Just to Be Safe, Load and Lock

By Terri Sapienza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 11, 2007

We all have things that we really, really don't want to lose -- from important documents such as birth certificates, deeds and passports to genuine valuables such as coin collections, fine jewelry and family heirlooms. Depending on how organized (or paranoid) we are, these items are probably stashed around the house somewhere, stuck in a desk drawer, locked in a personal safe or secured in a bank vault.

While we're in resolution-making frame of mind, this would be a good time to review safekeeping options. Taking care now could spare you significant financial loss and endless hassles in the event of fire, break-in or some other calamity. Think of it.

Let's start with the simplest step: Gather important documents (if you can remember where you put them) and collect them in folders in a secure drawer. Much better would be a file cabinet with lock and key. Then don't lose track of the key.

But for those who store documents and valuables at home, investing in a safe is prudent. Home safes come in many shapes, sizes and prices. Home improvement stores carry options ranging from $20 to $1,200. As always, you get what you pay for, but be skeptical if the packaging says "fireproof." ("Fire-resistant," corrects David McGuinn, president of Safe Deposit Specialists in Houston. "Nothing is fireproof.") Safes are given ratings -- expressed in hours -- to indicate how long they will withstand heat or fire. And even if fire never reaches inside the safe, the heat outside could melt jewelry and incinerate papers.

And while a home safe is better than nothing, it's not burglar-proof. "Having valuables in a safe at home will slow [burglars] down, but it won't stop them," says McGuinn. Consider paying more for a safe that can be bolted to the floor or built into the wall.

An alternative is a safe-deposit box at a bank, credit union, or savings and loan. Usually located in a vault, a safe-deposit box is a container rented to customers for safekeeping valuables. These vaults are protected by a series of security measures and accessible only via a dual-controlled lock -- one key kept by the customer and one by the financial institution.

"The users of safe-deposit boxes span the spectrum," says Joyce McLin, executive director of the American Safe Deposit Association (ASDA), "from young people who realize the need to protect their valuables to the older generation who suffered through the Depression and want to make sure what they have is protected."

Rental fees vary, but McLin says the average cost of a small box -- say, three inches by five inches by 18 to 24 inches -- is $25 per year; bigger ones cost more. Most businesses will give a discount to existing customers and some will rent only to existing customers.

The general rule is: Any important documents and valuable items that would be difficult, impossible or expensive to replace should be stored in a safe-deposit box. This includes: adoption papers, legal agreements, armed service records, car titles, citizenship papers, deeds, important family photos or negatives, and a videotaped tour and inventory of your home. (See http://www.demesne.info/ for a complete document checklist.)

Because access to a safe-deposit box is available only during banking hours, a frequently used item, or one that may be needed at a moment's notice, should be safely stored at home instead: the passport of a frequent traveler, for example, or health-care powers of attorney and living wills.

Other items that should not be stored in a safe-deposit box, according to the ASDA, include: firearms, ammunition, illegal substances and items of an odorous nature, specifically dead fish. (McLin tells of a customer of a bank in Orlando who was denied a loan. He vented his frustration by putting a dead fish in his safe-deposit box and refused to retrieve it. "It took forever to get the odor out of the bank.")

Though some advise against keeping a will in a safe-deposit box, both the box and its contents automatically pass to the surviving renter if it's a jointly held box. For a solo renter, most states allow next of kin to remove a will, burial instructions and insurance policies.

The biggest misconception about safe-deposit boxes is that items stored in a box are insured by the financial institution or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Not true, says McGuinn. If you want your stored items insured, he recommends having a rider added to your homeowner's policy or getting a separate policy. Some companies will offer a lower premium on valuables protected at a bank vault.

Using a safe-deposit box is a secure measure, but a safer one still is to first place all safe-deposit items into plastic bags or containers labeled with your name. This will help should a plumbing catastrophe or flooding occur. McGuinn witnessed firsthand the impact of Hurricane Katrina on safe-deposit items that were not so protected.

"Katrina wiped out 250 vaults," he said. "We opened the doors of the boxes and they were filled with water. It was the biggest mess."

Whether you opt for a home safe, a safe-deposit box or both (keeping originals in one and photocopies in another), the investment and effort can prove well worth the effort.

"If you think about everything you put in and how much it would cost to replace," McGuinn says about a safe-deposit box, "it's a bargain."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company