insurance

How much renters insurance for your stuff?

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Highlights
  • Insurers say the average renter has upward of $20,000 worth of belongings.
  • Experts recommend renters insurance that will replace lost items with new.
  • Renters need extra insurance coverage for jewelry, art and other valuables.

Your flat-screen TV. Your computer. Your roomful of designer shoes/sneakers.

What's all the stuff in your apartment worth? When you buy renters insurance -- and that's something you really ought to do if you live in an apartment -- it's important to have an estimate so you'll know how much coverage you need.

USAA insurance says the average renter has more than $20,000 in possessions, while Allstate puts the total at around $30,000. Here are some steps for determining how much you have so you can shop for a renters policy that will provide enough protection in case of fire, theft or other loss.

Grab the camera and take inventory

Start by documenting your things. With a camera or your smartphone, walk through each room taking wide shots and then close-ups of individual items, says Don Griffin, vice president of personal lines at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America. "It will startle most people how much stuff they have," he says.

Once you have your video or photos, it's time to start making an item-by-item list. If that sounds tedious, it's because it probably will be. But this is a once-every-few-years exercise, Griffin says.

Most insurers have online tools to help with the inventory process. For example, Allstate's Household Inventory Guide has three pages of ledgers that break down possessions by room and type, making it easy to get a grand total.

Whatever method you use, you'll eventually want to store the inventory someplace safe, because not only will it help you figure out how much coverage to buy now, but it also will be useful later, if something happens and you need to make a claim. "You don't want the files to get destroyed or stolen," Griffin says.

Some insurers, like State Farm, let customers upload digital inventories to the company's website. Otherwise, stash digital copies in the cloud or on a jump drive in a safe deposit box.

Go 'shopping'

When you buy renters insurance, Griffin recommends that you steer clear of policies that will provide merely the current "fair market value" of your used items if they're lost or stolen. What you want instead is a policy that will provide "replacement value," so that you can buy everything new again.

Once you have your inventory together, it's time to go "shopping" to research replacement values. "You can go online to Amazon or Target to get an idea of what the range might be" for many items, says Lisa Karpienski, the product manager for renters insurance at USAA.

It's an important step because many people underestimate the cost to buy things new. "That 10-year-old couch might have cost $500, but a new one could run you twice that," Griffin notes. Go to Ikea's website or the local furniture store and price a comparable sofa.

But don't get greedy. "If you've got a 32-inch flat-screen, you're not looking to see what a 50-inch model costs," Griffin says.

Don't forget the closets

Griffin says people most often underestimate the value of their clothes. "You might buy a tie here or there, or a shirt every couple of weeks, but you don't realize how that adds up," he says. So throw open the closets and take a detailed inventory, noting the brands. Then do some price-checking to see what it would cost to buy all those threads today.

The average person spent nearly $700 at clothing and accessories retailers in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Karpienski says most folks have at least $3,000 in clothing, and people who wear suits to work probably have upward of $5,000.

Also consider items in storage, such as sports equipment. "You'll want to make sure you think about everything, because the idea is to have enough coverage to start over from scratch without having to sacrifice," says Jim Whittle, chief claims counsel at the American Insurance Association.

Extra protection for jewels, heirlooms

With some very expensive items, it doesn't matter if you know the replacement value; a standard renters insurance policy will have limits on coverage for jewelry or art works. The limits don't apply in the event of a total loss, such as if the apartment burns down, Whittle says. But if these expensive items go missing or are stolen, the limits kick in. "If you have a $50,000 contents policy, it may only provide $5,000 of that for jewelry," he says.

If your pricey possessions exceed these sub-limits, typically $2,500 or $5,000, you'll want to get what's known as a rider, an add-on that insures specific items if they get stolen or you lose them.

"In most instances, insurers will want appraisal documents for items on a rider," Whittle says. Big jewelry purchases typically come with them, but you'll want to take your stamp collection to a certified appraiser.

Musical instruments, photography equipment and even golf clubs count in the list of valuable items that might need riders.

Having a rider on, say, a ring also broadens coverage for that item, says Griffin. If you forget your ring on the bathroom sink at a restaurant after washing your hands and it's gone when you go back, the rider will cover the loss, for example. "That's not normally covered by a renters policy," he says.

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