The Best Lock Box
To find the best lock box, we spent hours on research, testing, interviews with a real estate agent and an experiment where we had a team of locksmiths break some open with hammers and tricks. We think the $33 Kidde Access Point Key Safe is the best lock box for homeowners looking to stash keys for visitors or to store a backup key. The dial format makes it exceptionally difficult for even a professional to decode, and the zinc alloy exterior is as sturdy as you can buy without spending over $400 for a professional kit.
Who needs a lock box?
When we say “lock box,” we’re referring to secure combination boxes for homeowners or renters to store keys so they’re available to other people. Besides being convenient for frequent house guests, lock boxes are a good way to hide keys while doing something outside the house like surfing or running.
If you’re a real estate professional, you don’t need this guide—Supra makes professional-level lock boxes with two-step security that are, as we learned from locksmiths and a veteran real estate agent, the absolute best way to store keys. We looked, but unfortunately there’s no reliable way to get one if you’re a regular citizen. For this review, we looked for boxes that approached the Supra’s build quality.
No lock box will stop a determined criminal
No device will stop a determined and well-equipped criminal. The adage and caveat applies to almost any type of security measure, and it certainly applies here. Even the toughest lock boxes can succumb to an expert’s hands.
We started our testing after researching and finding the most secure brands and models of lock boxes, most of which made from solid metal, usually a zinc alloy, measuring a little under a ¼” thick on each wall and weighing nearly two pounds. Several locksmiths I interviewed from around the Bay Area said that even with this construction, don’t expect much. “If you put a drill in the right place, it’s not that hard to get in,” one said. “If you know which part to attack, I can be in there in less than five minutes.”
The good news is that if you’re smart about where you place and the lock box (more on that later), you can minimize your chances of any persona non grata getting at your keys and infiltrating your car or house. A lock box placed in a clever location is more secure than an ostensibly bomb-proof container left in the open.
What makes a good lock box?
Before discussing strategies, we can look at the technology that’s available to us. The most secure lock boxes are the wall-mount boxes that have holes underneath the box’s secure door through which you can drive included screws. As we said, a determined thief with a crowbar or sledgehammer might be able to break a wall-mounted box, but doing so would cause a scene and draw enough attention to the deed to dissuade a break-in. As multiple locksmiths mentioned, at some point it’s just easier to bust down a front door.
These mount boxes are better than the alternative: shackle-style boxes with a U-loop that goes over a doorknob or gate for convenience. Ignore these. As one locksmith explained to me, a quick snip with bolt cutters will get through the loop on most model. If this happens, the perp can take the box away and use all of his faculties to break in without worrying about onlookers.
That said, there are a few circumstances when shackle boxes are ideal. When surfing, for example, if you need a lock box but can’t drill into your bumper, do your best with a shackle model. Try to hide it in the undercarriage. Leaving one on the car door handle, as some products suggest, makes for an obvious target, especially in an empty parking lot.
How they open
There are three common lock mechanisms. Push-button locks, which allow you to set a numerical combination you can punch in any order; wheel models, which use (typically) four vertical scrolling wheels with numbers or letters to form a combination; and dial models, for you enter the combination using one rotating dial like on a classic padlock on a high school locker.
We don’t recommend wheel models in any circumstance. All of our experts interviewed said that it’s easy to use a flashlight and piece of metal to peer inside the wheels and spot the combination.
Unless convenience is a priority, we’d avoid a push-button model, even though nearly all of the most reputed and heavy duty lock boxes are set up in that format.
With a push-button model, you open the box and use a piece of plastic inside to turn the knobs of the numbers you want for the combination. It’s as simple as it sounds, but there’s a major drawback: the numbers can be pressed in any sequence, so if your combo is 3-2-1, you can open it by pressing 2-1-3, or 1-2-3, and so on.
Unfortunately, since the sequence doesn’t matter, you can only use each number once in the combo. That means it’s hard to associate words or use combos that you’re familiar with, like a PIN. There’s no way around this; you need to pick a combo accordingly.
Another trick burglars (and locksmiths) use on push button models is to look at the wear for the numbers, so change the combo with some regularity. With the 3-2-1 setup, those numbers, if held under a blacklight, will show fingertip traces. If the box goes longer without a new combo, the keys themselves can get worn down with use. Along with the five-digit minimum, switch the combination as often as you can without confusing the people who need to use it regularly.
If you’re nervous about break-ins and don’t need the simplicity of a push-button model for kids or friends, get a dial model. Setup, as we found, is tricky compared to the push-button models—you layer metal discs inside the box, a process that took us about 15 minutes to complete, but dial models have none of the button or wheel models’ aforementioned security flaws.
Another issue we observed with almost all of the top models we considered was their small size. They’re built that way to be secure without being too heavy, but they can only really accommodate basic, flat keys. The big key fobs that go with a BMW or even a Prius will be too big. Fortunately, though, these lock boxes are made for getting into a house, and that only requires a regular key. When using a box for storing one of these fobs, my solution has been to use a dumb or “valet” key that only opens the car door, and hide the full key fob somewhere inside.
In short, the most secure-but-everyday-usable lock boxes are dial models that can be screwed to a wall. A button-style works if you need convenience. Whichever way you go, use cunning to make a break-in as difficult as possible for a potential perp.
Where to put your lock box
When you have your sturdy lock box, your goal is to add obstacles to a potential break-in. To do this, as our locksmiths explained to us, consider your residence’s variables, like the layout of the door you’re looking to protect, the particulars of public space, and the presence of outdoor light.
Position the wall-mount box to disguise what’s inside, making it impossible to figure out what a thief would to do with the contents even if he did get it open. If you live in an apartment like I do, attaching a lock box to the wood panel directly next to the front door makes it obvious that box will have the keys to my 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 lock box 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 axle 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 lock box somewhere discreet, 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; in your garage, you can hide the key to your front door. Be creative in making entry difficult for anyone who doesn’t know the process.
If you’re questioning this method’s efficacy, when Justin, a veteran locksmith at Lock World in San Francisco, needs to keep a key handy for his place up in Napa, he stashes it in a cheap rock hide-a-key that he places down the block—if this sounds ideal for you, we have some picks for fake rocks further down.
Again, don’t use a shackle lock, especially on your doorknob. Yes, everyone does that, but besides clearly identifying that it contains the keys to that door, it also says that there’s likely that no one’s home. “A bolt cutter can probably go right through it,” one locksmith said. “Then they have all day to open it.” Besides that, a shackle lock on a doorknob gives an otherwise disinterested thief what Justin aptly describes as “temptation.” Do not use it on your doorknob.
How we picked finalists
Outside of user reviews, there is no formal literature assessing lock boxes, so we started from scratch. We started with user reviews from Amazon and home improvement stores, then got feedback from professional locksmiths and a real estate agent.
There are few brands that make lock boxes. Besides MasterLock and Kidde, there are only tiny companies like Vault Locks and ShurLock, most of which produce exclusively wheel-style models—no good. After learning how easy it is to crack a wheel lock, we only considered dial and button models. After hearing from locksmiths that bolt cutters could snip any shackle model, we focused on wall mounts.
From there, we looked at models from the popular brands like Master Lock, but our real estate agent and locksmiths told us that Supra’s professional line was unequivocally the best out there. These lock boxes have sensors that only open for users who have authorization, either through Bluetooth on a smartphone, or with a secondary dedicated electronic key. Agents can transfer codes for buyers to enter, but only someone with an authorized device can get inside. It can also be set to only open during certain times of day. As for break-ins, they’re exceptionally sturdy, and one locksmith said that for all the sledgehammer-ing and conspicuous blunt force it’d take to break one of these open, a perp would sooner be able to force his way through the front door. We asked, but Supra was expectedly mum about the exact build of their lock boxes, but we take the unanimous opinion of locksmiths and real estate professionals. Again, we tried, but unless you’re in the business, it’s impossible to find a reliable dealer for these Supra lock boxes.
We learned, though, that Kidde makes the consumer version of the Supra boxes—this means that the Supra’s designs are scaled down in size and the interface is simplified so, for example, a child could use it. They’re made from the same durable steel casing as their professional kin, but without the electronic verification. Though this relationship is far from a certain testament to Kidde’s quality, we learned that they also produce professional-grade lock systems for firefighters and construction companies that need to store keys. That got us to trust their design acumen.
Kidde’s design connection to Supra, coupled with their mostly laudatory customer reviews, pushed their Access Point lineup into the short list of finalists that we called in for review. We also tested the high-selling Master Lock key boxes, along with a wheel-dial model from WordLock. We judged them based on everyday usability and from the results after a team of pro locksmiths broke them down and assessed their security.
Testing with locksmiths and their hammers
The user experience is mostly similar between models: for the button models, on the back of the door, you twist the screw for the numbers you want to have as your combo. The dial models, however, have a set of metal discs inside that require some finesse to get right. We factored those features into our testing.
After they finished disassembling them, he spread them out across his shop’s work bench, all of them with the doors broken off of the housing. “We hit them with a hammer and flat-head screwdriver,” he said, as indicated by the warped metal around the main switch. He said it took expert precision and heavy swings to break open the Kidde boxes, both luxuries that aren’t typically available to an opportunistic burglar. Breaking into one of the Kidde models would be, as every expert had said, so much effort that it’d be simpler to just break down the front door. Again, the danger, as he and other locksmiths explained, is in having a box that’s easily decoded. When that happens, the thief can copy the key without the homeowner knowing that the security has been compromised. We asked him to specifically assess how easy it would be to crack these combos.
The WordLock, like all wheel-style combination locks, opened easily with a thin piece of metal and sensitive hands (see photo). The same technique worked on the wheel Master Lock, too. As the dents in the bottom container of the WordLock showed, it was easy to break it off of the main housing. “You could do this with a rock,” he said. Both were out of the running to us.
When I asked him 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.
The ease with which his team negotiated those popular setups led us to the model that was impervious to these tactics.
The Kidde Access Point dial lock box has the most secure exterior you can get in a consumer lock box. With the dial lock, it’s exceptionally difficult for anyone without extensive training to get inside it. The dial, while a bit more difficult to set up and open than the button models, has exceptional security. It has the capacity to hold up to five flat keys.
Justin found that the dial Kidde was the undisputedly most secure. “The dial model takes the cake,” he said. “It can also be manipulated, but even if I taught you, you couldn’t do it easily.” The dial model, Justin explained, is tough enough to resist most thieves’ brute force, and cracking it open would require expert skill. Both are enough to dissuade most potential burglars.
Who else likes it
Satisfied Amazon customers, basically—from 13 buyers, this specific model gets 4.5 out of 5 stars, which indicates a solid product to us. As mentioned, no one has done a survey of lock boxes, so we had to do most of this ourselves. Kidde won our attention with the advocacy from a professional locksmith, and the brand’s reputation as producer of the favorite lock box of real estate agents, the Supra. The Kidde may not be as robust as the professional variants, but with smart use it is plenty strong, especially compared to the cheap and flimsy competition.
The step up
For the average homeowner looking to share keys with friends from out of town or something to let kids in, the Kidde Access Point will be plenty.
A stealth approach
We looked hard to find the best fake rock, and this one is what we’d get. We trust the 4.5 out of 5 stars from about 50 Amazon customers. Some complain that it looks somewhat fake, while others say it looked so convincing that they lost it.
If you have in-ground sprinklers, you can get the Sprinkler Head Hide-A-Key from Trademark Tools. If you set it in the dirt, it’s even harder to spot than a rock, and it won’t unexpectedly shift around.
Whatever you get, just place it somewhere inconspicuous so that there’s no way to tell to which house it belongs.
Why isn’t the rock our main pick? For city dwellers, and for some suburban homeowners, a rock on a concrete sidewalk or a perfectly manicured lawn is conspicuous. You’ll sleep more easily if a difficult combination stands between burglars and your front door.
There are dozens of different lock boxes 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 very susceptible to a break in by an expert. That includes models like this one from Key Guard, one of many competitors that don’t come close to matching the sturdiness of the Supra/Kidde build.
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 SurfLock, the ShurLock SL200W and the Vault Locks 3200. Wheel combo, thin and clip-able shackles, and a plastic body are pointless when a solid steel Kidde with a dial is only $10 more.
Lockitron is coming out with a smartphone-based lock system that puts a cover on the door’s deadbolt. The device locks and unlocks it via an app, or, if you have an older phone, text message. The Lockitron just met its crowd-funding goal and we’ll update as reviews are published. For now, though, we’re hesitant to have a key system that depends on having a charged phone.
Wrapping it up
If you use it correctly, the Kidde Access Point dial lock will let friends and family into your house when you can’t hand off the keys, but it’ll keep out burglars.
A special thank you to Justin at Lock World in San Francisco, who tinkered with our test units to figure out what’s most secure. They’re a knowledgeable lock service 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 19, 2013