Ask Unclutterer: In-home safe or safety deposit box?

Reader Dawn submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Do you have any thoughts on whether it’s best to have a safety deposit box vs. an at-home fire/water-proof safe?

We have a fire/water-proof safe mounted to the floor in our master bedroom closet that stores all of our super important documents, as well as some valuables. Maybe that’s not the best idea? Do you have any thoughts about which would be best for safety purposes? It is so convenient (and obviously cheaper) long-term to have these items stored at home, but maybe a financial institution safety deposit box is smarter storage.

There are positive and negative aspects of both options. Ultimately, it comes down to what works best for your family.

A safety deposit box at a bank is nice because it’s 1. fireproof, 2. waterproof, 3. not in your home (in case someone breaks in or a disaster destroys your home), 4. under tight security, and 5. its contents are legally protected in the case of death.

On the other hand, a safety deposit box isn’t all that great because 1. the bank isn’t open 24 hrs a day or on Sundays, 2. it’s easy to lose the key to it, 3. your bank is probably in the same part of the country you are (a natural disaster that wipes out your home likely would destroy the bank, too), 4. there is an annual fee, and 5. since the contents are legally protected, in case of death, typically your estate has to close before the executor of your estate can access the box.

An in-home safe is nice because it’s 1. locked, 2. easily accessible, 24 hours a day seven days a week, 3. when mounted to the floor a burglar can’t easily run off with it, and 4. it’s a one-time expense.

An in-home safe isn’t all that great because 1. based on its fire rating, what is stored inside of it isn’t protected from heat damage for very long, especially digital items, 2. almost all at-home safes are only water resistant, not waterproof, so a fire hose putting out a house fire can still damage the contents, 3. it’s contents are not protected in case of death (which could be either a pro or con), 4. if a natural disaster destroys your home your stuff is gone.

For more information on in-home safes, check out our article “Fireproof storage, part two” from 2007.

We use both an in-home safe and a safety deposit box. Our home safe stores things we might need access to in an emergency (mostly documents, like our Wills), and our safety deposit box stores hard drives and a few small items we would never need on a moment’s notice (like negatives of our wedding photographs, since we were married in ye olden days). Our home safe is only water resistant and not certified to protect digital data, which is why the safety deposit box is something we need.

I also recommend scanning all documents and photographing the valuable items you keep in either location, encrypting these files, and placing a copy securely online. Services like Carbonite and Backblaze are fine for this. Having a copy online is nice if your home or bank are ever destroyed in a disaster (assuming the online data storage facility is in a different part of the country), so you can at least report to an insurance company what was lost and be able to see what items you’ll need to replace.

Thank you, Dawn, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope my response was able to help you. Check the comments for more suggestions.

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29 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: In-home safe or safety deposit box?”

  1. posted by Brian on

    Some banks offer safety deposit boxes free if you have a business account with them. If you own your own business this is one of many perks everyone from banks to cell phone companies offer.

  2. posted by Jennifer on

    It’s my understanding that a co- owner on a safety deposit box would still have access after your death. My brother, who will be my executor, is on my box. His key is stored in a file with my will and final requests.

  3. posted by Leonie on

    Depending on the type of account you have or the loans you may have with the bank, some banks do waive the annual fee. Check it out. I found out I could have had the fee waived earlier if I had upgraded my account by tying in my existing mortgage to the account or even had a direct deposit (which was going to my brokerage account so I didn’t change it). Saved me $60.

    I have both – in house safe and bank safe. The bank safe I store items I don’t need access to regularly ie jewelry, deeds to properties etc. The in house safe, I store some jewelery but mainly passports which I must have access to regularly. Foreign currency goes in there and some memorabilia.

  4. posted by Ally on

    actually there are fire safes that are waterproof – mine is quite a bit larger than I really need (large enough to hang file folders in) because I wanted the waterproof one – because everything I read said that was more likely to be the issue than fire damage… But I was still able to buy it at the local walmart for like $39 bucks…

  5. posted by kev on

    I lost my key to my home safe, and was debating how to go about cracking it open, when I discovered that I can go on the website and order a new key based on the code stamped on the lock.

    This is good and bad. Obviously, if a thief steals the whole safe, they can just order a new key. But they have to give up a credit card # and mailing address to do it.

    Nowadays, I store the key at my office. So even if I’m held at knifepoint by someone demanding the key, I can say sorry, it’s at my office.

    As for where it’s located, I was told not to put it on an upper floor, as it becomes a safety hazard for firefighters. If you need to ask the fire marshall to retrieve the safe for you, it should be in a place where it will be retrievable after a fire.

  6. posted by Zack on

    Good thoughts. I grew up with a hidden fireproof box in the house and a safety deposit box at the bank. I guess it depends what you need to lock up…but that worked well for us.

  7. posted by Zack on

    And yes, the more digital the better! That is key.

  8. posted by Sandy @ModernSimplicty on

    Great comparison — it never occurred to me to photograph the contents. I need to do that! We also have both home safe storage and a safe deposit box. Another simple tip for documents like birth certificates is to get an official duplicate and keep one in each place. Keep your passport at home but make color copies to keep in your safe deposit box, in case it’s ever lost you’ll have all the info and ID numbers needed to easily replace it.

  9. posted by Beth on

    I have both although I have gradually started moving things to my safety deposit box – Passport, Title Insurance, Deed.

    I have co-owners on all my bank accounts and my safety deposit box. Right now, it is my mom. And I am a co-owner on her accounts. I would recommmend this for EVERYONE as it makes things so much simpler in case of an emergency.

  10. posted by Marjory Thrash on

    My town was in the eye of both Camille and Katrina. Luckily, no homes were destroyed! However, I heard many, many stories from my students and coworkers about being slabbed – nothing left but the concrete slab. NOTHING left. In some cases, this did include lockboxes that were bolted down to the frame of the house. The safe deposit boxes in banks, as I understand, came through mostly ok – some water damage in the very lowest ones. However, it did take days for the banks to be reopened and for people to access their stuff. My advice – if it is completely irreplaceable, put it in the bank.

    One more thing to scan? You diplomas and certificates. It’s relatively easy to get copies of your birth certificate, license. Not so easy to get copies of your high school and college diplomas. And, in situations like this, having even a well done color copy is better than having nothing.

  11. posted by Pammyfay on

    First, I have trouble believing that a $39 waterproof safe from Walmart is going to really be intact and protective of its contents at the end of a really horrible event (I’m thinking that the manufacturer is playing the odds here.) Am I completely wrong?

    I have my executor’s name on the safe deposit box at the bank, and a key for her in the house (she’ll know where), should she need it. So she’s officially a co-owner of that box. (Or so I’m told by the bank–but I should go ask someone else there just so I know the first person was right!)

    Second, based on a few articles I’ve read about “cloud computing” and having scanned docs online, you really need to do due diligence in making sure that what you store there will be accessible to the person of your choosing (and what proof he/she will need to provide)–as well as make sure that he/she even knows you’ve got backups stored there (in case the originals become stolen, lost or destroyed). Sometimes we do forget to jot down updated passwords in the “next of kin” letter, thinking only at the time that we will remember them in our head or keeping it in an online accessible-only-to-you file.

    This posting is full of good peace-of-mind advice. When I die, I don’t want my executor scrambling to find important documents while having to handle the funeral preps, too (as well as having to clear out my stuff!)

  12. posted by librarygal on

    It can be hard to find a bank that offers safe deposit boxes anymore. Very few bank branches in my city have them. I rented one for a few years, but every year the bank threatened to close them to renovate the space and then they’d raise the rates. When they raised the rates 80% one year, I finally closed mine.

  13. posted by Mike on

    I back up all digital things twice, to the cloud and to a local external HDD. The way I figure it, anything that destroys both at the same time has left society in bad enough shape that the information wouldn’t be all that useful anymore anyway. I learned to love the cloud when our home was robbed in August of 2008 and we lost around $25k worth of personal items… including computers.

    That said, I could stand to put passwords somewhere useful so my next-of-kin can log in and wind down any online business of mine if the worst should occur. Great suggestion!

    I do have an in-home safe, because if a burglar breaks in, I won’t have time to drive to the bank to get my guns. With any luck, I’ll never have to use them. I used to teach a firearms law class between semesters while I was in law school, and I can tell you without a doubt that even if you’re entirely justified in defending your home and family from an intruder, even in castle-doctrine states, the legal aftermath of such an event is an expensive and torturous ordeal. Still, as they say, better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.

    We have a few things that need to be in a safe-deposit box, so that’s on the errand list. Birth certificates for the entire family, the house documents, rare old sports cards, et cetera. Even a good safe won’t protect paper that well in a fire, as the article points out.

  14. posted by Jay on

    We keep the house deed, car titles, Social Security cards, and passports in a safety deposit box, where they are safe.

    However, they are not easily accessible. If there were an emergency and we needed to evacuate the city (Washington, D.C., area), we would be without these documents.

    For that reason, I will likely move my passport to the house. That document could be necessary in an emergency.

  15. posted by WilliamB on

    It used to be that safe contents were protected in the event of the holder’s death. That is no longer uniformly the case, you’ll need to check your state’s laws to tell. Your bank should know.

    A fireproof, waterproof safe (not a lockbox) costs $500-1000. A safe deposit box suitable for papers is maybe $60, plus or minus. (Based on my experience in 6 major US cities.) So you need to use your home safe for ten years or so before it is the cheaper method.

    Another factor is mobility. A fireproof, waterproof safe is, for practical purposes, immoble. If you move, you leave the safe behind. A safe deposit box can be canceled at any time (you should get your fee returned, pro rata). So take time horizon into consideration when decided what to do.

    This is one the best questions I’ve seen here.

  16. posted by Michele on

    A few things come to mind.

    - The attorney who drew up your will, advanced medical directive, etc., will likely offer secure storage of a true, legally enforceable copy of the documents at her office or at a secure offsite facility.

    - A lot of the documents mentioned are a pain to replace if lost or destroyed — it’ll cost money, time, and red tape — but it’s not impossible. Even your mortgage paperwork, title to your home and car, passports, social security cards, birth certificates: it’s irritating to lose them, but it’s not the end of the world. So it’s a balancing test if you’re concerned about the cost of a safe deposit box.

    - If what you’re looking to protect is jewelry or other things with cash value, insure them, making sure that the policy covers loss in a disaster.

    - Consider keeping all this stuff in an envelope in a “bug-out bag” rather than outside of your house. (That’s what I do.) If something nasty is going down and you have to leave, what if the bank is closed? Where I live, in Philadelphia, I guess we’d have plenty of warning before a hurricane or flood, though they’re both unlikely. But if we were in an earthquake zone, like Seattle where I used to live, or a climate where wildfires could happen, we’d be stuck without our papers if the disaster happened on a Sunday afternoon.

  17. posted by Steve on

    I was a joint account holder/beneficiary with all of my mother’s banks and holdings. I was allowed immediate access to everything when she passed away.

    Considering her safe deposit box was 20 miles from my home, I had to trek out to it every time I needed something for the Estate. I quickly closed it and sought to move everything, including my important documents, to my own safe deposit box.

    They were difficult to find, expensive, and all spoken for.

    I opted for a Sentry brand, model 3300 waterproof/fireproof (1 hr) hanging file box to keep in my home. I gave a key for it to my executor/beneficiary. I have to move it to a lower, more secure location, but it should withstand a fire disaster and is relatively theft-proof. It weighs around 100lbs. empty. So either a single healthy/bulky thief or a pair of thieves are the only ones who will be able to extract the thing if they do find it.

    Easier, full-time access has its benefits.

  18. posted by Regina on

    Be aware that safety deposit boxes at banks can be susceptible to floods. My mom’s bank flooded, and all of the documents she had stored in the box there sustained considerable water damage.

  19. posted by enjanerd on

    My in-laws have in-home safes and they store their belongings at someone else’s house. So, if you have a trusted friend or relative nearby, consider asking them if they’d be willing to keep your safe and you keep theirs.

  20. posted by Mike Hathaway on

    Safes are fire rated by temperature and time. You need an actual fire safe not a box. A good small fire safe from Home Depot etc… should run from 99 to 200 bucks based on size and fire rating.

    Just because you have a safe does not mean you are protected. Because a safe is fireproof only for so long and at certain temperature where it is in your house is just as important as the safe itself. Placing it on the second floor in the middle of the house means it will spend the longest possible time at the highest possible temperature, and will probably fail.

    You want to place the safe in a far corner of your house (preferably a single story section) with as little stuff around it. IE under a table in the corner of the room is better then next to big stacks of books which burn hot and long. The other reason is if you house does burn you know exactly where to take a shovel and dig out your valuables, or tell a fire fighter all your valuables are in a safe in that corner of the building they might be able to help a little.

    The final part is, most safes come with a bolt down kit with big lag bolts that go into the subfloor and floor joist. Use it. When a thief finds a safe all the have to do is go to the garage get the dolly, push it under the safe and roll it out of your house into their van to open at a later time, using the included bolts prevents that.

  21. posted by infmom on

    It is almost impossible to find a bank branch that still offers safe deposit boxes any more. We have never been able to get one.

    Thus our valuables are stored in a small fire-resistant safe that is securely bolted down in an out-of-the-way location inside the house, plus a fire-safe box that’s well hidden somewhere else.

  22. posted by HollyEgg on

    My parents live in Cedar Rapids, and the flood of 2008 caused their safe deposit box to be filled with water. The bank then “froze the assets” so to speak, and my parents ended up with a big stack of waterlogged documents. Then, my mother, in her infinitely disorganized state, put the contents in her freezer. Then she bought a side of beef, the block got broken inside the freezer and the contents were mixed up among the meat. One night I had ground chuck with my brother’s social security card, the next I had ribeye with my parent’s paid-off mortgage.

    I suppose that the take-away is: even though your documents are in the safe deposit box, the bank isn’t safe. You should seal all original docs inside plastic zippered bags and have a copy somewhere off-site, to aid in the replacement of the original.

  23. posted by Ms. D on

    Being from an area where most disasters come with 10 minutes (tornadoes) to several days (hurricanes, potential flooding that isn’t particularly common, major snowstorms) warning, I have an in-home fire safe and, at the very top of it, a folder full of the most valuable stuff. When a tornado warning would go out (I no longer have to worry much about this, thankfully), I would open the safe, grab the folder, and head for the basement. When flooding was possible, I would remove the folder to a higher floor. Not that it ever happened, but if we were in the path of a major hurricane, I could quickly take the most important stuff with me if we evacuated. I also have my entire hard drive backed up on an encrypted hard drive, and have been known to take both that and the computer (laptop) with me to the basement in the case of tornado warnings, and stash the hard drive in the basement proactively when tornadoes are predicted. Well, not now that I live on one floor in an area where all of that except the occasional minor hurricane are pretty uncommon. If there’s a watch that looks like it might turn into something, I put the hard drive in the safe, which is in an interior closet.

    I think my brother has the best plan: he keeps his important papers and external hard drive in his 6′ gun safe that is secured (cemented into) the garage floor. That thing weighs over 1000 lbs empty, is, again, cemented into the floor, requires both a key and combination to open, and is rated highly for heat, fire, and water protection. I’d like to see a burglar decide to force him to open a 6′ tall safe with an etching of a rifle on the front of it, in a shop full of gun and bullet equipment, to get at his stuff. Not that everyone has a man-size gun safe or should invest in one, but if you have one it’s a good place for stuff!

  24. posted by Christine on

    I would not base the rating of a box solely on the place of purchase. A few weeks ago, the local news did a consumer story about safes and purchased a few different ones, ranging in price and place of purchase. I was skeptical myself, but it was actually the cheapest one from Target(? or the like) that did the best. It was a small sampling to be sure, but check around.

  25. posted by Varun on

    Since everything, except my passports, are digital or about to be digital, I went with the SentrySafe QA0121, and put a 880GB 2.5″ drive, my passports and a few desiccant packets, and hooked it up to my WHS. Perhaps an option?

  26. posted by J Silva on

    I would still go with the home safe for several reasons.
    1. The home safe that they sell at walmart that is water resistant can be rendered waterproof for your documents simply by sealing your papers inside two ziplock bags (one inside the other facing the other direction). Cheap enough.
    2. You can always (if you have a free online email account) email yourself a copy of your documents as an attachment and then place them as a saved email in a separate folder online. This has no cost and most people still use free email addresses (the system is in place).
    3. For fireproofing your safe (and eliminating potential thieves from spotting it), you can make a false sandbox or litter box if you have a cat and literally bury it. That should provide you with some extra heat resistance (or conversely for basements, put it in a dusty corner and then cover it with several bricks (which will act as a thermal barrier). Or, if you have a shed outside near your house and wish..place the safe in an old charcoal bbq briquette bag and carry it out there. It will be away from the house..thieves don’t steal bbq briquettes (as far as i have seen) and it is away from your house in the event that a fire does break out.
    4. You do not want a safe deposit box as you will have to deal with executor issues, potential bank failures, etc. The more secretive this safe box it, the better off you and your family are.

  27. posted by Kay on

    Sentry Safe’s are the best for in-home safes in my opinion. Never gone wrong with them.

  28. posted by Oak Furniture Fanatic on

    The safe I have isn’t in a particularly convenient location in my home so it tends to get used only for the items that need I infrequent access to. I guess if you’re going for a safe don’t put it in the loft!!!

  29. posted by Kris on

    I have two passports (ooops, lost the first one); two drivers licenses (oops, lost the first one, two certified copies of birth certificates (mine, my husband’s and our four children’s), two certified copies of our marriage license, deed to the house, etc. Wills, bonds, etc.

    Basically I have two sets of the most important documents in our lives. One set lives in a fireproof, waterproof box in our home. Well hidden and well bolted down.

    The other set lives in the well hidden and well bolted waterproof and fireproof box located 2000 miles away in my sister’s house. And I have a copy of all her items, too.

    If something happens, I know I have a full set of everything I need just a phone call and a FedEx shipment away.

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