a real selling point—but they have a significant drawback: The numbers can be pressed in any sequence (so if your combo is 3-2-1, you can also open it by pressing 2-1-3, or 1-2-3). That dramatically reduces the effective number of possible combinations, which in turn reduces security. Plus, when trying to crack push-button locks, burglars (and locksmiths) first simply look for the extra wear-and-tear on the combo’s numbers. To avoid that vulnerability, you have to change the combination with some regularity. That can be confusing for infrequent users and kids. And be honest: How high is changing the combo going to be on your list of chores? The simplicity of push-button locks is attractive, but it’s also a bit of a liability.
Besides Master Lock and Kidde, only tiny companies like Vault Locks and ShurLok produce affordable lockboxes, and most of theirs are wheel-style models—no good.
Another name kept popping up in our discussions with experts, though: Supra. This company caters to the real estate and security industries, and our experts said its boxes are unequivocally the best available, with ultra-sturdy construction and advanced features like remotely programmable passcode changes. Unfortunately, it proved impossible to find a Supra dealer who would install a unit on a private residence, and even if we’d found one, the boxes start at around $400—far too much to be practical.
We learned, though, that Kidde’s AccessPoint line is the consumer version of the Supra boxes, and that Kidde produces professional-grade lock systems for firefighters and construction companies, as well. That pushed several of its models into the short list of finalists that we called in for review.
We also called in several high-selling Master Lock push-button key boxes, along with (for the sake of completeness) a wheel-dial model from WordLock. Then, we asked the professionals to defeat them.
To get a professional assessment of these boxes’ security, we enlisted Justin Jacobs at San Francisco’s Lock World to help us evaluate the following finalists: a push-button Master Lock, the WordLock, a shackle-style push-button Kidde, a wall-mount push-button Kidde, and a dial shackle-style Kidde. Jacobs and his team spent several days cracking their combinations and breaking them open with simple tools.
“We hit them with a hammer and flat-head screwdriver,” Justin said. Notably, it took expert precision and heavy swings to break open the Kidde boxes—two luxuries that aren’t typically available to an opportunistic burglar. Breaking into one of the Kidde models would be, as every expert has said, so much effort that it’d be simpler to just break down the front door. Again, the chief danger, as Justin and other locksmiths explained, is in having a box whose combination is easily decoded. So we asked him to specifically assess how easy it would be to crack our test models’ combos.
The WordLock, like all wheel-style combination locks, opened easily with a thin strip of metal and sensitive hands. The same technique worked on the wheel Master Lock, too. As the dents in the key container of the WordLock showed, it was also easy to break it off of the main housing. “You could do this with a rock,” Justin said. Both were out of the running.
When I asked Justin about the button models’ security, he handed me the button-style Master Lock and told me to put a new combo in it. I did, with three digits, and he handed it to another locksmith; with only his fingers and brain, he opened it in 45 seconds.
And the Kidde is not only hard to break into by force, but also, as locksmith Justin Jacobs explained, exceptionally hard to break into by skill.
“The dial model takes the cake,” he said, comparing the Kidde with push-button and wheel models. “It can be manipulated, but even if I taught you, you couldn’t do it easily.” For the most part, only a trained locksmith can defeat a dial lock—and even then the job takes a while. Few small-time thieves have the necessary skill to do it, and even fewer would willingly expose themselves for the amount of time it would take. More than anything else, this is what made the Kidde dial model our pick: Among the more affordable lockboxes, it’s the only one with this feature.
Finally, the Kidde is also roomier than most models we tested: It can hold up to five flat keys, or one fat fob-handled car key. (This is actually an issue with some lockboxes; read enough Amazon reviews and you’ll find plenty of models that have trouble holding more than a couple of standard keys, and can’t hold a modern car key at all.)
When looking at who else likes it, we found satisfied Amazon customers—with 89 buyers weighing in, this model gets four out of five stars—and, of course, realtors and locksmiths. Ours is the first in-depth review and test of lockboxes that we’re aware of; the Kidde won our attention with its advocacy by a professional locksmith and its association with Supra, maker of the favored professional-grade lockboxes used by real estate agents and security firms. It won our recommendation with its demonstrably superior performance.
If there’s a downside to the Kidde, it’s that it’s a bit more difficult to set up than push-button models—setting the code requires manipulating a set of internal discs and takes about 15 minutes. But we (and our experts) feel strongly that the extra security is worth that minor hassle.
For certain outdoor activities—surfing is a big one—bringing your car keys along is inconvenient. Locking them securely to your vehicle instead is an attractive option, and for that, we recommend the shackle version of our wall-mounted, dial-lock pick: the Kidde AccessPoint Portable.
As stated above, all shackle models have a significant built-in weakness: the shackle can be cut, allowing the thief to retreat somewhere private to break open the box and steal the key. So, again, don’t use a shackle model on your house or rental property. It would be too easy for someone to walk up as though they were an innocent visitor, pop the shackle, and disappear with your key. And when using one on your car or truck, take a couple of extra steps to boost security. Conceal the lockbox in the undercarriage or engine compartment, locking the shackle around something anchored and robust: a shock strut or engine-block mount, for example. Don’t shackle it to the car door handle, as at least one manufacturer suggests, because it’ll become an obvious target in an empty parking lot. And the more confined the space you put the lockbox in, the harder you’ll make it for a thief to put a pry bar or pair of bolt cutters into action. So tuck the box behind a wheel or in a tight spot under the hood (provided you can pop the hood from outside, that is!).
Finally, in anticipation of reader inquiries, there’s the classic option: one of those tried-and-true magnetic key boxes. They all share the same design; Hide A Key and Key Hider are two of the better known and reviewed. These boxes don’t lock; instead, they rely on subterfuge. We won’t make a formal recommendation. But we’ll note that people have used them happily for decades. (A friend has kept one on his truck since 1980. Through 35 years of rough West Virginia roads and weather, it has held firm—and has bailed him out more than once.) If you go this route, maximize your security by hiding the box somewhere that’s hard to see and counterintuitive. And load your spare key into it before you leave home—loading it in the parking lot will attract the attention of any lurking malefactor. When you reach your destination, lock your main set in the glove box; on returning, use the hidden spare to open the doors.
Once have your sturdy lockbox, your goal is to add obstacles to a potential break-in. Position the wall-mount box to disguise what’s inside, making it impossible to figure out what a thief would do with the contents even if he did get the thing open. If you live in an apartment, for example, attaching a lockbox directly next to the front door makes it obvious that box will have the keys to that apartment. Instead, you should attach the box to a shared wall, or the side of a shared porch. This way, the time it’d take a burglar to figure out the correct door for the box’s keys can be enough of an deterrent to discourage a break-in. Better yet, position it so no one can see the lockbox from the street.
If you live in an urban setting and don’t have the option to put the box somewhere discreet, don’t worry too much. “They’re built like little safes,” says Alex Kamand, owner of Kamand Locksmith. “It’d take 45 minutes with a sledgehammer … it’d end up being easier to break down the door.” In an area with lots of foot and car traffic, the scene caused by using an angle grinder or drill isn’t worth the risk. “If it’s screwed in nice and secure in the wall,” Kamand says, “someone out front with a drill isn’t going to try.”
If you’re a homeowner, try to mount the lockbox somewhere out of the way, like on the rear of the garage or on a dog house. From there, you can create two-step (or more) security by, for example, loading the box with the key to your garage and hiding the key to your front door in the garage. Be creative in making entry difficult for anyone who doesn’t know the process.
Finally, don’t discount the effectiveness of simple camouflage and misdirection.
No device will stop a determined and well-equipped criminal—but if you’re smart about where you place your lockbox, you’ll minimize the chance of a persona non grata getting at your keys and infiltrating your car or house.
There are dozens of different lockboxes out there, but once we learned how flimsy wheel locks and button locks are, we dismissed a majority of competitors. The Master Lock 5400D, for example, can be had with a bit of metal and some sensitive fingertips. That meant we couldn’t recommend models like this one from Vault Locks, either.
Button locks present more options, but they, too, are susceptible to a break-in by an expert. That includes models like this one from KeyGuard, and the push-button version of our Kidde dial-lock pick.
We also tested the Master Lock 5900D, but the plastic exterior and thin cable connector made it feel fragile. The wheel combo system, of course, is easy to crack.
We also dismissed boxes like the wheel-combo Surf Lock, the ShurLok SL-200W and the Vault Locks 3200. A wheel combo, thin and clippable shackles, and a plastic body are pointless when a solid steel Kidde with a dial is only $10 more.
Two years ago, when the first version of this guide was written, smart locks were such a new phenomenon that we didn’t find a single one to test. Today, there are so many models that we’ll be giving them their own guide in the near future. However, we can make two points now.
One: A smart lock isn’t an exact replacement for a lockbox; it’s a distinct product that uses digital keys to operate a physical deadbolt. This said, by granting access to your home to approved visitors, a smart lock accomplishes much the same thing as a lockbox. In short: If you have the former, you don’t need the latter, and vice versa.
Two: Our smart-home editor, Grant Clauser, prefers keypad-operated smart locks to those that are opened by a signal or message from a smartphone. The combinations are easy to change (say, between rentals—so nobody can sneak back in past their check-out date); you don’t have to worry about having your phone at hand to get into your home; and it’s easier to give visitors a combination than to get their phones onto the “approved list.” Keep these points in mind if you’re shopping for smart locks now.
A special thank you to Justin Jacobs at Lock World in San Francisco, who tinkered with our test units to figure out which was most secure. Lock World is knowledgeable if you need a locksmith in the Bay Area. And thank you to Elizabeth Weintraub, About.com’s real estate expert, for turning us on to Supra.
Originally published: November 10, 2015