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Things to consider when buying a home safe

As the nation's banking industry inhales billions of dollars in government support, the urge to hoard your cash at home might be pounding mightily.
On the Money
The SentrySafe Fire-Safe Electronic Safe is one example of storage that can secure and protect valuables.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

As the nation's banking industry inhales billions of dollars in government support, the urge to hoard your cash at home might be pounding mightily.

You wouldn't be the only one, judging from the recent spike in sales of home safes.

Keeping loads of money around the house remains an ill-advised step, but a home safe can still be a way to guard against fires, floods and burglaries. Cherished old photos, legal contracts and passports can be difficult to replace.

The key to buying the right safe is knowing what threats you want to guard against. Ultimately, no safes are foolproof — they simply come with varying degrees of protection.

"Safes are like insurance — the more protection you want, the more it's going to cost," said Jim Riccardi, east coast sales manager for Gardall Safe Corp., based in Syracuse, N.Y.

You won't be the only one putting your belongings in a safe.

SentrySafe, the nation's largest safe manufacturer, said sales were up as much as 50 percent over the last five months. They've since leveled off, but were still up as much as 10 percent in the first week of March from the same time a year ago, according to the Rochester, N.Y.-based company.

But before you join the rush, here's what you need to know.

What size and style should I get?
Safes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The lightweight plastic ones you find in department stores are probably better suited for organizing rather than protecting your belongings.

To guard against burglaries, you'll want a heftier safe that can't be carted away easily. These might be the size of a microwave or even a mini refrigerator.

As a reference point, Gardall Safe Corp.'s most popular safe weighs about 85 pounds and measures roughly 17 inches on all sides. Depending on your needs, safes can be significantly larger and weigh upward of 300 pounds.

Generally, a heavier safe indicates it's made with more steel and will be harder to break into with average household tools, Riccardi said.

"But no matter how heavy the safe is, we strongly suggest you bolt it to the floor," he said. Be wary of cheaper safes that don't have the bolt-down feature, he said.

The exception is if you opt for a security box instead of a safe. These are about the size of the metal cashier boxes you might see at a bake sale or flea market. They're typically recommended only if you're looking to protect the contents from fires, rather than burglaries.

On the other end of the spectrum are the more elaborate safes that appear in movies, which can be concealed behind paintings or in the ground.

These wall or floor safes usually need to be planned for when building a home. Otherwise, it can be expensive to hire a contractor to handle the installation.

What type of protection do I need?
Don't assume all safes protect against fire and water damage. Those are features that should be spelled out on the packaging.

To guard against fires, look for safes tested by Underwriter Laboratories Inc. Those living in the West or other regions prone to wildfires might want the "UL 2-Hour" seal of approval, which indicates the safe can endure intense fires for up to two hours.

If your chief concern is house fires, the UL 1-Hour label might suffice, said Sondra McFarlane, a spokeswoman for SentrySafe.

Still, there's no way to predict how long a house fire will last. Frank Dwyer, a spokesman for the New York City Fire Department, points out that the duration of a house fire depends on several factors, including the size of the structure and intensity of the blaze.

SentrySafe also offers safes that protect belongings against water damage; the label should state how long a safe can withstand being fully submerged in or sprayed by water.

If you want to take it a step further, Gardall offers safes tested by Underwriter Laboratories to withstand attempted break-ins by locksmiths armed with crow bars, torches and other tools. These safes can set you back between $900 and $2,200.

Generally, however, a safe shouldn't cost that much.

Gardall's most popular safe, which comes with one-hour fire protection, costs $375. A search on SentrySafe's Web site for safes that provide fire and water protection turns up options costing between $210 and $530.

What type of locks are available?
Safes with dial combinations usually come with a set code, which can be reset by a locksmith upon request.

You can set your own code — usually three to six digits — with electronic push button safes. Both options are equally secure, Riccardi said, so it boils down to personal preference.

If you forget your combination for either, you or your locksmith can call the safe manufacturer with the safe's serial number to get the code or a reset code. The company might require a notarized request to ensure they're not giving out the code to a burglar.

Key locks can be harder to find for heavy-duty safes, since the key would have to be very long for the thick doors, Riccardi said.

What are the other options?

Even if you purchase a home safe, you might want to store certain valuables, such as family heirlooms, in a bank vault.

The average safe deposit box at a bank costs between $25 and $125 a year, said Dave McGuinn, president of Safe Deposit Specialists, a Houston-based financial consulting firm.

The contents of safe deposit boxes aren't insured by the bank or FDIC. To protect against fires, floods, natural disasters or robberies, you might want to add a rider to your homeowner's policy or get a separate policy altogether for the contents.

There's generally no limit on how often you can access your goods. But since your access will be limited to bank hours, consider keeping certain items at home in a safe.

"Passports if you travel regularly, medical papers you might need on a Sunday," McGuinn said. "Anything you use regularly or at a moment's notice."