With the growth of digital banking, renting a safe deposit box isn’t as common as it used to be. Some brick-and-mortar banks have either quit offering them or they’re scaling back. Still, safe deposit boxes can be a good place to keep important personal documents, collectibles and family heirlooms.

It’s important to make informed decisions about which things to store in a safe deposit box. Items that you might need to access quickly, for example, shouldn’t be stored in a safe deposit box.

Here’s what to consider when renting a safe deposit box.

What is a safe deposit box?

A safe deposit box is a secure container, usually made of metal, that’s used to store valuables at a bank or credit union. These boxes are often kept in vaults and can be rented by bank customers for a fee.

Modern safe deposit boxes have been around since the mid-1800s. Some banks today consider them an outdated service and have stopped offering them. But there’s still a demand for them, says David P. McGuinn, a former banker, and president and founder of Safe Deposit Specialists, a Houston-based safe deposit training and consulting firm.

Recently, some financial institutions have started offering virtual safe deposit boxes, where customers can securely store digital copies of important documents, such as birth certificates, last wills and tax records.

Average cost of a safe deposit box

The cost depends on the size of the box, your bank and your region. Expect to pay as little as $15 a year up to about $150 a year.

The fee increases when you rent a larger safe deposit box. So, if the bank charges $1 a square inch, a 10-by-10-inch box should cost about $100 a year.

Here is a sampling of what financial institutions charge to rent safe deposit boxes:

  • Local Government Federal Credit Union (North Carolina)

Cost: $18 to $90 a year

Box size: Ranging from 3-by-5 inches to 10-by-15 inches.

  • First Choice Credit Union (Florida)

Cost: $20 to $100 a year

Box size: Ranging from 3-by-5 inches to 10-by-10 inches.

  • First Bank & Trust Co. (Virginia)

Cost: $20 to $65 a year

Box size: Ranging from 2-by-5 inches to 10-by-10 inches

  • Washington Federal Bank (Washington)

Cost: $15 to $150 a year

Box size: Ranging from 2-by-5 inches to 34-by-16 inches

Some banks charge less based on your relationship with the institution.

What should go in a safe deposit box

Antiques, documents and anything that’s difficult or impossible to replace that isn’t needed on demand could be worth putting in a safe deposit box.

Good things to put in a safe deposit box include:

  • Personal papers
  • Stamp or coin collections
  • Jewelry or rare collectibles
  • Important contracts and business papers

Keep in mind that a bank may limit the number of items you can keep in a safe deposit box, based on their value. The rental agreement will specify  restrictions as well, like rules against keeping explosives and illegal drugs in the box you’re renting.

What should not go in a safe deposit box

Avoid storing items you might need on short notice or in an emergency in your safe deposit box. You should also avoid storing items here that aren’t typically needed on short notice but your inability to retrieve them would cause significant problems.

Some examples are:

Even if the item in a safe deposit box doesn’t typically need to be retrieved quickly, consider how not having ready access to it might be problematic.

Some items, like a medical directive, should never be stored in a safe deposit box because you could become suddenly incapacitated and need important documents right away. Even if there are other parties with access to the box, you are still limited by bank hours to gain access.

Why use a safe deposit box?

Safe deposit boxes can provide added safety beyond what you may have available at home. McGuinn knows first-hand that keeping items in a safe deposit box can be more secure than storing them in your home.

Once, while he was traveling, someone broke into his house and used the tools in his garage to get into his safe.

“A safe deposit box with the concrete or steel walls, the big, magnificent vault door with triple combinations on it and time clock and all that — that’s a much safer choice for consumers,” McGuinn says.

It’s important, however, to choose a bank or credit union that securely manages its vault. McGuinn offers a checklist of questions to ask a financial institution before deciding whether it’s a good place to rent a safety deposit box.

Are my belongings insured like my bank account?

A safe deposit box lives within the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. But whatever you put inside that box isn’t insured by the institution or the government.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., for example, protects only the money in FDIC-insured checking, money market and savings accounts, and certificates of deposit. Furthermore, there are no federal laws stating that customers must receive any form of payment when an item is damaged or stolen.

If you want insurance on the items in the box, you must purchase it yourself — and it’s worth considering: You could lose valuables stored in a bank vault after a natural disaster.

Consider adding a special policy to your home insurance policy or contents insurance policy to cover valuable items. Whether it’s your diamond tiara or a collection of rare magazines, your home insurance agent can write a separate policy, called a rider.

Insurers will often give you a premium discount for storing valuable possessions in a safe deposit box. “Sometimes premiums drop by as much as 50 percent if you tell them it’s in a secure vault,” McGuinn says.

A personal articles floater can be added to your homeowners or renters insurance policy, McGuinn says. Another option is finding a company that specializes in providing policies for safe deposit box contents.

What happens to items in a safe deposit box if the owner dies?

The rules for what happens to the contents of a safe deposit box depend on state law or the rental contract with the bank, McGuinn says. “In most states, the state law says surviving renters have rights of access.”

McGuinn says that in his state of Texas, if the renter of the safety deposit box dies and there are no other signers, the probate code permits an attorney with a copy of the deceased’s will to search for certain items in the box, such as the original will, with a bank officer present.

“It gets real complicated when you don’t have someone with that survivorship on that lease or it’s not in state law,” McGuinn notes.

Can third parties gain access to my safety deposit box?

Only people whose names are on the safety deposit box lease have access to the box, McGuinn says.

That’s why it’s important to be careful about what is stored in the box and to consider whether you want to jointly rent the box and with whom.

What happens if a safe deposit box is abandoned?

If a safety deposit box is abandoned and the renter quits paying for it, it is considered a delinquent box. The bank has to give the renter legal notice that the box will be forced open. “The notice may be 60 days or 90 days or whatever,” McGuinn says. “After years, the property might be turned over to the state unclaimed property department.”

Banks must follow whatever the state regulation requires them to do. “If they don’t,” McGuinn says, “they can get sued.”

Bottom line

When choosing a bank or credit union to rent a safe deposit box from, consider prices, sizing and whether the institution’s safe deposit box policies abide by state laws and procedures.

Think carefully about what you store in the safe deposit box. It’s important to avoid keeping items in the box that would lead to trouble if they couldn’t be quickly accessed.

— Bankrate’s René Bennett contributed to an update of this story.