The very items we often keep in a home safe are the ones that shouldn’t be there.
These include valuables that aren’t inventoried, documents you rarely need and large sums of cash.
Other items such as insurance documents and priceless heirlooms also need to be stored in a safe place, but which valuables are best protected in a fireproof gun safe at home and which belong in a safe-deposit box at a bank? Our experts share their safe-keeping secrets.
Things you should keep in a home safe include:
- Social Security cards
- Insurance policies
- Any “power of attorney” documents
Tip: Generally, anything of value to you — but not to a thief — can be stored in a home safe. Take other irreplaceable items to the bank.
“A burglar could more easily break into your home, force you to open the safe or haul off the entire safe than get inside your safe deposit box,” according to Luke Reynolds, chief of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s community outreach section.
But many experts insist that if you have a fireproof home safe that’s anchored to the wall or floor, your personal documents are secure there. “Some people have safes that are fire-approved and bolted down so they can’t be moved,” says G. Raye Jones, an estate, trusts and tax planning attorney in Charlottesville, Virginia. “If you’ve got one like that, your documents are as safe there as in a bank.” You can find a fireproof safe on Amazon that can be bolted to the ground or wall.
What You Should Store in a Home Fireproof Safe
Documents you may need in a hurry
Think: Social Security cards, passports, insurance policies and any “power of attorney” documents that authorize you to make emergency health decisions for a relative during a medical crisis. Since banks are not open 24/7, a good home safe is a better place to keep these key documents.
“Some of us travel on business and we might be told on a Friday afternoon we’ve got to be in France by Monday morning, so you need that passport,” says John Drengenberg, consumer safety director for Underwriter Laboratories (UL), which tests home safes and other consumer and business products for safety and reliability. “If you need a document on a moment’s notice, it needs to be accessible – and a home safe offers that.”
The original copy of your will
Jones points out that state laws vary on original will documents, so check with a local attorney experienced in handling estates. Unless you have an estate attorney who will hold the original will documents for you, keep this paperwork in a home fireproof safe and give the combination or spare key to a trusted person who doesn’t live with you. If you absolutely must store it at the bank, prevent delays by making sure in advance the executors are named in the document.
“Under previous law, if a relative’s will was kept at the bank, you’d have to get a court order for the bank to open the box and let you have it,” Jones says. “But today if someone goes to the bank and says ‘Hey, I’m the executor on daddy’s will and I need to get it out of the deposit box,’ the bank will take a look to make sure you’re named on the document and if you have proper ID, they’ll let you have a look at it.”
Certain personal treasures
Vintage photographs, old-school camera negatives, stamp collections and emergency cash – these are the kinds of items that should go into resealable plastic bags to reduce risk of water damage, then into either a media or fireproof safe.
According to Keystone Safe Company of Danville, Indiana, papers are fine inside a fireproof safe, which is designed to maintain a temperature inside the safe of no higher than 350 degrees Fahrenheit during a fire (above 350 degrees Fahrenheit, paper can burn).
However, vintage photographs, old-school camera negatives, magnetic media, tape recordings and flash drives should only be stored in a data or media safe, according to Keystone. The reason? The heat inside a media safe is designed to not rise above 125 degrees, the temperature at which photos and tapes will be damaged or ruined. (It’s also a good idea to store copies of your most precious photos in the cloud.)
UL’s Drengenberg confirms that “if you see a 350-degree fire rating on a consumer home safe, that means it will cover paper documents, but not magnetic or electronic media or photographs.” To best protect your valuables, look for the UL rating when shopping for a home fire safe—the lower the number, the better the protection. UL tests consumer safes for home use, rating their ability to survive fires up to certain temperatures and being dropped from a height of 30 feet to simulate a three-story fall.
In fact, under UL’s basic test, technicians attack the safe for 15 minutes using hand tools, picking tools, sledgehammers and mechanical or power tools with grinding points, carbide drills and pressure devices. After testing, the safe is opened to see if the contents inside are usable and can be handled without sticking together or crumbling. Separate burglary tests are conducted on large commercial safes.
Of course, fire or water damage is not your only concern with personal treasures. “Household safes are usually smaller than commercial ones, and burglary protection is not a strong selling point because someone can pick it up and walk out of the house,” Drengenberg says. For small heirlooms, he says, “you probably should be looking at a safe deposit box.”
What Goes in a Bank Safe-Deposit Box
Heirlooms, precious metals and other irreplaceable items such as jewelry
Until someone is ready to wear it, Grandma’s engagement ring should be secured in a bank box. While it’s okay to store a reasonable amount of emergency cash in a home safe, large sums of cash should be in a bank account where it can earn interest. Don’t sock away a lot of cash in a bank deposit box, because FDIC insurance only covers cash deposited in bank accounts. (Since the bank won’t cover losses from a safe deposit box, talk with your home insurance or renters insurance carrier if you’d like to insure valuables stored there.)
Documents you wouldn’t need outside regular bank hours
These include the deed to your home, birth certificates and car titles. According to the FDIC, U.S. Savings Bonds that haven’t been converted into electronic securities should also be stored at the bank.
Photo and video inventories of your home
If you take pictures or shoot video of personal property for insurance purposes, such as proof of ownership after a fire, you should store the media in a bank box, not at home.
Sensitive computer data
Information stored on physical computer media (discs and USB and external hard drives) should go in the bank box. The bank’s vault won’t be susceptible to extreme temperatures or magnetic interference that could erase data. Physical media would typically be a backup for critical data on a computer or tablet, or home-cloud storage systems (these are essentially just an external hard drive with Wi-Fi capability), which could be destroyed in a fire.
–Steve Evans, a former reporter for SNL Financial and the Richmond Times-Dispatch, writes about insurance for MoneyGeek.com