Ways to Safeguard Your Valuable Belongings
It's easy to accumulate possessions over time. In addition to investing a considerable amount of money in your possessions, you probably own things of sentimental value that it would be impossible to replace. To a thief, though, your belongings are just easy money.
Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to safeguard your possessions and your property. This booklet provides practical information about how you can protect your possessions and enhance your personal safety. It will also get you started on building a home inventory listing that will be very valuable if you suffer loss or damage to your personal property.
Secure Your Property
A great many house break-ins are committed by criminals who don't actually break in — they enter through unlocked doors and windows. While it's true that determined thieves can break into just about any home, criminals prefer homes where access is relatively easy.
Following are some tips to help you protect your home from theft.
- Invest in a quality door. Doors with glass panes may present a security problem.
- Install deadbolts on all exterior doors and the door that connects the garage to your house (i.e., single-cylinder locks, at least one inch thick, that extend at least one inch into the door frame when locked).
- Secure windows and sliding glass doors with locks made for the purpose.
- Light the outside of your house to reduce your risk of burglary. Consider installing motion sensitive lights.
- Do not open doors to strangers. Always ask for identification.
- Install wide-angle peepholes in all solid doors. Don't rely on chain locks to see who is at the door. They can easily be forced once a door is ajar.
- Keep your garage door locked and basement windows secure.
- Lock outbuildings (e.g., storage sheds) with deadbolt locks.
- Keep trees and shrubbery trimmed. Overgrown vegetation gives a burglar more privacy.
- Don't give keys to workmen, or anyone you don't know very well. Give parking lot attendants and mechanics your ignition key only, not your entire keyring.
- If people you don't know (e.g., previous tenants) could have a key to your house, have the locks changed.
- Always lock your doors, even if you'll only be gone a short while.
- Do not "hide" a key outside your home. Instead, leave a duplicate set with a friend or trusted neighbor.
Be especially careful if you're going away and your house is going to be empty. Make it look occupied, even when you're not home.
- Have a trusted neighbor pick up your mail and newspaper.
- Don't leave notes on your door or mention your absence on an answering machine message.
- Pay someone to shovel the snow or mow the lawn while you're away.
- Use random timers on your lights and TV or radio.
- Turn the ringer on your phone off.
Stay alert. If you return home and notice any signs of a break-in (e.g., an open door, a broken window) don't go in, a burglar could still be inside. Instead, go to a neighbor's house and call the police.
Consider installing an alarm system. Alarm systems come in many shapes and sizes and many levels of sophistication, at prices that range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. Local police are a good source of information and recommendations regarding security systems, since they work with the security services in your area. They can also tell you what types of break-ins are most common in your community. Note that some alarm systems monitor for fire as well as break-ins.
Mark your possessions. Whenever possible, etch identification numbers onto valuables. This works well with items like TVs, DVD players, and computers. Check with your local police department — many will lend an engraving tool, free of charge. You can use the same number on all items-your drivers license number, phone number, birthday, etc., but be sure to record it. Try to etch items in a place where removal would damage the appearance of the item.
Of course, etching is not appropriate for all items. Etching, for example, would mar jewelry. For valuable items that can't be marked by etching, be sure you have good photo documentation, and an appraisal and receipt if possible.
The best time to think about protecting possessions is when you first buy or receive them. Some tips:
Save receipts, warranty cards, and instruction manuals, and file them safely. A copy of receipts should be included with a home inventory list.
Be sure to record serial and other identifying numbers (e.g., vehicle identification numbers) in a log, or with your home inventory documentation.
Determine whether service contracts (often offered by retailers) are worth the cost. For example, electronic items (e.g., digital cameras) become out-of-date quickly; it may not be worthwhile to repair them two years from now. On the other hand, a refrigerator, which usually lasts for years, might be a good candidate for a service contract, depending on the price.
Mark items with permanent identification numbers, if possible.
If you have any doubt about whether or not a new possession is covered by your insurance, contact your company at once to find out. A new television, for example, will likely be covered under your existing homeowners or renters policy; a separate policy might be required to insure a new boat for its full value.
Every 26 seconds, on average, a motor vehicle is stolen in the United States.* The odds of having your car stolen are influenced by three factors: where you live (e.g., urban areas have more car thefts than rural areas); what make and model car you drive — certain makes and models are more popular with car thieves; and what steps you take to reduce your risk. Your car is a valuable possession, and there's a lot you can do to lower the odds that your car will be stolen or broken into.
- Never leave your keys in your car or ignition.
- Never leave your car running unattended.
- Always close the windows and lock the car, even in front of your house.
- Install a mechanical device that locks to the steering wheel, column, or brake (e.g., collar). If used properly these devices are good deterrents.
- Consider the purchase of a car security system if you live in a high-crime area or drive a theft-prone vehicle. If you have one, use it every time you park the car.
- If you park in a garage or leave your car at an auto repair shop, leave only the ignition key. Make sure no identifying information is attached.
- Carry your registration and insurance card with you-do not leave it in the car.
- Do not hide spare keys in or on the car.
- Never leave items of value where they can be seen-lock them in the trunk.
- Do not leave credit cards or personal ID anywhere in the car (e.g., glove compartment).
- Park in busy, well-lighted areas.
- Park your car in the garage if you have one. Park in the driveway rather than on the street.
- If you park on the street, park with the front wheels turned to the right or left and put the emergency brake on. This makes it difficult to tow your car.
- Lock your car and garage.
- When you purchase a car, consider how "theft-prone" it is. Your insurance company can help you get this information.
- Etch all glass and windows with the vehicle identification number (VIN). This will not only aid law enforcement and insurance agencies in the recovery and identification of your vehicle, it also takes profit away from the professional auto thief.
Keep a copy of license plate and vehicle identification (VIN) numbers in your wallet. Police will need this information promptly if your vehicle is stolen.
Home fires not only cause billions of dollars in personal and real property damage every year, they take thousands of lives. Take the time to learn how to prevent fires and what to do if there is one, and make sure your family members know, too.
Cooking. Always stay near the stove when cooking, and keep flammable materials well away from the stove and oven. Never put water on a grease fire; smother with a lid or another pan, then turn off the burner. Leave the lid in place until it's cooled off completely.
Portable and space-heating equipment. Wood burning, kerosene, propane, and electric heaters can ignite flammable items (e.g., draperies). Keep anything that can burn at least three feet away from all heating equipment. Shut off heaters before you leave a room or go to bed. Make sure any heaters you own have been tested and approved by a reputable organization (e.g., Underwriters Laboratories (UL), American Gas Association (AGA)).
Smoking. Cigarettes are the leading cause of fire deaths. Never smoke in bed or in a place where you may fall asleep. Use deep ashtrays so a lit cigarette can't roll out. Run water over an ashtray before emptying it into the trash.
Fireplaces. Never burn charcoal or use a hibachi in your fireplace, they present a carbon monoxide risk; burn only dry, seasoned hardwood. Never close the flue while a fire is smoldering. Enclose fireplace openings with glass doors or sturdy screens. Protect the top of your chimney with a guard that keeps animals out and sparks in. Teach children to stay back from the fireplace. Never leave a fire unattended. Keep a fire extinguisher handy.
Electrical hazards. If lights dim or flicker, fuses blow frequently, or sparks shoot from receptacles when items are plugged in or unplugged, consult an electrician. Never run cords under rugs or heavy furniture. Don't use light bulbs with higher wattages than recommended for a fixture.
Children and fire. Children playing with matches or lighters are the leading cause of fire deaths for children 5 and under. Keep these items up high, preferably in a locked cabinet, out of the sight and reach of small children.
Flammable and combustible materials. Don't store gasoline or kerosene in the home. Keep small quantities in an approved container designed to store gasoline, and store it outside, preferably in a locked, detached shed or outbuilding. Don't store combustible or flammable materials such as newspapers and rags in basements and garages or near any heat source.
Appliances. Indoors, leave plenty of airspace around appliances and television sets; they can overheat and catch fire. Always follow manufacturers' instructions for safe operation. Check electrical cords regularly for signs of tearing or fraying. Outdoors, use charcoal and gas grills with caution. Keep them away from structures, particularly when in use. Never add materials to a fire, once started. Keep children and pets away from grills.
Holiday hazards. Decorative lights and candles are a special concern. If you buy a live Christmas tree, choose a fresh one and water it daily. Make sure artificial trees are made of flame-retardant material. Check cords on lights every year. Outdoors, use only lights and extension cords intended for outdoor use. Turn all holiday lights off when you leave the house or go to bed. Keep candles well away from anything that can burn and put them out when you leave the room or go to bed.
If a fire breaks out, act immediately-smoke and flames spread rapidly. Evacuate the house immediately; call the fire department from a neighbor's house or a cellular phone. Remember: evacuate first, call later.
Educate all family members. Develop and discuss a fire exit plan, and have regular family fire drills. Be sure to plan alternate routes in case stairs or doorways are blocked. Buy one or more fire extinguishers to keep in your home. A Class ABC extinguisher is multi-purpose and works well against small, self-contained fires. Keep one in the kitchen, extras in the basement and garage. Make sure family members know when and how to use it.
If your home were burglarized, could you remember the brand name and screen size of your television? What about your DVD player? Could you remember where you bought these items and how much they cost?
It would be even more difficult if a great many of your possessions were missing or destroyed-and a fire or flood can cause that kind of large-scale loss. It would be hard, if not impossible, to remember every single item you own-let alone their cost and where and when you purchased them.
It makes sense to have a written record of your possessions-an inventory. Preparing an inventory will take a little effort, but the time, money, and frustration it can save is well worth it. This record will help you and your insurance provider, in the event you have to make a claim. It may also help police recover your belongings if they are stolen, and help you document any tax write-offs you may be entitled to as a result of a loss.
There's more than one way to compile an inventory of your possessions. But whatever method you choose, the more detail the better. You can check with your homeowners insurance company to see if they have any specific recommendations or requirements (e.g., appraisals).
A thorough inventory of personal property includes:
- A written listing of all of your items, and descriptions if possible.
- Receipts for valuable items.
- Serial numbers (often on warranty cards) of your valuable items.
- Current appraisals, as appropriate (e.g., for jewelry).
- A video or photos of all of your possessions, as well as your home.
A sample inventory sheet appears below. The sample is too small to be useful, but can be your guide in making your own pages. The Insurance Information Institute offers free home inventory software; you can download it at: http://www.knowyourstuff.org/.
They also provide home inventory item listings, grouped by room (e.g., kitchen) and by category (e.g., men's clothing). These lists can serve as a guide when you develop your own inventory.
|Inventory of Personal Property|
You can also use a spiral-bound notebook for your inventory- just draw lines for the columns and write in the headings. A computerized inventory, though, will be much easier to update.
Depending on the size of your home, you might plan on completing your inventory over a period of weeks. You could inventory one room each week. Use a systematic approach. For example, start with the furniture, then items hanging on the walls, and finally the contents of drawers, cabinets, and closets. Don’t forget carpeting and draperies. Also, be sure to record items you may have stored in the attic or basement, and outdoor items like patio furniture and awnings; include everything.
Make video and/or photo documentation. Use a systematic approach with photos and videos, as well. If you're using a video camera, you might start by panning the room from the doorway, then making your way around the room till all four walls are covered, and ending up with items in the middle of the room. Finally, open drawers and closets and get images of the contents. If possible, narrate the video with descriptions of the items. Again, include as much detail as possible. Say, for example:
"32 in LCD HDTV Manufactured by ____________________. Purchased, Jan 2006."
NOT "A fairly new flat screen TV."
Be sure to label photos and videos with the date they were made. If you're using a still camera, try to get wide-angle shots of whole rooms, as well as photos of the contents of drawers and closets and, of course, of all valuables (e.g., jewelry, cameras, silver, computers).
Once you've completed your inventory, make a copy and store it in a safe place-not in your home. If your inventory is on the computer, you can make a CD or DVD, or put it on a USB mass storage device (i.e., flash drive). If it's on paper make at least one copy. In either case, store it in a safe place (e.g., safety deposit box) and consider sending an extra copy to a close friend or family member.
Some things are difficult to replace, and some are priceless. Homeowners insurance can help replace many of your possessions if you suffer a loss, but there are some things that are very difficult to replace and some that can't be replaced at all. Family photographs are among those items, and you need to protect them in the best way you can. Many of these items can be copied and/or stored in a safety deposit box. They include:
Photos-duplicate or scan them into your computer and put them on CDs or DVDs.
Computer data: make regular back-ups on CDs, or DVDs, label with contents and date.
Small, valuable collectibles you don't want to display, like rare coins. Note that anything that could be damaged by water should be sealed in airtight bags or containers-even in a safety deposit box.
Jewelry you don't wear often.
Important personal papers you use infrequently (e.g., passport, birth certificate).
A listing of important financial information including bank and brokerage account numbers, credit card numbers, etc.
Important business papers you use infrequently (e.g., insurance policies, deeds).
Note that the contents of safety deposit boxes are not insured by the bank or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), so you must insure everything, even items in a safety deposit box. Talk to your insurance company to see if they allow a discount for storing valuable items in a safety deposit box.
There is, of course, a trade off between protecting your possessions and not being able to enjoy them. If you only wear your grandmother's diamond brooch a few times a year, it won't be too inconvenient to store it away from home. On the other hand, if you wear it a few times a week, a safety deposit box isn't practical.
Make Sure You’re Covered
Acting in safe, smart ways will enhance your personal safety and help protect your possessions, and the right insurance will provide its own security. If you own a home, you need to have a homeowner's policy, and if you rent, a renters policy is right for you.
When you purchase homeowners or renters insurance you will likely be able to choose between replacement cost or actual cash value coverage. Replacement cost pays the actual cost to replace your possessions-with no deductions for age or depreciation-up to the limit of the policy. Actual cash value pays to replace your possessions minus a deduction for depreciation up to the limits of your policy. Note that if you are insured for actual cash value-as opposed to replacement cost-you will pay less for your policy, but you may not receive enough money to replace damaged property. Instead, you will receive the amount your property is worth at the time of the loss-its cost minus depreciation for age and normal wear and tear.
Both renters and homeowners policies often cover expensive items like jewelry, furs, and silverware, but there are usually limits (e.g., $1,000 – $2,000), so it may be a good idea to purchase a special property endorsement or floater to insure these items to their full value.
Homeowners Insurance. Standard homeowners policies are a package- they insure the home and your personal belongings. They cover damage-or loss-to your property, as well as liability (i.e., legal responsibility) for any injuries or property damage you or members of your family cause to others. Damage caused by many disasters is covered (e.g., fire) but there are exceptions (e.g., flood). You need to speak to your insurance company for details.
Coverage for your possessions is usually provided as a percentage of the amount of insurance you have on the structure of your home- often 50 to 70 percent. For example, if you have $100,000 worth of coverage on the structure of your home, you'd have $50,000 to $70,000 of coverage on your personal possessions. Of course, the exact amount will depend on your needs and the specific policy you choose. In most cases, policies include off-premises coverage, which means your belongings are covered anywhere, unless you've specifically decided against off-premises coverage. Again, your coverage will depend upon the specific policy you choose. A good way to determine how much insurance you need to cover your personal belongings is by completing a home inventory.
Renters insurance provides protection against damage or destruction to your belongings when you rent an apartment or house. Your landlord will insure the dwelling, but your personal property is not usually covered by your landlord's insurance. Because this insurance covers only your possessions, and not the building, it is relatively inexpensive.
Like homeowners insurance, renter's insurance covers your legal responsibility-liability-to other people injured by you or your family members, whether in your home or elsewhere. You choose the amount of coverage you need based primarily, on the value of your personal possessions. In general, renters policies protect you against losses from fire, lightning, vandalism, theft, windstorm, and water damage (but not floods). Check with your insurance company to find out what’s covered in your policy.
Following are some ways that will help you keep costs under control when you shop for insurance:
Get at least three quotes from different insurance companies and compare the policies carefully—be sure to ask for coverage as well as cost.
Choose a higher deductible. Your deductible is the portion of each covered loss you pay before your insurance company will begin paying for the loss. For example, if you have a $700 loss because a burglar stole your TV, and your deductible is $250, you will pay $250, and your insurance company will pay the remaining $450. Note that if the same burglar had taken your TV and your DVD player, for a total of $1,000, you would pay the same $250, and your insurance company would pay $750. The higher your deductible, the lower your insurance premiums.When choosing a deductible amount, be sure to consider how much you can afford to pay up front (i.e., your deductible) in the event of an unexpected loss.
Reduce your risks. Many insurance companies offer discounts for safety features such as central burglar and fire alarms, dead bolt locks, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers. Ask your insurance agent about discounts available. Then, enhance your safety and save money by updating the safety/security items in your home. Communities with Neighborhood Watch programs often have lower insurance rates. Check with your local police department for information on how you can get involved in your community's program.
Ask about multiple policy discounts. Some insurance companies offer a discount if you carry more than one type of policy with the company (e.g., homeowners and auto insurance).
Ask if any other discounts are available. For example, if you are at least 55 years old and retired, or if you have been insured with the same insurer for several years, you may qualify for lower rates.
For More Information
The Buying Guide 2008
The editors of Consumer Reports
Published by Consumer Reports Books
Consumer Reports Electronics Buying Guide 2008
The editors of Consumer Reports
Published by Consumer Reports Books
Note that these books are updated and reissued annually.
The quarterly Consumer Information Center catalog lists more than 200 helpful federal publications. Obtain a free copy by calling 888-8- PUEBLO or on the Internet at http://www.pueblo.gsa.gov/.
The Insurance Information Institute offers free informational brochures, including:
- Am I Covered?
- Insurance for Your House and Personal Possessions
- Home Inventory
- How to File an Insurance Claim
- Renters Insurance
- Settling Insurance Claims After a Disaster
- Twelve Ways to Lower Your Homeowners Insurance Costs
You may download these topics and more at http://www.iii.org/ or obtain single copies by sending a self-addressed stamped envelope to:
Insurance Information Institute
110 William Street, 24th Floor
New York, New York 10038
You may also download free Home Inventory Software from the Insurance Information Institute's website: www.knowyourstuff.org.