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The basics of renters insurance

Read the Spanish version: Conceptos Básicos para Inquilinos

When disaster strikes, it doesn’t differentiate between rented buildings and owned homes. Renters face the same risk as homeowners. Your landlord or condo association may have insurance, but it only protects the building structure, not the personal items inside. Renters insurance can protect your belongings in case of disaster.

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What standard policies cover

renters insuranceThere are several types of residential insurance policies. The HO-4 policy is designed for renters, while the HO-6 policy is for condo owners. Both HO-4 and HO-6 cover losses to your personal property from 16 types of perils:

  1. Fire or lightning
  2. Windstorm or hail
  3. Explosion
  4. Riot or civil commotion
  5. Damage caused by aircraft
  6. Damage caused by vehicles
  7. Smoke
  8. Vandalism or malicious mischief
  9. Theft
  10. Volcanic eruption
  11. Falling objects
  12. Weight of ice, snow, or sleet
  13. Accidental discharge or overflow of water or steam from within a plumbing, heating, air conditioning, or automatic fire-protective sprinkler system, or from a household appliance
  14. Sudden and accidental tearing apart, cracking, burning, or bulging of a steam or hot water heating system, an air conditioning or automatic fire-protective system
  15. Freezing of a plumbing, heating, air conditioning or automatic, fire-protective sprinkler system, or of a household appliance
  16. Sudden and accidental damage from artificially generated electrical current (does not include loss to a tube, transistor or similar electronic component)

Floods and earthquakes aren't on the list. If you live in an area prone to either, you'll need to buy a separate policy or a rider. In some coastal regions, where hurricanes might pose a threat, you might also need to buy a separate rider to cover wind damage.

Actual cash value vs. replacement cost

Always tell your agent about the valuable items you own.

One thing to consider is whether the insurance company will offer "actual cash value" (ACV) or "replacement cost coverage" for your belongings. As the name implies, ACV coverage will pay only for what your property was worth at the time it was damaged or stolen. So, if you bought a television five years ago for $500, it would be worth significantly less today. While you'd still need to spend about $500 for a new TV, your insurance company will pay only for what the old one is worth, minus your deductible.

Replacement cost coverage, on the other hand, will pay what it actually costs to replace the items you lost (minus the deductible). In some regions, most insurers write ACV coverage. In others, they'll quote you replacement cost coverage by default. Replacement cost coverage will cost you more in premiums, but it will also pay out more if you ever need to file a claim. Let your agent know about any particularly valuable items you have. Jewelry, antiques and electronics might be covered only up to an amount that won't pay for their replacement.

If you have some items that are unusually expensive, such as a diamond ring, you'll probably want to purchase a separate rider. Without riders for expensive items you can't recover the full loss if it's beyond your policy limit.

Take inventory

To ensure you’re compensated for any belongings you lose from a fire, storm or other catastrophe, you should inventory all of your personal belongings. List each item, its value and serial number. Photograph or videotape each room, including closets, open drawers, storage buildings and your garage. Keep receipts for major items in a fireproof place. To make things easier, the Insurance Information Institute has free inventory software that helps you create a room-by-room inventory of your personal possessions. For more information, go to KnowYourStuff.org.

When your home is unlivable

If your apartment or condominium becomes uninhabitable due to a fire, burst pipes or any other reason covered by your policy, your renters insurance will cover your "additional living expenses." Generally, that means paying for you to live somewhere else.

Additional benefits

Liability protection is also standard with most renters and condo policies. This means if someone in your unit slips and falls, you're covered for any costs, up to your liability limit. If this person sues you, you're covered for what they win in a court judgment as well as legal expenses, up to your policy's limit.

Keeping your premium low

Just like any other type of homeowners insurance policy, your renters insurance premium depends on a number of factors: where you live, your deductible, your insurance company and whether you need any additional coverage.

There are ways to reduce your renters or condo owners insurance bill. Increasing your deductible (the amount you pay before your coverage kicks in) is one strategy. Make sure you can afford whatever deductible you choose. If you're thinking about getting a dog, you might want to think twice. Some insurance companies are reluctant to write policies for owners of certain breeds.

Most insurers offer a discount for "protective devices" including smoke and fire detectors, burglar alarms and fire extinguishers.

Some insurers might offer discounts to policyholders who are over age 55 and retired. Others might offer a discount if you buy both an auto and renters policy (called a multiline discount).

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