What I'm Seeing Now

head_left_image

Protected By A Skeleton Crew

On a fabulous inspection the other day of a completely remodeled 1880's row house just blocks from the United States Capitol Building, I was impressed by the key that came out of the lock box to get us in.

It was a skeleton key!

I LOVE old skeleton keys!

Skeleton keys are used to open what were called "warded locks."  Sometimes called "passkeys" their shape resembles a skeletal figure and that's likely how they got their common name.

And that is why they were, and are, so effective.  Only one key shape can open the lock.  It could not be "picked."

The key opened this lock, which has been there since the house was built!  It works inside and out.  I bet it only needs a little oil shot inside once a year.

Obviously someone still trusts this old lock and key to do the job because they are  protecting an investment selling for well above $1 million.  Only one key was in the lock box.  I suppose there are more.  And more can be cut!

What is a warded lock?

It is simple and every lock is different.  Which is why it is so very effective.

Wards are obstructions.  These obstructions are designed and placed inside the lock.  Any pattern of wards can be used.

The key is cut with slots to allow it to turn as it avoids the obstructions, allowing it to rotate, activating a lever or sliding a bolt and thus opening the lock.

And the key above, and therefore the lock on that house, is very simply cut.  There are many locksmiths still cutting these keys.

Put succinctly, it is SECURE.

My recommendation:  If you see a skeleton key come out of a lock box, rejoice!  It is a good lock!  Even my bump keys can't open it!

 

Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC  

Based in Bristow, serving all of Northern Virginia.

Office (703) 330-6388   Cell (703) 585-7560

www.jaymarinspect.com


Comment balloon 42 commentsJay Markanich • April 19 2010 07:30AM

Comments

Jay ~ Very charming post. If it still works, no need to fix it..

Posted by Monique Hailer, South West Florida & Southern Maryland Homes (Schooner Bay Realty., Inc. & CENTURY 21 New Millenniun) about 8 years ago

I bet this house has lots of original hardware, if it has a skeleton key. All those hinges and knobs have lots of value. Talk to a local antique dealer.

Posted by John Armstrong (Coldwell Banker Heart of America) about 8 years ago

Thanks for education us on the type of key. Very interesting--history

Posted by Harry F. D'Elia, Investor , Mentor, GRI, Radio, CIPS, REOs, ABR (Real Estate and Beyond, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay, haven't seen one of these in a long time. They just don't make them like they used to anymore. Thanks.

Posted by Michael Setunsky, Your Commercial Real Estate Link to Northern VA about 8 years ago

Monique - it's like that old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it..."  The house was beautiful.

John - it did!  Original doors, and knobs and windows, and drippy glass, the staircase and rails, and even the newel post at the bottom of the stairs.  It was a great mix of old and new.  FABULOUS kitchen too...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

That's interesting. I thought they were all basically the same and very unsafe.  Are you being facetious?

Posted by Barbara S. Duncan, GRI, e-PRO, Executive Broker, Searcy AR (RE/MAX Advantage) about 8 years ago

Harry - things like that survive for a reason!  They work.

Michael - I still have a ring with my grandfather's old keys on it.  It is fabulous.  He operated a water purification company (Tri-Pure Water Company was the name) located on Thomas Circle downtown.  Some of those keys likely fit his shop.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

I am not being facetious Barbara, even though my face isn't as cute as it used to be...

Why do you think so many of those locks are still about?  I looked around the neighborhood that day and almost all the doors were original and had the old key slots.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay, my mom bought a cast-off collection of antique skeleton keys at a garage sale and framed them in a shadow box to hang in her modern home's foyer. It was an eye-catcher!

Posted by Kate Kate about 8 years ago

Jay I love the old mortise - skeleton key - locks.  They are simplistic and sturdy. Made of sterner stuff than "modern day locks", try to break one of those keys off in the lock.

Posted by Jack Gilleland (Home Inspection and Investor Services, Clayton) about 8 years ago

Kate - I have a ring of my grandfather's old keys.  I have always intended to put them in a shadow box...  Maybe now is the time!

Jack - you are right, um and right again, and, oh, right again!  I love them too...

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

I guess they don't build locks like they used to. Or much of anything for that matter.

Posted by Vince Santos, Southeast Michigan Home Inspector (StepByStep Home Services LC) about 8 years ago

Vince - these locks are great and this particular one is about 130 years old.  Find me a lock today that will last that long, with the original key!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Very cool Jay, you always seem to come across some pretty cool things.

Posted by Troy Pappas, Virginia Beach Home Inspector (Safe House Property Inspections) about 8 years ago

Jay,

I remember when neighbors used those as the way to lock and unlock the main doors. Really.

Posted by Steven L. Smith, Bellingham WA Home Inspector (King of the House Home Inspection, Inc.) about 8 years ago

Jay- very intresting, sounds like your having fun with your inspections.

Posted by Eric Middleton, Professional Property Inspector (Closer Look Property Inspections Inc.) about 8 years ago

Troy - this same house had a remodeled apartment in the basement which will become a couple of posts as well!  It was a great old place, with a fabulous new kitchen.  That key is sitting on the shelf of a new maple cabinet door.  Made a nice perch for a photo!

Steve - my grandmother's house in DC had those keys.  That was our house key my entire childhood.  I still have a ring of my grandfather's skeleton keys and they are very neat.

Eric - always man!  We all see cool stuff every day.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

i still have the skeleton from my Grandmother's home...framed with a collection of others unique in design...thanks for the history lesson

Posted by Sally K. & David L. Hanson, WI Realtors - Luxury - Divorce (EXP Realty 414-525-0563) about 8 years ago

Was the skeleton in your grandmother's closet, Sally?

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

OH!  You meant a key!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay - I also have a large ring of these keys from my grandfather but I have never actually seen a lock where they would be in use. I do like the shadow box idea.

Posted by Steve Hall, Make the Call to Hankins and Hall (RE/MAX United) about 8 years ago

Steve - there is only one lock they would work in.  Locks with the same ward pattern weren't mass manufactured in those days.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Jay, this is pretty cool, but there were a lot of "generic" skeleton keys for interior doors etc----so those weren't so secure.

Posted by Charles Buell, Seattle Home Inspector (Charles Buell Inspections Inc.) about 8 years ago

Perhaps if they were produced by the same lock smith Charlie.  But why would one guy have mimicked  another?  Actually when I saw this key I thought it looked pretty generic!!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Hey, Jay - Actually, the term "skeleton key" was originally used for the passkey that could open any ward lock or lever lock regardless of brand. The term comes from the fact that a skeleton key had most of its center removed so that it could bypass the wards and open the lock.

Back when I was living with my grandparents, the Missouri Pacific Railroad used lever locks on all the switches, doors, engine compartments, etc. Granddad was a Road Foreman of Engines, so he had keys to everything, including many skeleton keys. Once granddad explained the difference in the keys to me, and still being the little juvenile delinquent that I was, I took the skeleton key and set out along the railroad tracks in town to open all the locks and switch the tracks. Man did I get in trouble for that one! I've never messed with keys or locks since then.

Over the years, skeleton key has come to mean just about any lever lock or ward lock key.

Posted by Russel Ray, San Diego Business & Marketing Consultant & Photographer (Russel Ray) about 8 years ago

That's true, Russel - skeleton key has become kind of a generic term.  And I probably would have done the same thing if I knew I could mess with people with only a single key!

I have a ring with a bunch of my grandfather's skeleton keys.  And they are all different.  It is very cool.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 8 years ago

Those keys are really cool and I've seen a few of them over the last couple of months as I've worked on several older homes.

Posted by Debbie Gartner, The Flooring Girl & Blog Stylist -Dynamo Marketers (The Flooring Girl) about 4 years ago

This house was purchased by a lobby firm Debbie, and sold by one.  The house is full of office equipment, so obviously they consider the lock to be safe!

I did, however, find a major security problem that my clients had corrected right away!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

Jay, this post was a real treat! I really didn't know anything about skeleton keys and incorrectly presumed they went out of style because they were ineffective. Clearly the opposite is true. Thank you for enlightening me!

Posted by Tom White, Franklin Homes Realty LLC, Franklin TN (Franklin Homes Realty LLC (615) 495-0752 or www.FranklinHomesRealty.com) about 4 years ago

Tom - they probably went out of style because it takes longer than 30 seconds to cut a key!

And thanks!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

I found a lost one once, on the sidewalk in Halifax. I called it the key to nowhere because no one knew what door it opened.

Posted by Robert Butler, Montreal Home Inspector | Aspect Inspection (Aspect Inspection) about 4 years ago

Great insight today!  Thanks for the great read.  Can't wait for the next one.  Liz in Chandler

Posted by Chandler Real Estate Liz Harris, MBA, #ChandlerRealEstateAgent (Liz Harris Realty) about 4 years ago

I still have a few that were on my grandfather's key chain, Robert!

Not every day, but I put out a blog very frequently Liz.  Stop by any time!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

When I was growing up, we called the key that looked similar to yours a skeleton if it opened any and all locks in the house. I have a listing built in 1772 that has 2 of the old heavy iron keys for box locks and they are definitely too large to fit in a lockbox. Had never heard of the term "warded".

Posted by Carolyn Roland-Historic Homes For Sale In Delaware and S. Chester County PA, Carolyn Roland, GRI, CRS (Patterson-Schwartz Real Estate) about 4 years ago

That's one definition, Carolyn - a "master" key.  That is the technical word for the locks.

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

What a find!  I love old houses, but we do not have nearly as many around here as you guys do on the East Coast.

Posted by Catherine Ulrey, Equestrian and Acreage Property Specialist (Keller Williams Capital City) about 4 years ago

Showed a home built in 1900 the other day. Had one of these locks. Life was much simpler back then I think.

Posted by Bill Reddington, Destin Florida Real Estate (Re/max Southern Realty) about 4 years ago

What a great suprise. It is the small moments like this that make real estate fun.

Posted by John Fauth, Turning your dreams into an address! (Coldwell Banker King Thompson) about 4 years ago

That was an unusual subject.  Thank you for the edification!!

Posted by Jeff Jensen (The Federal Savings Bank/Lending in 50 states) about 4 years ago

Lots of old around here Catherine.  And it's fun!

Bill - if you knew the key pattern, those keys were probably easy to copy!

John - I was a little surprised that a high-powered lobby firm would find that key secure!  Then I looked into it!

Jeff - those keys were around for a long time!  Not all that unusual!

 

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

Wow, very interesting and great post.  Thanks!!!

Posted by Cindy Edwards, CRS, GRI, PMN - Northeast Tennessee - 423-677-6677 (RE/MAX Checkmate) about 4 years ago

Thank you Cindy.  Stop by any time!

Posted by Jay Markanich, Home Inspector - servicing all Northern Virginia (Jay Markanich Real Estate Inspections, LLC) about 4 years ago

This blog does not allow anonymous comments