As an apartment dweller, you may think there's no reason to get insurance. After all, if something happens to the building, the landlord will have coverage--he or she couldn't get a mortgage without such coverage. But there are lots of reasons why you need to protect yourself.
If your apartment is damaged by fire or water, for example, the insurance carried by your landlord will pay for the restoration of the walls, the floors, the kitchen, whatever was damaged. Everything except your personal property. That's your problem.
Sofas, computers and other expensive items--not to mention stereo equipment, jewelry and books--are covered only if a tenant buys the coverage independently. You can get coverage for actual cash value or get a policy that covers replacement cost. In either case, the policies run less than $150 a year for coverage of $25,000 on property loss and $300,000 for liability. And if you buy the policy from your auto-insurance carrier, there's usually a 10 percent discount on the price.
"We won't write policies for actual cash value--it would be doing someone a disservice to depreciate the cost of their property when we can write a policy for actual replacement value," said Julie Statland, manager of the Silver Spring insurance firm of Statland & Katz.
Statland writes a lot of renter's policies, usually for no less than $15,000 for the contents plus $300,000 personal liability with a $250 or $500 deductible.
What's the most common claim on renter's insurance? "Without a doubt, theft, and toilets or tubs overflowing from the apartment above," Statland said.
Renter's insurance covers a wide range of things; it also covers theft, even from your car or a hotel room.
Why does it include liability coverage? What if you accidentally left a pot on the stove and caused a fire in your apartment? If the fire department report says the fire was caused by your negligence, the landlord is going to come after you. If you have renter's insurance and good liability coverage, your insurance will cover the cost of restoration. You'll be liable only for your deductible.
If you're forced to vacate your apartment because of a fire elsewhere in the building, insurance may also cover the cost of expenses you might incur staying in a motel, eating out instead of at home, etc., up to 20 percent of your total coverage amount. And if you have a child who is a college student, his or her personal belongings will be covered against theft as long as the belongings' value doesn't exceed 10 percent of the total covered amount.
Herman Hunter, chief of the consumer services branch of the D.C. Department of Insurance and Securities Regulation, has this straightforward advice about renter's insurance: "Make sure you buy it."
Hunter suggests that renters check with his department before making that purchase to be certain that the agent is licensed to sell such policies and that there aren't any outstanding complaints about that agent.
Statland urges people to be certain that the company is A- to A+ rated by A.M. Best Co. or Weiss Ratings Inc. The D.C. consumer services branch runs seminars all year to help people better understand their policies and what to do in the case of a loss.
Hunter and Statland both urge people to read their policies long before something happens. As with all insurance policies, coverage limits can vary from company to company.
As an example, Statland provides the following limits for policies written through Erie Insurance Co.: a $250 limit on money, bank notes, gold, silver other than silverware, etc.; a $2,000 limit on securities, deeds, passports, etc. (try a safety deposit box for those goodies--the cost of rental is tax-deductible); a $2,000 limit on a camper that you might park in the building garage; a $3,000 limit on theft of jewelry, watches, furs; and a $3,000 limit for theft of silverware. For a few extra dollars, you can always increase the coverage.
With proper independent appraisals, jewelry can run an additional $1.05 per $100, and art 35 cents per $100. You must have the appraisals done at the time you get coverage, not after the fact.
You can get extra protection for losses to appliances caused by electrical surges, and even coverage for ice and snow damage.
In Maryland, all agents by law must offer coverage for city sewer and drain backups, which costs $27 a year extra. And Andrea Leeman of the Virginia Bureau of Insurance suggests that consumers shop around because the cost of such policies can vary as much as 300 percent depending on the coverage you get and where you live.
If you're taking the time and trouble to purchase renter's insurance, you should be sure you have good records. Make a video survey of your possessions, and do a voice-over describing key items and the date you recorded the information. Be certain to store the tape away from the apartment (the same applies to backup data for your computer at home or at the office). If you don't have a video camera, make a detailed written inventory with snapshots.
If you have fire or water damage, most insurance companies will provide you with a list of fire restoration and damage contractors, but they won't recommend specific firms, so you may want to check references. Generally, the firms that specialize in this kind of work, such as bringing in electric fans to remove the smoke smell from an apartment or to dry out rugs, know the going rates for insurance companies. Statland urges clients not to sign anything saying that they will be responsible for paying these firms. Check with the insurance company before hiring anyone.
Renter's insurance usually covers against these losses:
Fire or lightning; windstorm or hail; breakage of glass; explosion; riot or civil commotion; theft; damage from aircraft or vehicles; smoke; vandalism and malicious mischief.
Sources of Consumer Help
D.C. Department of Insurance and Securities Regulation, Consumer Services Bureau, 810 First St. NE, #701, Washington, D.C. 20002; call Herman Hunter, 202-442-7812.
Virginia Corporation Commission, Virginia Bureau of Insurance--Property and Casualty Division, P.O. Box 1157, Richmond, Va. 23218; call 1-800-552-7945 from the Washington area and Virginia.
Maryland Insurance Administration, Property and Casualty Division, 501 St. Paul St., Baltimore, Md. 21202; call 410-468-2000.
CAPTION: Landlords' insurance policies cover their property, such as this Chicago high-rise that was damaged in an Oct. 30 fire, but not that of their tenants.